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Most likely Kawhi Leonard trade destinations: L.A., Philly, Boston, and…

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Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio. So much so that he’s willing to leave about $31 million on the table (the difference between the supermax the Spurs could offer and what any other team could after a trade). It took a while but the Spurs know now, and San Antonio will explore the trade market. They are not necessarily going to be in a rush to do it, either. This is a pateint organization, the idea of Leonard starting next season as a Spur is certainly not out of the question.

Despite that, you can be sure 29 teams are lined up to try to trade for him — when healthy Leonard is a top-five NBA player, an MVP candidate who is a force on both ends of the floor, and already a Finals MVP.

However, with just one year left on his current contract, Leonard has leverage in this situation — if a team can’t re-sign him then he’s just a one-year rental, and teams aren’t going to want to pay the steep trade price to land him. Leonard’s camp will let teams know if they have a shot at re-signing him, and most will not. A couple of teams might be willing to roll the dice anyway (as Oklahoma City did with Paul George) betting they can win him over with a year to recruit him in house. But by and large, Leonard will have some say on where he lands.

Here are the teams at the top of the list to watch.

 
Lakers small icon The Los Angeles Lakers. This is where Leonard wants to go. While Leonard’s frustrations with the Spurs grew over the handling of his injury and his seeking a second opinion, his uncle/advisor had been in Kawhi’s ear about getting to a place like Los Angeles. There are none in the NBA bigger than the Lakers. Leonard and his camp were disappointed with the money offered in recent negotiations with the Jordan shoe brand (reportedly in the $4 million to $5 million range) and think a move to a larger market and bigger brand team changes the endorsement equation. (Not as much as Leonard thinks, he doesn’t do social media or go on Fallon/Kimmel, or all the other stuff that guys like Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard have done to create a brand despite market size. Kawhi has to play the game to get that cash.)

This is the trade everyone will talk about. It can get done financially with the Lakers sending Luol Deng‘s bloated contract, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma (and maybe the No. 25 pick in Thursday’s draft). However, the Spurs don’t really want Ball and the circus that follows him, according to sources. It’s expected the Spurs would ask for Brandon Ingram and Kuzma as the young Lakers coming back, and the Spurs likely would have to throw in Bryn Forbes just to balance the books. Either way, it may require a third team to get the job done, the Spurs will not just want to take on bad contracts.

It’s a good deal for the Spurs. If the Lakers get desperate, would they try to throw in Ball too? That likely requires a third team (at least), but the Lakers should go all in — get Leonard in a trade and it’s far more likely the Lakers get LeBron James in free agency.

Another question to ponder: Will the Spurs willingly trade Leonard to Western Conference rival with the resources of the Lakers? Don’t bet on it, especially if the Celtics, Sixers, or others come in with strong offers. The Spurs want the best offer, they don’t care if Leonard chooses to take even less money to go to LA as a free agent in 2019 (the max from another team would be $139 over four years, another massive hit to the guaranteed money pocketbook). Popovich is not inclined to help the Lakers, they will have to beat the competition with the best offer.

The Spurs will listen and be interested in what the Lakers have to say. But there could be better offers from…

 
Celtics small icon The Boston Celtics. It had been reported the Celtics tried to make a trade offer for Leonard at the last trade deadline but were rebuffed (the Spurs have turned away all calls up to this point). For a rebuilding Spurs team, this could be the cleanest choice.

Boston could offer Jaylen Brown (although the Spurs may demand Jayson Tatum), this year’s No. 27 pick, next year’s Sacramento Kings pick (which is only No. 1 protected, and that team is still going to be young and bad), plus another future first rounder. The Celtics have a lot of picks they can send.

Or, Boston could offer Kyrie Irving and a first-round pick. This lineup works for Boston: Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Tatum, Brown, and Al Horford. The question with that offer for San Antonio is could it re-sign Irving, a free agent in 2019? Would the Spurs rather have Brown and all the picks? Also, Boston could, in theory, offer Gordon Hayward and a pick (although that one is far less likely to be put out there).

The Celtics don’t necessarily have to be convinced they could re-sign Leonard to roll the dice on a trade — this is a franchise, a coach, and a passionate city of hoops fans who would be willing to bet they could win him over. Danny Ainge doesn’t fear a good gamble, and this would be one — with Leonard and their other stars getting healthy the Celtics become a threat to Golden State (as much as any team is).

