San Antonio Spurs

How do Sixers stack up in competition for LeBron James?

How do Sixers stack up in competition for LeBron James?

So the mad news bomber, Adrian Wojnarowski, dropped some napalm Sunday morning. The ESPN NBA insider extraordinaire is reporting that the Sixers will meet with LeBron James' representatives in Los Angeles on Sunday. James apparently will not be on hand.

What does this mean?

So, you’re saying there’s a chance?

First off, they are in the game. This may not be much of a consolation prize if the Sixers don’t reel in the biggest fish in the sea, but you’ve got to be in it to win it. It also speaks to how far the club has come from a 10-win laughingstock to one of less than a handful of teams he would even consider.

Kawhi tie

Marc Stein of The New York Times is reporting part of the Sixers' sales pitch to James is they believe they have a real chance to land Kawhi Leonard in a deal with the Spurs. With Paul George opting not to go home to L.A. and staying put in Oklahoma City, Leonard could be the piece that sways James. Both the Sixers and the Lakers have the assets and cap space to pull off a Leonard deal. The Spurs hold the cards here for now. The Lakers could offer Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and more. The Sixers have reportedly discussed a trade package internally that involves Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Miami's 2021 unprotected first-rounder. Slight advantage: Lakers.

Brett Brown spent 15 years in the Spurs organization working alongside Gregg Popovich and with Leonard for a couple of years. There is a strong relationship there on both fronts. Also, San Antonio may not want to move Leonard in the same conference. Advantage: Sixers.

If you use the George/OKC blueprint, it’s worth the gamble of giving up quality players and picks just to get Leonard (who can opt out of the final year of his contract next summer) in-house to show him what this franchise and city are all about (see story). Playing alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, being coached by Brown and embraced by a city that is obsessed with this basketball team could be intoxicating enough to make Leonard want to stay in Philly long term. James believing Leonard to Philly is a legit possibility with Embiid and Simmons, that’s how a possibly made-up mind changes.    

Home-court advantage

Unfortunately for the Sixers, James' decision may not come down to basketball. It may be as simple as he and his family want to live full-time in Los Angeles. If that’s the case, all bets could be off. Conversely, if it is about hoops, winning titles and furthering his legend, James needs to ask himself, if Leonard isn't dealt to the Lakers then how far is he going in the Western Conference with Ingram, Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and possibly a DeMarcus Cousins? Can they even reach a conference final? The East would be an easier path and Simmons, Embiid, Saric, and Markelle Fultz are a better core. Cleveland shouldn't be written off but considering their personnel and cap situation, this has the feel of a two-horse race with the Lakers and the Sixers.

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Paul George re-signing with Thunder has to give Sixers hope for a potential Kawhi Leonard trade

Paul George re-signing with Thunder has to give Sixers hope for a potential Kawhi Leonard trade

Saturday was a night of celebration for Paul George and not just because he attended an event thrown by Russell Westbrook described as a “summer hype house party.”

George reportedly agreed to a four-year, $137 million contract to remain with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The five-time All-Star announced he was staying in OKC on stage during the party with Westbrook by his side.

While Brett Brown likely didn’t receive an invite, that doesn’t mean the Sixers’ head coach and interim general manager wasn’t also in a celebratory mood.

Sure, the Sixers missed out on one of their superstar targets in free agency, but they may have gained something even greater: hope.

Per ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the Sixers are “absolutely still kicking around Kawhi (Leonard) possibilities.” While Lowe was unsure whether the Sixers would increase their initial reported offers, his colleague Adrian Wojnarowski later said on television that so far the team has kept Markelle Fultz, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons out of any trade talks.

The Sixers are certainly right to be cautious with the core of their team, but it’s going to cost them if they want a player of Leonard’s caliber.

Look no further than George. A year ago when he was shipped from Indiana to Oklahoma City, the Thunder had to part with emerging talents Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Fast-forward a year, Oladipo was just named the league’s Most Improved Player and Sabonis is one of the game’s best young reserves.

As hard as it was, the Thunder said goodbye to that level of talent to acquire another stratosphere of player in George. Despite the Palmdale, California, longstanding desire to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, OKC rolled the dice on a year of playing with Westbrook and being immersed in the Thunder culture to seal George’s decision to stay as a free agent.

It worked, and now the Sixers are eyeing the same storybook scenario with Leonard, who can opt out of his current deal after next season.

Leonard, who hails from Los Angeles, has made it clear behind the scenes that his relationship with the Spurs reached a breaking point and he would like a trade, preferably to the Lakers. San Antonio appears in no rush to ship away the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and even less of a hurry to send him to the Western Conference foe Lakers.

