Why the Spurs shouldn’t extend Kawhi Leonard’s contract

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Kawhi Leonard seemed to pick the absolute right moment to play the best basketball of his life.

Just before he can get paid.

Leonard, whom the Spurs drafted in 2011, can sign a contract extension between July 10 and Oct. 31. If that window closes without a deal, he’ll become become a restricted free agent in 2015.

Either way, Leonard will make $2,894,059 next season, the final year of his rookie-scale deal. But that will be the last season he earns such a pittance. The only unknown is how large Leonard’s raise will be, and that leads to the first issue:

Is Leonard a maximum-contract player?

That the question must be asked says more about the Spurs than it does about Leonard.

He’s played so well and proven so much, and he’s just 22. Barring a big drop next season, he could certainly command a max offer sheet as a free agent in 2015.

In the last decade, just 20 first-round picks have produced as many win shares as Leonard through three seasons, when they became eligible for contract extensions. So far, 15 of those 20 have received max deals – 14 by extension.* Only Brook Lopez had to wait until free agency for his, and Greg Monroe – a free agent this summer who’s seeking a max contract – could make it 16 of 20 with max contracts following their four-year rookie deals.**

*Max contract is a term with multiple definitions. Here, I mean any contract that starts at the maximum allowable salary for a typical fifth-year player.

**The other four – Al Horford (five-year, $60 million extension), Rajon Rondo (five-year, $55 million extension), Andre Iguodala (six-year, $80 million re-signing), Luol Deng (six-year, $71.06 million re-signing) – also did pretty well for themselves.

So, why don’t the Spurs skip the hassle and just give Leonard the max this summer?

For one, the most they can offer him – in an extension now or in free agency in 2015 – is substantially more than another team could offer in free agency.

Using a crude 2015-16 cap projection (assuming the cap rises from 2014-15 the same amount its projected to increase from 2013-14), here are the maximum amounts Leonard could get re-signing or extending his deal with the Spurs (black) or signing an offer sheet with another team (silver):

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Year Re-signs or extension Signs offer sheet
2015-16 $15,812,511 $15,812,511
2016-17 $16,998,450 $16,524,074
2017-18 $18,184,388 $17,235,637
2018-19 $19,370,326 $17,947,200
2019-20 $20,556,265
Total $90,921,940 $67,519,423

If Leonard wins MVP next season, these numbers could be higher, but that’s so obviously so unlikely, I’m ignoring the possibility in this post.

In some sense, it behooves the Spurs to let Leonard become a free agent and bring back an offer sheet and then just match it. That’s especially true, because San Antonio can’t sign him to a five-year extension without offering the full max.

But if the Spurs let Leonard become a free agent next summer, they can re-sign him to a five-year deal at any salary. That – not an extension – is their best ticket to locking him up for the longest possible length of time.

So, unless the Spurs want to sign Leonard for just four years beyond next season or pay as much as possible to keep him for five extra years, they shouldn’t extend him this summer.

Next summer, he’d become a restricted free agent, and then San Antonio could reward Leonard – at least to a degree.

[RELATED: Spurs expect Tim Duncan to return next season]

The Spurs have a history of convincing their top players to re-sign for less than market value. When it happens in San Antonio, it’s called loyalty. When it happens in Miami, it’s called blasphemy. But it happens repeatedly in San Antonio.

As long as Leonard doesn’t regress in the next year, accepting anything less than the $67,519,423 figure is on him. He’s been hailed as a worthy member of the Spurs team-first culture, and if he’s willing to leave money on the table, good for him.

And if the Spurs pay him more than that, it should be only to get that fifth year tacked on. Leonard would have little leverage to command the full $90,921,940.

Will either side play hardball when it comes to splitting the difference? It seems out of character for both.

I’d think the Spurs would want to re-up Leonard for five more years beyond next season without paying him the full max, and I’d think he’d accept that – which is why an extension wouldn’t work. Remember, five-year extensions to rookie deals require max salaries and raises.

Next offseason, Leonard could chase a four-year max offer sheet from another team – which the Spurs would likely match – or just re-sign in San Antonio on a five-year deal for less than the highest possible amount.

That plan would require Leonard betting his value remains high a year from now, which is probably a wager worth taking. Why should Leonard rush to give the Spurs a hometown discount?

And why should San Antonio rush to max out Leonard?

Leonard isn’t going anywhere. The Spurs control his rights for the next couple years minimum, and Leonard would have to sacrifice a lot of money to escape San Antonio even that quickly.

Not that he’d want to do that.

This is a happy partnership. The Spurs just won an NBA championship with Leonard leading them to the finish. It’s a partnership worth continuing.

It just makes most sense to set the terms of the next chapter next summer rather than this one.

Paul George on trade to Thunder: “I took it as it was a kick in the behind”

Associated Press
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Paul George and Russell Westbrook — now with Carmelo Anthony — form one of the more interesting teams in the NBA in Oklahoma City. Deep with quality role players and a defense that should be top 10 (if not top 5) in the league, if the three big names can learn to sacrifice and mesh, the Thunder will be dangerous.

Paul George sounds motivated to take it all on… which he should be the first day of training camp. Still, it’s a good sign for Thunder fans.

