67RIEFNS No. 15: Kawhi Leonard playing to get paid (even if he’s not)

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The NBA is full of talent, personality and suspense. During the offseason, It’s easy to forget how wonderful the league can be. So, I’ve assembled 67 Reasons I’m Excited For Next Season (67RIEFNS). They’ll be presented in no particular order.

The Spurs, more than any other NBA team, are known for their strong organizational culture.

They share the ball, defend hard and, when the time comes, accept less-than-market-value contracts.

Kawhi Leonard has bought in to those first two principle. Now will he follow suit with the third tenet?

Leonard is San Antonio’s only draft pick higher than No. 20, either drafted directly or acquired in a draft-night trade, since No. 1 pick Tim Duncan in 1997. The talented Leonard has blended seamlessly with Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. There’s no whiff of entitlement or selfishness that comes with many high picks. Leonard is a dedicated student, a hard worker and a true Spur.

Now, it’s time for him to get paid.

Leonard, who’s eligible for a contract extension until Oct. 31, should accept nothing short of a max deal. I previously wrote San Antonio shouldn’t offer that much until Leonard becomes a restricted free agent summer next season, but the escalating salary cap under the new national TV contracts might change the math.

Still, from Leonard’s perspective, it should be a max extension or no extension. As I wrote earlier this summer:

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.

And none of those players were the youngest NBA Finals MVP outside Magic Johnson. Leonard checks every box.

There’s a case Leonard, whose youth allows him to play more than his aging teammates, is already the Spurs’ best player. He’s a stout defender, active rebounder and emerging spot-up shooter. His length and athleticism will allow him to keep improving, too.

In every way – for his own betterment – Leonard has tilted his game to help San Antonio.

Now, it’s time to look out for No. 1.

Leonard could accept the security of a max extension if the Spurs offer one. Or he could chase a bigger contract in an escalating-cap world. He’s so clearly a max player, and I don’t see him slipping below that bar anytime soon.

If Leonard opts for a max extension now, that’s great. He deserves it, and I’d celebrate him earning the highest possible amount from a San Antonio franchise that has marketed stinginess as positive player sacrifice.

But if he lets Oct. 31 pass without a deal, he’ll be very directly playing for a new contract. He’ll be standing up to the system, a powerful move.

Either way, Leonard should keep the same approach that has gotten him so far already.

Work hard. Focus on improving individual skills. Do whatever is necessary to complement the veterans.

And then he should adopt an additional ethos:

Get paid.