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The risk inherent in the Spurs giving Kawhi Leonard the supermax

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No one could blame the Spurs for doubting whether they should make such a big commitment to their star wing. But they might not have a choice.

NBA: Orlando Magic at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Summer of Kawhi is at a lull. With the playoffs still roaring and the draft a month away, there have been few developments. The meeting between Leonard and Gregg Popovich we are all waiting for hasn’t happened yet. We truly don’t know how it will all play out.

An important piece of information has emerged, however. The Spurs are apparently willing to offer Kawhi Leonard a $219 million extension if they can manage to patch things up with him, according to the San Antonio Express News’ Tom Osborn.

That’s not exactly shocking, since the Designated Veteran Player extension or supermax was always expected to be in play for Leonard. Yet it’s still necessary to consider everything it would mean for the team to put the max on the table.

The supermax is the Spurs’ silver bullet

The biggest thing to remember is that if San Antonio puts that contract on the table, it’s hard to see Kawhi passing on it, unless his relationship with Gregg Popovich and the front office is truly fractured beyond repair.

The league introduced the concept of the designated veteran extension exactly for situations like this one. It’s designed to give the incumbent team the best chance at keeping its superstars. It’s a very exclusive tool. Only the teams that drafted a player or traded for a player while he was still on his rookie contract can use it. Only the top performers are eligible for this type of contract, as the qualifications involve All-NBA teams and Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. Kawhi met those requirements last season, which means the Spurs can offer him a much better contract than anyone else, starting at a higher salary and featuring bigger raises and an extra year.

The most Leonard could get elsewhere would be around $170 million over the next five years. That is a lot of money, but it’s not $219 million over six years. He’d make up part of the $50M he’d be leaving on the table when he signs a new contract, but won’t likely recover all of it. Supplementary income such as endorsements could increase for Kawhi elsewhere, but likely not enough to truly make this a cost-neutral decision. Even for a seemingly non-materialistic person such as Leonard, leaving so much money in the table would be hard to do. It’s hard to see Leonard passing on the security the supermax provides, if offered.

The supermax is a powerful but risky tool

If the supermax gives teams such an edge when it comes to re-signing their stars, why has it been used so infrequently? DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento and Jimmy Butler in Chicago were reportedly willing to sign it. Why did their teams trade them instead? The simple answer is that they thought such a big commitment was too risky to make .

Leonard’s extension would account for 35 percent of the cap the first year it kicks in. Unless there’s an unexpected infusion of money to the league, that number will only grow. By year five, he’d be making $50 million. The Spurs need to be absolutely sure that they view Leonard as the cornerstone of a championship-caliber roster before they make the offer, because once he agrees to it, they would have to build around him. At his best, Kawhi is absolutely worth it, as not many other players have the impact he has on both ends. In fact, before this past season, Leonard was exactly the kind of player this extension was conceived for. After everything that happened last season, there are questions.

The Spurs were probably thinking about about Leonard’s ability to remain healthy over the duration of his next contract even before he missed almost an entire season. The fact that he’s gone against the team’s doctors is a huge issue going forward, as the front office could feel it would severely limit the control the franchise has over his availability. If there were any misgivings about Leonard’s fit within the team’s culture in the past, those concerns have been at least partially validated. That’s why his meeting with Pop and other team officials is so important. The Spurs need to be sure Leonard is their man before even thinking of offering the supermax, or they could regret it.

Without a supermax, Leonard probably asks out

Because offering Leonard the supermax in the offseason would be risky, the ideal situation for San Antonio would be to patch things up with him and convince him to start preseason without an extension. If Leonard shows he’s the same player and fully healthy, they can still offer it before the start of the season, holding him off from entering free agency.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that any player would go along with that. Leonard is under contract, so he must attend training camp if negotiations break down, but it’s hard to imagine him being congenial about it. It would be the second time in as many opportunities that the Spurs decided against offering him an early extension. He might feel that the team doesn’t value him properly by continually refusing to offer him the security he seeks. Leonard surely understands that he could lose a lot of money if he gets hurt again. A big part of the appeal of the extension is the safety and relief it would afford Leonard as he prepares for a bounce back season. His disconnect with the team could be exacerbated if the Spurs play hardball.

In all likelihood, the Spurs will have to offer the extension in order to patch things up. If they don’t, Leonard will likely ask out. It can be argued that he seems willing to part ways, so it would be wise to do it sooner rather than later. He’d be taking a risk, as he’d likely hold off on signing an extension where he lands in order to be eligible for a five-year contract. Yet he would mitigate some of that risk with endorsements money if he’s traded to a marquee franchise in a big market. The best example might be the extension of his contract with Jordan brand, which he’s cleverly held off on doing. If he’s in Los Angeles before next seasons starts, he could likely negotiate a better deal. Without an extension, and if he’s not interested in staying in SA, Leonard’s best play would be to force a trade.


At this point, signs point to the Spurs being willing to offer Leonard the supermax. There have been no reports to the contrary. If that’s true, they have a good shot at keeping their franchise star. The league established the designated veteran player extension to make sure of that.

It remains to be seen if the Spurs will hesitate when the time comes to actually put the contract on the table. There’s clearly risk involved with making such a huge commitment and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

But at his best, Leonard is worth it, so if it comes down to offering the extension or losing him, it’s hard to imagine the Spurs picking the latter.