AP Photo/Darren Abate

Spurs on precipice after losing Kawhi Leonard

6 Comments

NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Magic Johnson won NBA Finals MVP in his age-22 season, and the Lakers contended for championships for the next decade.

Tim Duncan won NBA Finals MVP in his age-22 season, and the Spurs contended for championships for the next decade and a half.

Kawhi Leonard won NBA Finals MVP in his age-22 season, and… only four years later, San Antonio is just trying to sneak into the playoffs with an old roster.

Leonard did his part, until last season at least. He grew into a perennial MVP candidate, the NBA’s best defender and an elite offensive player.

But that all came crashing down over the last year. Leonard got hurt, and a distrust between him and San Antonio grew. It’d be difficult to determine how much blame to assign each side even if we knew everything, and we certainly don’t know everything.

What’s clear: The Spurs are bearing the brunt of the breakdown.

Their trade of Leonard to the Raptors – for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 first-rounder – was a devastating sell-low. That probably wasn’t the Spurs’ best offer in a vacuum, but they were reportedly limited by their own parameters – preferring to send Leonard to the East and valuing immediate contributors.

That’s the effect of a 69-year-old coach running the front office.

Gregg Popovich is an all-time great coach, and if he wants to avoid rebuilding until retirement, he has more than earned the right. Embracing youth and accepting losing probably doesn’t appeal to him at this point.

Popovich has proven masterful at getting players to understand their responsibilities and executing them, and that’s why his teams have been so consistently good in the regular season. He’ll need another supreme coaching performance to get this squad into the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference.

The most common oversimplification of the summer is that the Spurs are basically just adding DeRozan to a team that won 47 games last season because Leonard barely played anyway. San Antonio also lost important cogs Kyle Anderson (signed unmatched offer sheet with Grizzlies), Danny Green (traded to Toronto) and Manu Ginobili (retired). Tony Parker left for the Hornets, too.

At least San Antonio got Popovich a few players familiar with his system, re-signing Rudy Gay (one year, $10,087,200), Davis Bertans (two years, $14 million) and Bryn Forbes (two years, $6 million) and signing former Spur Marco Belinelli (two years, $12 million). None of those players came cheap.

Newly signed veterans Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter could help, too.

The Spurs aren’t completely punting the future. They drafted Lonnie Walker No. 18 and Chimezie Metu No. 49. Belinelli’s and Forbes’ salaries decline in the their second seasons. Bertans’ is flat.

Teams run into trouble when they prioritize the present regardless of greater circumstance, and the Spurs did that to some degree. But they also have Popovich and LaMarcus Aldridge, both of whom will make it easier for San Antonio to win next season. Popovich doesn’t need much, and Aldridge’s interior style can prop up lesser supporting casts.

That said, I’m still not sure the Spurs have enough.

They’ve been headed for trouble for a while, as their relationship with Leonard deteriorated. That didn’t all happen this offseason, though that’s when the dam broke.

Offseason grade: D-

Kawhi Leonard reportedly clears physical in Toronto; trade official

Getty Images
2 Comments

This was expected. Every report on Kawhi Leonard‘s condition now — even those from Spurs sources — was that he was looking good and should be healthy and ready to go for training camp.

For Leonard’s trade to Toronto to be ultimately finalized, he had to pass the standard physical (part of every pro sports trade/signing). That has happened, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.

Just a reminder, this trade sent Leonard and veteran “3&D” man Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, backup center Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick in 2019 (protected 1-20). It’s done now and official.

Come the fall, the real interesting questions get to be answered:

• How healthy is Leonard? Can he return to his MVP-level form of a couple of seasons ago?

• If he is healthy, can the Raptors knock off the Celtics and make it to the finals for the first time in franchise history?

• Can the Raptors win him over and get him to at least seriously consider re-signing with them?

• Just how good are the mid-range loving Spurs with DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge?

Report: Raptors motivated to make salary-shedding trade

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
1 Comment

Trading for Kawhi Leonard created multiple opportunities for the Raptors. Upgrading from DeMar DeRozan on the wing gives them a better chance of winning a title this season. If that doesn’t work, they’re better positioned to pivot into rebuilding with DeRozan’s contract cleared.

Of course, the deal also carried significant risks and costs. Leonard missed nearly all of last season with injury, and he can become an unrestricted free agent next summer. Toronto also had to surrender Jakob Poeltl and a future draft pick.

But the swap of DeRozan and Poeltl for Leonard and Danny Green carried another, underdiscussed, cost: It increased the Raptors’ payroll next season.