 
Sixers small icon The Philadelphia 76ers. Another team on the rise in the East, a team with max cap space so they would have some flexibility still, and this is a team that Leonard has been linked to in the past. With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid taking steps forward (and staying healthy *knocks on wood*) Leonard pushes this team firmly into contender status.

The trade would likely be Robert Covington, Markelle Fultz, and the No. 10 pick in this draft (the Lakers’ pick). Or, it could be Dario Saric, Fultz, Jerryd Bayless and the No. 10 pick. How tempting that would be to the Spurs depends on what they think of Fultz, his health, and his shot, as well as who they can draft at No. 10. It’s a good deal, and the Sixers could throw more picks to tempt the Spurs. However, is this offer better than what the Lakers or Celtics can put on the board?

 
Clippers small icon The Los Angeles Clippers. If Leonard really wants to be in Los Angeles, this is the other option (and being the face this team did a lot for Chris Paul‘s brand and endorsements, State Farm has paid him a mint).

The offer would not be quite as enticing as what the Lakers can put on the table but it’s interesting: Tobias Harris, Sam Decker and this year’s 12th or 13th pick. Or both but without Decker. That would send the Spurs a decent package, however, it’s all nice role players and not a star (it’s unlikely they draft one that late in the lottery, possible but not likely). Still, the Clippers will try to get in the mix, and they would stand a chance to keep him because of the city (especially if they pay this summer to keep DeAndre Jordan).

 
Knicks small icon The New York Knicks. Another team on this list because it’s a large market that Leonard has been linked to. Reportedly people around him like this idea, but it’s hard to see it working out. It’s also not known for sure if the Knicks could win over Leonard to re-sign, promising him a healthy Kristaps Porzingis. Eventually.

A trade of Tim Hardaway Jr., Frank Ntilikina, and this years No. 9 pick will get the Spurs to at least listen. (The Spurs are not taking on Joakim Noah or Enes Kanter‘s contracts, the Knicks are stuck with those.) Just hard to see that being enough, considering who they are up against.

 
Heat small icon Miami Heat. Another team whose name comes up — like Sacramento, which would love to get in the sweepstakes — where it seems unlikely they could re-sign Leonard so how much do they really want to offer? There are a few teams in this circumstance.

For the Heat, they could offer Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo
in a trade for Leonard and Patty Mills.

Maybe the Spurs have a little interest in the young players, but it’s likely not enough. Also, how much better does this make the Heat in the short term, and if they are just fighting to make the playoffs in the East is that going to entice Leonard to stay?

If and when the Spurs decide to trade Leonard — they are in no rush, this could drag out through the summer — they are going to get closer to market value for a superstar than most teams get. Much closer than the Kings did with DeMarcus Cousins, for example. There are a few teams that can make quality offers, and the Spurs will choose the best one — they don’t care where Leonard lands. Leonard’s leverage is where he will re-sign, but a team that trades for him can offer $49 million more and one more guaranteed year, that’s a lot of cabbage — not enough to keep Leonard in a place he doesn’t like or want to be, but if the team is winning and the experience is good… anything can happen.

This summer is going to be wild.

Report: Knicks still planning to stretch Joakim Noah on Sept. 1

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Joakim Noah‘s feud with former Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek got so bad, New York sent Noah away. But the Knicks since fired Hornacek and hired David Fizdale, and Fizdale said Noah texted him.

Does that clear the way for Noah playing for the Knicks again?

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

Sources indicate the likeliest scenario still is Noah becoming a stretch-provision waiver at the Sept. 1 landmark date

Noah is guaranteed $18,530,000 next season and $19,295,000 the following season. By waiting until Sept. 1, the Knicks would pay Noah’s entire 2018-19 salary that season (when they don’t project to have cap space, anyway) and then take $6,431,667 cap hits each of the following three seasons.

This route would be a favor to Noah, allowing him to find his next team before the season. He wants to play, and the 33-year-old doesn’t fit New York’s rebuild.

If the Knicks keep him, they could use his contract to facilitate a trade. That’s unlikely until 2019, when his expiring contract might prove useful. It’s no guarantee, but keeping him on the roster keeps that possibility open. If the Knicks want to stretch him to maximize 2019 cap space, they always could that summer. It’d be the same cap effect as stretching him this September. If they strike out in 2019 free agency, they might even decide to pay his full 2019-20 salary that season and avoid cap hits in 2020-21 and 2022.

Waiving and stretching Noah in September would close all those possibilities. His salary would be locked onto New York’s cap sheet, untradeable.

