The Cold-Blooded Mercenary from San Diego – Trade Speculations & Scenarios

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Updated: July 6, 2021
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After all the theatrics and 0-2 comebacks, the Los Angeles Clippers offseason has finally begun. One of the stranger scenarios to diagnose and assess from this injury-ridden playoffs, the Clips somehow over & under achieved simultaneously. After Kawhi Leonard was sidelined with a right knee sprain, Vegas and everyone covering the league had Utah as the heavy favorites to close out the series. Instead, we were all here to witness Paul George average a playoff-high of minutes and points per game league-wide and carry the Clips to their first Western Conference Finals. With how the series in Phoenix played out, most assumed with even a compromised Kawhi on the court, the Clips may have found themselves in the NBA Finals.

It has been title or bust for the stepson LA franchise ever since this duo was inorganically assembled. SGA, Gallo, and more picks than OKC knows what to do with was the package sent to the Thunder for Paul George and the John Hancock of then reining Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. A presumed defensive monster and title contender flamed out in the 2nd round last year, letting the young unproven tandem of Jokic and Murry to bring the Nuggets back from a 3-1 deficit. The expectations for this year were quite unanimous around the league. There simply weren’t any. The phrase, “I’ll believe it when I see it in the playoffs,” was repeated on a loop throughout the NBA podcasts. What makes the Clippers offseason so fascinating, is that even with PG-13 showing up these playoffs, it is impossible to get a good read on how Kawhi felt about the whole ordeal from way up in the luxury seats.

One would assume, that with all the work Kawhi did to finally get himself to LA near his family down in San Diego, that him signing his max extension would be a foregone conclusion. However, recent reports by Kevin O’Connor from The Ringer, that even in the midst of Kawhi’s knee injury, Miami and Dallas are both making a heavy push to acquire Leonard this offseason. Kawhi was also linked to Golden State rumors prior to the injury with a possible sign and trade exchange if Leonard had desires to join the Splash Brothers in the Bay. New York has also made it clear that they will sign any max-level player available and have an open salary slot to do so.

Until it happens, it would be foolish to rule out any possible routes for the two-time Finals MVP and ex-Defensive player of the Year. Kawhi is the only player to shun Spurs culture and force a trade out of San Antonio, only to leave Toronto months after winning them their first NBA title. The three options above, Miami, Dallas, and Golden State, all underachieved this year, and the Knicks are yet to be considered a contender. So even with stars already present on their rosters, there would be no Kevin Durant narrative if Kawhi decided to force his way to the franchise of his choice. With what the Clippers had to give away to sign Kawhi, it would be a devastating blow to the organization. However, from what he has shown, leaving a franchise in ruins is of little concern for the Kawhi and his camp. Even if he does not verbalize it the way that Lebron has, it would be foolish to assume that his legacy is not important to him and the people helping him make this decision. The difference between 2 titles and 3 may change his all-time ranking from a top 50 player to a top 20 all-time. And to win rings with 3 separate teams would cement his legacy as a cold-blooded mercenary, only done by one other player in King James.

Sign & Trade Scenarios

             The assumption of value required to send to the Clippers in a sign and trade for Leonard has been quite high. And in a normal scenario, even with his injury history, the way Kawhi played in the two games prior to the knee sprain indicated it is either him or KD as the current most dominant playoff player in the NBA. Unfortunately, for Clippers fans, as an unrestricted free agent, Kawhi would only need LA’s assistance in a sign and trade if he wanted to go to Miami or Golden State. Because of the options in Dallas and New York, both who have the salary-cap space to sign Leonard straight out, the Clippers’ leverage in a sign and trade is nearly non-existent.

After seeing what happens when a team sends its depth and assets to sign you, it should be assumed that if Kawhi and his camp perused a sign and trade, they would do everything in their power to shift the favor in the exchange towards his new franchise. Reports of “strong interest,” and “meetings,” in New York and Dallas would echo through the Twitter feeds, and the Clippers would be faced with the possibility of letting Kawhi walk for nothing. Because of the options of Dallas with Luka and the Garden and New York, the price required for Miami or Golden State to send for a sign and trade becomes tremendously diminished.

