Los Angeles Lakers

NBA trade rumors: With Kawhi Leonard eyeing LA, it's time for Lakers to take their shot

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Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (Getty Images)

This was the chance the Lakers were hoping would arrive. As the team has searched for a star to anchor the transition from a rebuild to playoff contention - and beyond - the possibility that forward Kawhi Leonard would want out of San Antonio after a season of injury and discontent with the Spurs was at the foundation of the team's aspirations.

On Friday, word came out from Leonard's camp: Kawhi no longer wants to be a Spur. It's open season for trade talk on the San Antonio star.

Leonard is a Southern California native. He would like to return to his home in LA to play. He has some leverage in deciding where the Spurs trade him - with one year remaining on his contract, he will be a free agent next summer and can signal to a potential trade destination whether he'd be willing to sign long-term.

We know Leonard would sign with the Lakers. We know they've made contingencies for this very outcome. The rest of the league would be taking a risk in trading for Leonard, the same kind of risk the Thunder took when they acquired Paul George from the Pacers last summer with no guarantee George would stick around.

Now, the Lakers must engage in a delicate dance. They could make a substantial offer for Leonard, one that would start with budding 2016 No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram, who averaged 16.1 points in his second season.

That would likely entice the Spurs into a deal, and the Lakers could move into free agency in two weeks with Leonard as a selling point to this summer's big prizes, LeBron James and/or Paul George. Lose Ingram, but vault the team back into one of the top four seeds in the West immediately.

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Sure Not Now

The Lakers could take a tougher line with the Spurs, though, and insist on keeping Ingram, but rather offering up a package of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and some combination of future picks. San Antonio is likely to get a better offer, but the Lakers would have two positives on their side: One, they would still be the favorite to sign Leonard in 2019, and, two, Leonard might still let other teams know that going to LA is his plan.

That, at best, would allow the Lakers to keep Ingram and get the Spurs to reduce their asking price. At worst, it would force the Spurs to trade him elsewhere - Boston or Philadelphia, perhaps - where Leonard might decide he is enjoying himself and wants to stay after all.

That's the essential question for the Lakers. Does the team go in on Leonard now, even if it costs Ingram, and bank on the leverage that gives them when talking with James or George?

Or should Magic Johnson and Co. take the risk on playing tough with the Spurs on Leonard, knowing that the whole thing might never come together as planned?

Part of the problem is that Leonard is, naturally, undervalued in this environment. Given the fact that he only played nine games last season and that the rest of the league now knows that the Spurs are dealing from a position of weakness, it would be easy to forget how good Leonard is.

This is a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. This is a guy who averaged 25.5 points and 5.8 rebounds with a 61.0 true shooting percentage a year ago. He's still only 26. This is a player who wants to be in LA, and the Lakers absolutely need to take advantage of that.

Bear in mind how difficult it has been lately for the Lakers to get free agents to put their names on a contract. The list of players to turn down the Lakers in recent years does not exactly comprise a galaxy of supernovae: Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge.

Leonard presents a sterling chance to begin turning around that shoddy streak. Trading for him - yes, even if Ingram must be included - is the start of rebuilding the franchise into a contender. The opportunity will be there. The Lakers should take it.

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