Will LeBron James keep outlasting Eastern Conference field?

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DETROIT – When I brought up comments he made about LeBron James during the Cavaliers’ sweep of the Raptors in last year’s playoffs, Kyle Lowry responded before I even asked a question.

“Finish the quote, though,” Lowry said. “Go look at the whole quote.”

The headline:

Kyle Lowry: ‘They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him’

“The whole quote,” Lowry insists. “So, what did it say? Go ahead.”

The second paragraph and first quote:

“They’ve got LeBron James,” Lowry told The Vertical late Friday night. “Nobody’s closing the gap on him. I mean, that’s it right there: They’ve got LeBron James and nobody’s closing the gap on him.”

“Did you finish the quote?” Lowry asks again.

Finally, the fifth paragraph (which followed a large image):

“I don’t know when his prime is going to stop,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon. I think he’ll be able to continue what he’s doing for a long time. But that’s basketball. You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.”

To Lowry, the key portion of the quote: “You’ve got to find a way to beat the best.” He believes people took his statement out of context with that part buried.

“Yes, they did,” Lowry said. “For sure. That’s why it kind of got to me.”

Lowry said he meant no disrespect with his defensiveness, and I took none. He sounded tired of hearing about that quote for nearly an entire year.

He doesn’t want that soundbite to go the way of Brandon Jennings‘ “Bucks in 6,” Lance Stephenson‘s ear blow and Stanley Johnson‘s “I’m definitely in his head” as the latest punchline in LeBron’s reign of Eastern Conference dominance. No, Lowry wants to end LeBron’s rule completely.

“We’ve got to be better than him to be the best team we can be,” Lowry said. “And that’s what it is. We’re not afraid of him. We’ve got to be a better team and figure out how to beat him and beat every other team.”

The Raptors are the last challenger standing in the wreckage left in LeBron’s wake.

LeBron has won seven straight Eastern Conference titles, four with the Heat then three with the Cavs. In that span, he’s 21-0 in Eastern Conference playoff series and 84-21 in Eastern Conference playoff games.

Of the 21 Eastern Conference teams LeBron has beaten in this run, 11 have completely turned over their roster since losing to him.

LeBron has broken up the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen-Rajon Rondo Celtics, Paul George-Roy Hibbert-Lance Stephenson-David WestGeorge Hill Pacers, Derrick RoseJoakim NoahLuol Deng Bulls, Al HorfordPaul MillsapKyle KorverJeff TeagueDeMarre Carroll Hawks and Isaiah ThomasAvery BradleyJae Crowder Celtics. Yup, LeBron is going for seconds.

Of Eastern Conference players who lost to LeBron’s Miami teams, only John Henson (2013 Milwaukee) and Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller (2014 Charlotte) have remained with the same team. And those were teams LeBron swept in the first round, hardly marquee competition.

Here’s everyone who has played against LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs the last seven years. Players are sorted by minutes in the series. Those in green remain with that team. Those in red and crossed off changed teams (though three – Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings and Omer Asik – returned).

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LeBron’s moves from Cleveland to Miami in 2010 and then back to Cleveland in 2014 were obviously monumental. But his presence has loomed over the entire East.

“You’re gauged on if you can beat his team that gets to the Finals every year,” said Bucks center John Henson, the only man who has stayed with an Eastern Conference team beaten by LeBron’s Heat from 2011-2013. “Constantly building and rebuilding and trades are being made to dethrone him.”

Paul George takes pride in pushing LeBron as hard as anyone in the East has during this time. His Pacers were the last Eastern Conference team to reach even a Game 7 against LeBron (2013 conference finals), and Indiana battled the Heat in a hard-fought six-game conference finals the following year.

“Going through that changed me as a player, changed my learning, my experience,” George said. “And that’s what it came down to. I was very proud of where we, that group that competed in that Eastern Conference finals, I’m very proud of what we accomplished in that short period of career we had together.”

George has moved on to the Thunder in the Western Conference, where the competition certainly isn’t easier, but at least doesn’t include LeBron.

Al Horford helped the Hawks win 60 games in 2014-15 only to get swept by LeBron’s Cavaliers in the conference finals. Atlanta returned mostly intact the following year, but got swept by LeBron again.

“They just kind of just kept wearing down on us over the years,” Horford said.

Now, Horford is with Boston, again trying to get past LeBron.