Miami

In an exchange with Miami, the Heat gift young Tyler Herro for the Clippers’ cooperation with the sign and trade. The Bubble phenom had a serious sophomore slump but would be an asset any team would love to acquire. Ariza and Andre’s sign and trades would be used to match salaries, or a possibility of an Oladipo sign and trade could also be in the mix if the Clippers wanted to take chance on the injured ex-All-Star guard. Again, it should be noted, the package being sent from Miami is less than 50 percent of Kawhi’s value on the trade market, however, there is no logical reason why Herro and Robinson need to be included in a trade with the options of Dallas and New York’s abilities to sign Kawhi directly in free agency.

(It has been reported Kawhi and Jimmy Butler are friends and was Kawhi’s first choice for the Clippers to trade for before getting PG-13).

Golden State

With a sign and trade of Kelly Oubre, presumably, at 80-85 million over 4 years, the Clippers get the bird rights to last year’s 2nd pick of the draft, 7 foot 1 James Wisemen. One could argue that the Clippers would demand one of the Warrior’s two lottery picks this year, and they may be willing to do so to get Kawhi if he has no serious knee damage and would be ready for action at the start of the 2021 season. However, if this was put in motion, and the Dallas and New York angle was played, it is hard to understand why the Warriors would need to send Wisemen and picks for a sign and trade.

(As it has been noted, Kawhi does not actually live in LA but down in San Diego. If being near his family is as important as it has been reported, a flight from the Bay Area to San Diego is still a far more ideal situation than being on the East Coast or Texas).

The Durant Sign & Trade Variable

For those skeptical of the asset evaluation above, we have a recent case study that mirrors the Kawhi situation. After the 2019 Final’s implosion, the question of Durant’s return to Golden State was doubtful. Once Durant and Irving decided on Brooklyn, the Nets and Warriors created a mutually beneficial exchange in a sign and trade. D’Angelo Russel was sent to Golden State on a newly signed max extension and Kevin Durant plus a protected first-round pick was sent the Nets.

Brooklyn had no need or desire for a max-out 1-way point guard. The sign and trade created cap room along with acquiring a first-round pick (which ended up being a second since the Warriors failed to make the playoffs). The Warrior’s retained a contract slot which they later would convert into Andrew Wiggins and which is now the 7th pick in the draft courtesy of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Durant had chosen his destination, and if not for the incentives of a sign and trade for the Nets, would have walked for nothing leaving the Warriors empty-handed. If we went on face value, even with an injured Durant, it would be DLO plus 4 picks in exchange for Durant (and that deal probably would still be seen as one-sided). However, in this situation, it was the Warriors who attached an asset to Durant’s contract to pay for the DLO contract. They also were forced to agree to a max for DLO, which they could’ve got stuck with if he had underperformed.

If Kawhi decides to leave LA, the situation is identical. In these playoffs, Leonard proved to be a top 3 talent and yet ended his season with possibly a very serious injury, just like Durant in 2019. He has New York and Dallas as possible destinations who have open cap space to sign him outright and were both playoff teams last year. They both also have already expressed strong interests in doing so. If either of those options is what Kawhi chooses, the Clippers would be lucky if New York or Dallas would choose to do a sign and trade. For instance, if Dallas wanted to dump Porzingis, they would at least retain the salary and bet on Porzingis’ health and future development. If a draft pick was added, it would be a bill the Clippers would need to pay not the Mavericks.

If Kawhi decided he wanted to head to South Beach or the Bay, Miami or Golden State would need to add some valuable incentive for Balmer and the Clippers to comply, however, as we’ve seen in the KD situation, the Clippers have zero leverage in this scenario. Receiving Herro or Wisemen would be a godsend in comparison to the Dallas or New York situation where they get nothing or something the Mavericks or Knicks want to throw away. Now, most people around the league have said they expect Kawhi to stay. This assumption is being based on the fact that Kawhi’s camp moved Heaven and Earth to finally get him to his preferred destination which is closest to his home. But I would argue that as good as the Clippers could be and have shown flashes of, there seems to be something fundamentally wrong with their chemistry. On paper they are a monster whom everyone should fear, yet does anyone actually fear them?

Luka & Kawhi—Curry, Kawhi, Klay, and Dray—Butler, Kawhi, and Bam…all three options are terrifying for the other 29 teams in the league. The first two options in Dallas and Golden State have the potential to roll into a 7-game series with two top 5 players. The alternative is that Kawhi has faith in Playoff P and the anomaly of the great Reggie Jackson. It would be foolish to assume anything about Kawhi and his perception of a situation, but if I was him, the choice between PG-13 or playing with Luka or Curry would be worth the extra commute to and from San Diego.

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