A rumor surfaced this past Sunday about the Boston Celtics going after Kawhi Leonard in free agency. It was just a comment by a reporter noting coach Brad Stevens likes Leonard and the Celtics, like many other teams, would like to sign him, given the chance. Because Kawhi is at this point a star, rumors like that one will continue to appear and will only get more common as the season comes to an end.
The reality is, no matter what you read, the chances of Leonard leaving the Spurs are almost nonexistent. So whenever you come across anything regarding Leonard's free agency, remember these three things:
The Spurs have all the leverage
Leonard will be a restricted free agent and that makes all the difference, for several reasons. Not only can the Spurs offer him more money than anyone else (we'll get to that in a second) but they can also match any offer sheet Leonard signs. Assuming the Spurs don't agree with him to an extension before free agency officially starts, they will still be able to retain Leonard even if he agrees to terms with a different team.
If Leonard wants to leave, he could theoretically structure his contract to make it as unappealing to the front office as he can, likely adding a player option and a no-trade clause, like Chandler Parsons did. The difference is the Rockets didn't see Parsons as the star they were looking for but as just another piece that could be moved if needed. Daryl Morey said that the reason they didn't match Dallas' offer sheet was because Parsons' contract would be "untradable". That wasn't a problem for the Mavericks because they intended to keep Parsons all along and the same would apply to the Spurs and Kawhi. So even if a potentially disgruntled Leonard and his agent were to get creative with the structure of the offer sheet he signs, the Spurs would likely match anyway.
There's simply not much restricted free agents can do to get away from a team. Eric Gordon publicly said he wanted the Pelican to not match the Suns' offer when he entered free agency and the Pelicans matched anyway. He's still in New Orleans. If Leonard for some reason decided he wanted to leave San Antonio -- and nothing except for some offhand comments about his role suggest that -- his best chance would be to agree to an extension and then ask for a trade, not try to get away by signing an offer sheet.
Most young players take the money
Leonard will get a maximum contract, either from the Spurs or another team. That wasn't in question a few months ago and it's a certainty now that he's been playing well. That means that if the projections about the salary cap are correct, he will get paid an estimated $16,625 million on the first year of his contract regardless of where he signs.
Since the Spurs have his Bird rights, however, by signing an extension he would get 7.5 percent annual increases instead of the 4.5 percent bumps he would get with a different team in subsequent years. Over a four-year period, he would be leaving over $2.2 million on the table, or to put it in context, almost as much as he made in his first two seasons with the Spurs.
The Spurs can also offer a fifth guaranteed year worth over $22 million. That's why most players coming out of a rookie contract who are worth the max simply stay with their teams: They have very little say in the matter and it works out for the best for them financially.
The biggest threat is not another team but the qualifying offer
The worst-case scenario for the Spurs is not Leonard signing an offer sheet of any kind but instead accepting the qualifying offer. Every team that wants to keep rights of first refusal to a rookie needs to extend an offer. When it comes to players like Leonard, it typically serves as a placeholder in the team's cap sheet until an extension is agreed upon or an offer sheet is signed, as it's for just one year and worth only $4 million in Leonard's case, much less than what he's worth. This year, however, that qualifying offer might look very enticing.
If for whatever reason Leonard is not happy in San Antonio, that would be the way to take control of his future. By accepting it Leonard could veto any trades that year and become an unrestricted free agent at the end of it. He would also get a shot at a higher max contract and with almost any team he wants, as the cap will skyrocket when the new TV deal kick ins in 2016/17, essentially giving every franchise a lot of cap room.
It would be a huge risk for Leonard to accept just one guaranteed year for a small sum when he can sign an almost $100 million extension, which makes it a very unlikely scenario. The only recent notorious free agent to accept the qualifying offer was Greg Monroe but he was in a completely different position from Leonard, as the Pistons weren't ready to offer the max and the Spurs surely will. Still, if there's anything to worry about, that's it, because of the unpredictable situation created by the union rejecting the league's cap smoothing proposal.
* * * * *
It's been a while since the Spurs have had a a notable free agent so fans are not used to dealing with the circus that comes with it. Rumors will continue to surface until Leonard signs in the line that is dotted. It's only natural. The chances of him actually leaving, however, are minimal so pay no attention to them unless Kawhi himself says he wants out.