The Celtics appear particularly conscious of LeBron. While still competitive, they traded icons Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce in 2013. Though the Nets’ ridiculously generous offer certainly helped, it’s hard to believe Boston wasn’t influenced by LeBron being in his prime.

That prime has only continued. After losing in five games to LeBron’s Cavs in last year’s conference finals, Boston got rid of 11 of 15 players.

If the Celtics’ front office fears LeBron (wisely, if it does), it shares company with his opponents on the floor

“Some people he plays in this league, for sure, get intimidated,” said P.J. Tucker, who faced LeBron with the Raptors last year. “…People, when you watch the TV, you think he’s just going to come in and just manhandle you.”

Of course, LeBron isn’t doing this alone. He played with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland.

But that’s part of the lore. LeBron has engineered super teams so he could dominate a conference for the better part of a decade.

Continuing the streak won’t be easy. The 76ers are growing up before our eyes. The Celtics are young and good, and they’ll be healthier another year. The Raptors are digging in.

And the Cavs look vulnerable. Their defense is ugly. For the first team in this era, LeBron has only one supporting star, Love. The Cavaliers are just the No. 4 seed, LeBron’s lowest seed since 2008. Though LeBron isn’t worried, that means a first-round matchup with the Pacers (48-34) – the best record of any of LeBron’s first-round opponents.

LeBron has won all 12 of his first-round series, including 21 straight first-round games. Given how much Cleveland relies on him, even a prolonged series with Indiana could have lasting negative consequences deeper in the playoffs.

The last time so much was on LeBron’s plate was 2010, when his top teammates were Mo Williams and a declining Antawn Jamison. The Cavaliers lost to the Celtics in the second round.

Rajon Rondo, now with the Pelicans, said he had no idea that Boston squad was the last non-LeBron team to win the East.

“He won seven straight, huh?” Rondo said. “It’s looking like it’s about to be eight.”

Breaking down Knicks coaching candidates such as Mark Jackson, David Blatt, Jerry Stackhouse

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Jeff Hornacek getting fired as Knicks coach was as predictable as the plot of the movie “Taken” (come on, like Liam Neeson was going to be killed and his daughter sold off as a sex slave). Two 50-loss seasons, terrible defense, and being hired by the despised former GM will do that (even if it wasn’t all Hornacek’s fault, and it certainly was not, Hornacek didn’t sign Joakim Noah or Derrick Rose or want to run the triangle). The Knicks were so eager to can Hornacek team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry went with the team to Cleveland so they could ax him as soon as the plane landed when they got back.

So who’s next?

A series of names have been rumored around the league and quickly came up in multiple reports about the opening. Here is a breakdown of those who have been rumored.

• Mark Jackson. The former Knicks player and Warriors coach would be an easy sell to fans and any cantankerous owners who may have interest in the matter. On the positive side, Jackson won 51 games his last season with the Warriors and built the defensive foundation on which that team has won multiple titles (and the Knicks could use a more defensive focus). Jackson was beloved by his players but pushed out in Golden State for legit reasons — he was hard to work with for management, and played an old-school style of offensive ball — all of which must be considered.

• David Blatt. While hiring him would not exactly help any recruitment of LeBron James, that’s a moot point anyway (despite the billboards he’s not coming). Blatt wants another shot in the NBA. He won 53 games his first season in Cleveland and the team went to the Finals, and they were on pace for 60 wins his second season when he was fired around the All-Star break. LeBron and the other players were not fans of Blatt’s arrogance and need to be the smartest man in the room, and in the NBA (unlike Europe, where Blatt has returned to coach) the players have the power. Has that lesson sunk in with Blatt, can he put his ego aside? Can he get the players to buy into his system now, something he could not do in Cleveland? On the positive side, the man knows the game and wants to run a modern, up-tempo, ball-and-player-movement style of offense.

• David Fizdale. The highly respected coach let go by the Memphis Grizzlies mid-season is going to land a high-profile job this summer and he could be an excellent fit for the Knicks. His problems in Memphis stemmed from wanting to run a faster, more modern NBA offense that didn’t sit well with Marc Gasol — and as happens in the NBA the player won that battle. Fizdale would need to win over the Knicks’ locker room, but to hear LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and other former Heat players tell it (Fizdale was an assistant under Erik Spoelstra) that will not be a problem. Fizdale is smart, engaging and knows how to coach. He’d be a great hire, but he’s not as big a household name and therefore not as easy a sell to ownership and fans as other names on this list.