George opened up to Sam Amick of the USA Today in a lengthy interview at the start of camp, and among the topics he discussed was the trade to OKC (after George’s camp told Indiana he would test free agency next summer). Did getting sent to the Thunder motivate him?

“I took it as it was a kick in the behind, like, ‘Go ahead and go try to beat the Warriors. Go play alongside Russ and get your butt kicked against the Warriors.’ That’s how I looked at how that trade went down, because honestly we had no idea OKC was even interested or was in the trade until the trade actually happened. But again, I’m not here to trash Indiana. They have some of the best people I’ve ever met in their front office and in that organization. I grew up there. I could go on and on (with) the positives in Indiana, but that’s where my thought process and my – that’s where I, I guess, my opportunity to leave had opened up.”

There was some “go ahead and beat the Warriors” in that trade — it looks, from the outside, like the Pacers did not want George to land anywhere he wanted to go.

Thing is, as human beings, we by our nature try to make the best of situations. Even people who suffer genuine personal tragedies often come out the other side saying that it changed who they were for the better and they are happy with their new life. This is just basketball. George will adapt — and he’s on a very good team. If the bar is “can they beat a healthy Warriors team in a series” then the Thunder will fall short, as will every other team. But the Thunder are on that next tier in the NBA and could be a threat.

Plus, competitors like George always look at a trade as a challenge.

It’s going to be a fascinating season for the Thunder. We’ll see if all that talent is willing to make the sacrifices needed to win at the highest levels of the NBA.

When will Zach LaVine return to court for Bulls? Think Thanksgiving.

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When the Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler — finally making a decision on the franchise’s direction — one of the centerpieces they got back from Minnesota was Zach LaVine. The wildly athletic two-guard had evolved into more than just a dunker, averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting 38 percent from three — he had become a legitimate scoring threat against any defense.

Then he blew out his ACL.

How that injury impacts his game remains to be seen… so when will the Bulls see him on the court? Coach Fred Hoiberg addressed that as Chicago started training camp, as reported by Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.

That’s just taking contact in practice. The Bulls will be cautious bringing back a guy they see as part of their future, so expect this to be closer to Thanksgiving or the end of the month before he plays. Which is the smart move to make.

Even then, ACL injuries take a long time to overcome, even for young players putting in the recovery work. It may be next season before we know if LaVine will continue on the trajectory he was on in Minnesota.

Magic Johnson shrugs off concern about Lonzo Ball realty series

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Lonzo Ball has yet to play in one NBA game, yet he has his own signature shoe line, and he — along with his father LaVar Ball and the rest of his family — have their own reality show on FaceBook. Lonzo told me he doesn’t foresee this show, nor his bombastic father, being a problem with his teammates or on the court.

Magic Johnson agrees with that. At least for now.

The head of Lakers’ basketball operations said as training camp opened that he’s not worried about the show Ball in the Family being a distraction. If it is, he’ll step in, he told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“Only time I am going to concern myself with what [Lonzo] does off the court is if it is affecting his play on the court,” Johnson said at the Lakers’ media day when asked about Ball’s reality Facebook series, “Ball in the Family.”

“Right now, I think it is awesome,” Johnson said. “His family is great. They came out Saturday, we had a big Laker picnic. … His dad is wonderful with me, and I am cool with him. … I think [Lonzo] is tired of all this [hype]. He is just like me; I just want to play and I think he wants to play, and then Saturday night [for the Lakers’ preseason opener], sold out, in Anaheim, wow!”

It’s Magic’s job to put a positive spin on things.

That said, he’s right. The Lakers (and every NBA team) have dealt with overinvolved parents before and know how to create some space for the player to focus on the game. Locker rooms have a way of sorting themselves out in these kinds of situations. Plus, the Lakers have been down the reality show road before (when Lamar Odom married Khloe Kardashian), and while that had an ugly ending, it wasn’t for lack of Lakers’ players and others in the organization trying to step in and help. (Odom just wasn’t yet in a place to accept help.)

Soon LaVar will be focused on his other sons and Lonzo, who appears practiced at tuning his father out and focusing on what is in front of him, will have the grind of the NBA schedule to worry about.

Former NBA player Chuck Person named in college basketball bribery scandal

Associated Press
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The recruitment of major college athletes — and then the steering of the handful that get to go pro to shoe companies and agents — is a sleazy business. It makes HBO’s “The Duece” look like Disneyland. It’s something sports fans know but largely turn a blind eye to until it forces its way into the headlines.

It turned up in the headlines Tuesday when four college assistant coaches from major universities were charged by federal prosecutors in a bribery scandal along with a representative of Adidas and others to steer players to specific agents or a financial handler.

Former NBA Rookie of the Year Chuck Person, now an assistant coach at Auburn, was among those named in the scandal.

Person is making headlines because he’s the biggest name in the scandal. He is charged with accepting approximately $91,500 from a business manager, who has flipped and is working with prosecutors. This “business manager, offered bribes to Person to steer players toward his services, as well as another person charged in the scandal.

Person told prosecutors he gave $18,500 of the money he took to two players’ families, according to the filings.

Person was the No. 4 pick in the 1986 NBA draft and went on to win Rookie of the Year, followed by a 13-year NBA career. He made $22.9 million over the course of his career.