Between players and draft picks, the Sixers would appear to have the pieces to get a Leonard swap finished. Then Brown would bank on his relationship with the swingman, the chance to play with some of the NBA’s best talent and a full year in a budding Sixers culture to sway Leonard into sticking around long term.

Sound familiar?

It came to fruition with George, and the Sixers can only hope their year-long sales pitch would be good enough to get it done with Leonard.

Who knows, this time next year the Sixers could be throwing a “summer hype house party” of their own to celebrate. But the organization would be happy if the quiet superstar simply signed on the dotted line.

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If Sixers can somehow land Kawhi Leonard long term, he's a star worth building around

If Sixers can somehow land Kawhi Leonard long term, he's a star worth building around

He’s a notoriously quiet guy, but there’s sure a lot of noise around Kawhi Leonard these days.

Leonard, who can become a free agent after next season, wants out of San Antonio, and while he’d reportedly prefer to return to his hometown of Los Angeles, the Sixers are among the teams willing to trade for the enigmatic player. Thursday, Sports Illustrated’s Jake Fischer reported the team has discussed a number of possible packages for Leonard, including a deal that would include Dario Saric, Robert Covington and the Heat’s 2021 unprotected first-round pick (see story).

For just a single year of Leonard, it’s not worth giving up that type of haul. The Sixers might think adding Leonard would immediately make them a championship contender, and that being part of their culture would draw him back long term. Given the pieces they’d have to give up in a trade, that’s still too much of a risk.

The team might also might figure, quite reasonably, that Leonard would entice LeBron James. We do know Leonard reportedly wants to team up with James (see story). Yet if James knows Leonard will only be in Philadelphia for a year, that may not be enough to sway him. It could absolutely influence his decision, but there’s no guarantee that the possibility of playing with Leonard for a year would be enough to make James to alter his destination.

But, if the Sixers could somehow ensure that Leonard would re-sign with the team after next season (and that’s obviously a big if), he’s a star worth building around.

A common talking point in support of the argument that Leonard doesn’t make sense long term for the Sixers is that he’s some sort of a team cancer, and that the weird tension between him and the Spurs about the handling of his quad injury is indicative of larger issues with his character.

While it’s fair to note the breakdown in communication between Leonard and the Spurs, an organization that typically avoids these sort of awkward situations, it’s not rational to automatically label Leonard bad for team culture. He has a reputation of being an extremely unselfish, quiet guy. He’s absolutely made some mistakes dealing with a frustrating injury, but that’s no reason to write him off forever. Especially given his past relationship with Brett Brown, a change of scenery might be perfect for him.

The questions about Leonard’s health are a valid concern. It’s certainly not worth making a deal if the Sixers aren’t confident that Leonard can stay on the court. That said, Leonard has been treated by Sixers chief medical officer Dr. Jonathan Glashow, so you’d think they should have as good an idea as anyone of whether his quad injury could be a long-term problem.

If he’s healthy, Leonard is a special player. Let’s not forget he’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, or gloss over his averages of 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game in 2016-2017.

He’s also a star who would fit well with the Sixers. Like Paul George, who the Sixers are reportedly also interested in pursuing (see story), it’s not hard to imagine Leonard co-existing with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. His ability to score in isolation and make threes (38.6 percent for his career) would be especially valuable. 

Yes, Embiid and Simmons’ offensive roles would be somewhat diminished if the Sixers built around Leonard, though that’s not a unique issue. George (28.4 percent) and LeBron James (31.4 percent) both had higher usage rates than Leonard (27 percent) over the last four seasons. And on the Sixers, Leonard could be effective in a less ball-dominant role than on the Spurs. Embiid would still be able to get his share of touches in the post, with Simmons running the point and Leonard providing another go-to option on the wing.

Even if it took a little time for the Sixers to find the right role for Leonard on offense, it’s not crazy to think that he could immediately make the Sixers, who had the third-best defensive rating in basketball last season, the best defensive team in the NBA.

If Leonard would definitely stick with the team for the long haul (which, again, is a huge if), the reported package of Covington, Saric and the Heat’s 2021 unprotected first-round pick is a very reasonable deal from the Sixers’ perspective. Leonard is clearly an upgrade in every way on Covington, a first team All-Defensive selection. And while it would be unfortunate to have to give up the beloved, gritty Saric, you need to make some sacrifices if you want to land stars. As for the 2021 unprotected first-rounder, it’s a valuable asset, but as we’ve seen with Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and others, top picks are far from sure things.

What is a sure thing, however, is that a healthy Kawhi Leonard is one of the best players in the game. All the off-court drama with the Spurs shouldn’t detract from that fact. A long-term core of Leonard, Simmons and Embiid is capable of winning championships.

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