• Jerry Stackhouse. The 18-year NBA player and former All-Star is one of the hot names among assistant coaches looking to move up to the big chair after his success with the Raptors’ G-League team, Toronto 905. Is the Knicks job — with all the media pressure and office politics inside Madison Square Garden — the right place for a first-time NBA head coach? Stackhouse was a former teammate of LeBron in Miami  (if you still think New York has a shot to recruit him) and Stackhouse and GM Scott Perry have a two-decade relationship going back to the Pistons. Stackhouse may well get a shot somewhere — Orlando is a rumor that comes up a lot — but if the Knicks want young, fresh blood this would be the call.

• Jason Kidd. He was let go mid-season in Milwaukee, but the Hall of Fame player would be a name the marketing team could sell. He’s considered an incredibly bright basketball mind, but as a coach with the Bucks he pushed an aggressive, gambling defensive system that didn’t work (and wore guys down), plus the team’s offense was a little old-school for today’s NBA. He had a habit of falling in and out of love with players, so they bounced around the rotation a lot. What lessons has he learned with the Bucks (and Nets) that would change how he deals with player relationships and coaching now? Kidd’s name often is tied to the Phoenix job, but he likely would jump at the chance to coach the Knicks. Is his strong-willed style a good fit with Porzingis?

• Jay Wright. His name is going to come up in every coaching search this summer, but they all may be long shots. The Knicks in particular. Wright is the man who has turned Villanova into an NCAA dynasty, and every NBA team is looking for the next Brad Stevens, so they have turned their eyes to him. The first thing is nobody is convinced he wants to leave a job he loves at Villanova to try the NBA (a number of sources I talked to used the Coach K comparison). Even if he does want the challenge (and the increased pay), he can be picky and choose a good landing spot with stable smart ownership and management, as Stevens did with Boston. Are the Knicks really that franchise?

One more name to watch: Doc Rivers. He is still currently the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, but the buzz around the league is after he was stripped of his GM responsibilities last summer, this summer will come a parting of the ways. If and when that happens, New York will make a call to gauge his interest and start the process — a former Knicks player with a track record of success as a coach deserves a look.

This Knicks job is a glamour one — one of the biggest franchise names in the league in the nation’s biggest media market. There is a massive and smart fan base. Also, the Knicks have the hardest thing to get in building a contending team, a franchise cornerstone piece in Kristaps Porzingis.

However, there are going to be challenges, big ones. At the top of the list, there is the ownership of James Dolan — this is not the rock-steady ship of San Antonio here. Dolan is notoriously impatient and there is no deep-seeded direction for the franchise from the top. Next, Porzingis is potentially elite but also out for about half of next season following an ACL injury, and history has shown us that a return from that injury once back on the court takes time. Meaning the Knicks very well may struggle and miss the playoffs again next year… did we mention the fan base and ownership are impatient? This turnaround requires some patience. New York needs to create a culture/foundation/system that can highlight Porzingis’ strengths, then get players into that system that fit it. Most importantly, once they pick a system, the Knicks need to completely stick with it for at least three or four years — give it a chance to breathe. Whoever gets the Knicks job has to know going in he may not get that kind of window.

Still, these are the Knicks, they should be able to get whoever they want as their next coach. Mills and Perry need to think through their options and make the right call here. This is a crucial hire, this next coach will be there through the start of Porzingis’ prime.

 

 

Report: Knicks fire Jeff Hornacek

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Jeff Hornacek wanted an answer about his future as Knicks coach.

He got it.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Hornacek went 31-51 and 28-53 in two seasons with New York. The Knicks’ struggles were far bigger than him, but he didn’t do nearly enough to save his job amid a regime change.

The since-deposed Phil Jackson hired Hornacek. Jackson’s successor as president (and, in such Knicks fashion, predecessor), Steve Mills, held no allegiance to Hornacek.

Neither did multiple players by the end. Hornacek reportedly clashed with Kristaps Porzingis, Joakim Noah and Kyle O'Quinn. Hornacek tried to be a good company man, but that – especially his acceptance of Jackson’s triangle offense – hurt his credibility in the locker room.

Knicks owner James Dolan, for all his faults, is often willing to spend. That could help lure a big-time replacement. But expectations are always oversized in New York, and with Porzingis injured, the next coach could face an uphill climb. That could turn off candidates with other options.

The Knicks need far more than a coaching change. To some degree, Hornacek is a scapegoat.

But Mills also deserves a chance to put his imprint on the team, and he can’t fire the owner. So, this is a logical step.