If you listen to the talking heads at ESPN, two of the league’s top five players are more than likely on the move this summer. But are they, really?
LeBron will hit the market as a free agent, while Kawhi Leonard has asked out of San Antonio via trade. Every time LeBron makes a move, it shakes the balance of power in the East, the question is, where can he go to challenge a loaded Celtics team and a rapidly improving Philadelphia squad? Or, will he go west, looking to challenge Golden State head-on by joining the Lakers?
In any case, I wouldn’t hold my breath expecting the two superstars to team up. A lot of things would have to happen for them to join forces, and the deck is stacked against them. In fact, there’s a lot of reason for both of them to just stay put this off season.
Los Angeles has been mentioned as potential landing spot for LeBron, and rumors are swirling that he’s renovating one of his southern California homes, and that his son has been applying to schools in the area, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that King James wants to hold court in LA. His son is a top caliber HS player, and is likely checking on schools in all possible area codes. Not to mention that if LeBron wants to put a little work into one of his houses, that doesn’t mean that he’s moving in full time. Seeing LeBron in a Laker uniform would be a trip, especially given his antagonistic relationship with the Celtics and their star Kyrie Irving, who forced his way out from under LeBron’s shadow. I just doubt that it will happen UNLESS LeBron can bring in at least one, probably two, top-tier teammates. Think Kawhi Leonard AND Paul George. If that doesn’t happen, LeBron wouldn’t be any better off in LA than he is in his native Cleveland if they can upgrade the current roster.
Kawhi Leonard’s situation is a little more complex for a variety of reasons. First, he has no control over where he lands. He’ll be a free agent next summer, but if the spoiling relationship between his camp, Coach Popovich and the Spurs brass has gone too toxic to sustain for another season, he’ll need to go wherever San Antonio sends him. That’s exactly what he’s asked for. To make matters worse for Kawhi, if he leaves San Antonio, he’ll make substantially less money over the next several seasons, roughly thirty million, to be precise. He’s indicated that he wants to go to LA, but if I’m the Spurs brass, dealing with a petulant superstar who wants out of one of the league’s most successful teams, I’m taking the deal that brings in the largest haul of young talent, and nothing less. Neither the Lakers, not the Clippers have much to trade that would be likely to entice the Spurs. Frankly, Lonzo Ball is not the missing piece for Coach Pop’s offense, and the Big Baller Brand and media circus that comes with it simply wouldn’t fly in that organization. Increasingly, it seems like the Celtics could put together a package of young talent for Leonard, but they have a somewhat strange problem: not enough salary. The numbers don’t line up well for a Celtics-Spurs swap because Boston’s young talent is cheap, and Kawhi…isn’t. In addition to being pricey, Kawhi is also coming off an injury that kept him off the court for a whole year, so he probably can’t command they type of trade the Spurs would want to see for one of the NBA’s best two-way players. Making the numbers work would likely force Danny Ainge to part with more players than he’d like to, and Ainge is not the kind of GM to part with too much cheap talent for a superstar on the mend who refused to suit up for a playoff run, despite being cleared to play. So how will it end?
That’s the thing. It’s ALL rumors. I’d say there’s actually a strong chance of one, or both guys suiting up in the same uniform next year.
I’d be surprised to see LeBron go to a team that can’t contend immediately (granted, with LeBron, almost any team can contend), and LeBron has very likely shifted his goalposts in the wake of his fifth Finals loss. At this point, he can’t hope to catch Jordan’s ghost, much less surpass him. He might, in a word, settle. That’s an odd thing to say about a guy who just put up his career highs in usage, but we all saw what happened against a Golden State team that isn’t going anywhere. It’s probably folly for him to uproot his family again, this late in his career, to chase rings that aren’t likely to come. So I expect he’ll stay in his hometown Cleveland, unless he went to a team where he would be the overwhelming favorite to win it all. That might happen if he went to Boston, which is definitively unlikely, or Houston, which probably couldn’t swing the numbers to make that happen. Don’t be surprised to see King James stay put, and use his considerable leverage to bring talent to him this summer.
As for Leonard, there’s not a lot that Kawhi can do to make the Spurs send him to his preferred destination. Especially since it’s not exactly in the Spurs best interest to ship him off to LA, to potentially team up with LeBron and create another super team in their own back yard. I just can’t see the Spurs granting Kawhi’s wish, they’re more likely to send him to the Eastern Conference for some picks and some young talent to build on, or simply keep him on this year, in hopes of trading him before the deadline, once he’s established that he’s the same guy he was before the injury.
As the draft approaches quickly, we can look for some swings, trades and drama, but when it comes to the league’s top talent, there’s no need to rush into anything. Any moves involving these top guys will have to wait until later in the summer, if at all.