As a result of the trade, the Raptors are in line to spend an extra $9,821,660 – $2,426,772 in salary, $7,394,888 in luxury tax.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

The Raptors are on track to pay $34,504,486 in luxury tax. That might seem reasonable for a championship contender, especially on a one-year window, though I’m not the one paying for it. Toronto hasn’t paid the luxury tax since 2004.

How much is ownership willing to spend this season?

The Raptors packaged a first-rounder and a second-rounder to dump DeMarre Carroll and avoid the tax last season. I’d be surprised if the Raptors completely avoid the tax this year, but they have until the final day of the regular season.

Jonas Valanciunas (two years and $34,157,302 remaining) and Norman Powell (four years and $41,965,056 remaining) are the prime candidates to get moved. Both can play, but they might be luxuries Toronto isn’t willing to afford. Valanciunas looks like a Nick Nurse favorite, but the Raptors can play Serge Ibaka at center. Powell is just 25, but Toronto built a strong bench last year with him mostly out of the rotation.

I suspect, if they could just give away Valanciunas or Powell, the Raptors would have already.

The question becomes: How much of a sweetener would Toronto include to unload either player? The question is especially complicated, because both Valanciunas and Powell can help on the court. They’re overpaid, not deadweight.

The Raptors will spend the next season trying to impress Leonard into re-signing. As they handle upcoming costs, they ought to keep sight of that opportunity. Nobody wants to play for a team that won’t spend what it takes to win.

Report: Kawhi Leonard’s Raptors physical scheduled for today

AP Photo/Eric Gay
6 Comments

The Spurs agreed to trade Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick.

But the deal isn’t official until everyone involved passes their physicals.

All eyes turn to Leonard, who missed 73 games last season with a hip injury. Will he, presumably testing with Green, pass?

Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

The pair are scheduled to appear in Toronto on Friday for physicals.

I expect Leonard to pass.

The Raptors have complete discretion, and they knew they were trading for a risk – both in terms of Leonard’s impending free agency and health. After DeMar DeRozan’s reaction would Toronto really undo this trade and bring him back?

Concerns about Leonard’s hip seem to be more about his ability to recover from regular usage and long-term soundness. I’m not sure either would show up in a single-day examination.

Leonard was cleared medically months ago, and he was reportedly considering playing in Team USA’s minicamp next week. He seems ready to go – at least to pass a physical by a team that knew of his health issues when trading for him.

But if Toronto sees a red flag that would cause them to cancel the trade, all hell will break loose. So, the stakes are high.

Report: Spurs wouldn’t trade Kawhi Leonard to 76ers unless they included Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid

AP Photo/Darren Abate
12 Comments

The 76ers reportedly refused to include Markelle Fultz in trade offers for Kawhi Leonard, which seems misguided to me. Leonard carries major questions about his future, but after his rookie year, so does Fultz! At least Leonard has proven he can reach an elite level. That’s not to say Philadelphia should have definitely dealt Fultz for Leonard. The 76ers definitely have a better understanding of Fultz’s behind-the-scenes progress, and they might have more information on Leonard’s health and willingness to stay long-term. I just wouldn’t have made Fultz a deal-breaker in negotiations.

But it seems the Spurs placed a far more unreasonable restriction on Philadelphia, though.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Spurs made it clear any deal with Philly would require Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid (likely Simmons), and the Sixers weren’t going anywhere near that, league sources say.

Given their age and contract status – and, in Simmons’ case, health – Simmons and Embiid are each way more valuable than Leonard. There’s no way the 76ers would have dealt either of those two for Leonard.

Which apparently took a still-viable suitor off the table for San Antonio.

Between Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Zhaire Smith, the Heat’s 2021 first-rounder and Philadelphia’s own picks, the 76ers could have assembled a better package than the Raptors sent the Spurs for Leonard. Maybe the 76ers wouldn’t have. But it would have been worth at least exploring.

It seems San Antonio placed too much on remaining competitive, which led to a deal revolving around DeMar DeRozan. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy per se, but it gets more difficult to defend when the Spurs got so little. In this Western Conference, they could slip out of the playoffs, even with DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. A long-term approach should have at least been considered.

To be fair, I’d also caution against taking this report at face value with no skepticism. Today, 28 teams – especially those, like Philadelphia, linked to Leonard – are trying to explain why they didn’t get the star. This could easily be the 76ers’ spin and not an accurate reflection of the Spurs’ stance.

But Lowe is a great reporter, and I tend to trust this – which raises red flags about San Antonio.