San Antonio Spurs

NBA trade rumors: Celtics, Lakers can't save Spurs from Kawhi Leonard trap

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Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich (Getty Images)

They fell into Tim Duncan in 1997, when an otherwise very good Western Conference team had a ragged season because of an injury to David Robinson, and were gifted the No. 1 pick in the draft. They pulled Avery Johnson off the hoops scrap heap and turned him into a starter, and did that repeatedly for a decade: Bruce Bowen, Stephen Jackson, Gary Neal, Danny Green.

They swiped Manu Ginobili from under the noses of the rest of the league, using the 57th pick to draft him in 1999, after nine second-rounders who never even appeared in an NBA game, and landed Tony Parker with the final first-round pick of the 2001 draft, after the likes of Joe Forte, Jeryl Sasser and Brandon Armstrong.

We're so accustomed to the Spurs, as a franchise, keeping one step ahead of the other 29 teams that it's almost unnerving to witness San Antonio in its current state - boxed in, blindsided by an obstinate star and staving off desperation.

Kawhi Leonard, having sat for most of last season with a quad injury that the team felt did not require such tender treatment, has made clear that he wants out of San Antonio, and the Spurs have accepted that fact.

But finding a decent offer for Leonard has already proven thorny. The Spurs entered this process hoping to avoid trading Leonard within the Western Conference, but according to executives around the league, Leonard's camp has made it clear that he wants to be in Los Angeles, and he has the leverage of hitting free agency next summer. That has left the hands of Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford and the Spurs brass tied.

San Antonio has engaged in talks with Boston, and the Celtics would appear to be a natural trading partner - they're a championship contender, in the East and loaded with young assets (Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, two potential 2019 lottery picks).

But sources told Sporting News that the Celtics are approaching the situation with trepidation. They have no intention of trading Tatum whatsoever this offseason, even in a deal for Leonard. The Spurs would want Brown as part of any trade package, but even there, Boston is wavering.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, there is concern about how Leonard, an MVP candidate when healthy, would mesh with Kyrie Irving, who has looked at his spot with the Celtics given the chance to finally lead his own team and escape the shadow of LeBron James. Both players are known to be stubborn - chemistry is a concern.

There is also the reality of Leonard's impending free agency. The Celtics are, naturally, concerned that Leonard could bolt for Los Angeles after one year with the team. Boston has no interest in giving up Brown for one year of Leonard.

And there are financial realities. As one source told Sporting News, "There's a limit on how much they're going to be willing to pay for a team, no matter how good the roster is. There's a limit on everybody. And eventually, the bill will come due on the players they have."

Celtics owners have said they'd be willing to pay the luxury tax, but that bill figures to get large - quickly. Yes, the Celtics have a rich deal with their local broadcaster, but they do not own the TD Garden - it's owned by the Bruins - and that will always put something of a cap on revenues.

If the Celtics were to trade for Leonard, then give new contracts to both him and Irving (who can also be a free agent) next summer, they would find themselves deep into the luxury tax. An estimate of their tax bill for 2019-20 would run well over $100 million, maybe even more than $150 million. The Celtics are a valuable franchise, but that type of annual tax bill would be too much for any team without full revenues on the building in which they play.

The Celtics' reluctance, then, is understandable. They don't want to give away young players for a guy who might only be around a year. They also don't want to land Leonard, then have to pay him a massive salary without knowing for sure how he will fit in with the rest of the team, Irving in particular.

That brings us back to the Lakers, and just how boxed in the Spurs are on this Leonard deal.

One league executive suggested that the Spurs have two choices. They can take the big offer from the Lakers now, which will likely include budding former No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram, and could pave the way for LA to also add LeBron James. Or they could wait a couple weeks until it is obvious that the Lakers are the only credible bidder, and take a skeleton offer from LA.

"The Lakers are feeling some pressure because they've got one eye on this and one eye on LeBron," the executive said. "The Spurs are hoping for a bidding war, but who else is bidding here? There is no war. They need to move on this before [July 1]."

The Spurs, who fleeced the rest of the league repeatedly in the last 20 years, are on the verge of being fleeced for one of the game's top players. It's a weird comeuppance for an organization that has been so dignified and respected for so long.

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