The Kawhi saga is picking up steam as the draft approaches. After mostly positive reports in recent days, it now appears Leonard wants to be traded, according to multiple reports.
“There’s a feeling of betrayal that, at this juncture, appears irreparable,” league sources told ESPN’s Chris Haynes. The Lakers appear to be his preferred destination, according to Adrian Wojnarowski.
Kawhi deciding to ask for a trade was always a possibility, so this is not exactly shocking news. Yet it’s important to note that he has not actually communicated those desires to the Spurs at this point, which opens up the possibility that he could actually stay.
Let’s try to make sense of it all.
There’s not a lot of new or surprising information in these reports
The big claims these new reports make are that Kawhi is unhappy with the way the Spurs handled his injury and its aftermath and that he would like to be traded, preferably to the Lakers. The first part we’ve known for a while and the second was always considered a strong possibility.
There have been plenty of earlier reports that explained in detail that there was a serious rift between Kawhi and his camp, caused by a disagreement as to the nature of Leonard’s quad injury. The Spurs thought it was a problem with Leonard’s tendons. He asked for a second opinion, which diagnosed it as a muscle issue. Tensions mounted as Leonard missed time. The players had a team meeting that was tense. As time passed, Pop became visibly irritated by the situation and passive-aggressively lashed out at Kawhi’s “camp.” Leonard felt the organization didn’t take care of him. This has all been reported before.
As for the Lakers as Leonard's preferred destination, it’s not surprising. Kawhi is from California, and there have been rumors going back years that Leonard would return home at some point to play for the team he was a fan of as a kid. We also knew that he was going to pick a bigger market if he were to be traded. Recent reports claimed his camp was unhappy with his low public profile and the missed opportunities to make money off endorsements. We’ve never had anything close to a Woj confirmation, but no one is blindsided by the Lakers being at the top of his list.
There’s really not much in the way of new information here. No news of a recent event that exacerbated the rift or anything like that. It’s mostly what we already knew.
The timing of the leak is surreal
Recent reports about Kawhi and the Spurs had largely been positive. Pop and Leonard were expected to meet and the Spurs were going to offer Leonard the supermax, which intrigued his camp. There was no assurance from any sources on any reports that Leonard was going to remain a Spur, but it appeared to be a real possibility. Then, this.
The same report that claims Leonard wants out states that he hasn’t said anything about it to the Spurs yet, despite the fact that Leonard and Pop have been in contact, according to Wojnarowski, and were expected to eventually meet. The timing makes little sense. Even if this is coming from Kawhi’s camp, it’s possible it’s coming from a sector that wants Leonard to be traded and is hoping to worsen the fracture with the Spurs so Pop has no inclination to fix it when they eventually have their big meeting. Maybe it’s someone who wants to make sure the Spurs’ starting offer is the supermax and is using this anonymous threat as a bargaining tool.
It is entirely possible that the report represents Leonard’s desires accurately. It’s just puzzling that he hasn’t told the team about it and that this leak happened right as Leonard and Pop were expected to meet.
If the trade request is real, the Spurs have options
Waiting for an official trade request before firing up the trade machine is probably the best approach right now, but it would be foolish to ignore the reports entirely. They are coming from reputable people, after all. So it’s not crazy to think Kawhi might start the season with a new franchise
Will that be the Lakers? Perhaps. Kawhi does have some leverage to attempt to force a trade to his preferred destination. He’s on the last year of his contract and could simply leak to the media that he would only re-sign with the Lakers in the hopes to scare away other bidders. If teams feel Leonard is only going to be a rental, most won’t offer their best assets in a potential transaction. We’ve seen that play out before with superstars like Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard, who forced their way to teams or markets of their liking.
But the most recent example of a star trying to flex his muscles to land where he wanted didn’t end well. Paul George asked for a trade and listed the Lakers as his preferred landing spot. Instead of caving, the Pacers entertained other offers. Ultimately, they sent him to Oklahoma City, who believed they could convince George to stay. There will always be a team or two willing to take a chance on impact players, even if there are no assurances they will re-sign. And even if they are forced to negotiate with the Lakers, the Spurs could still come away with quality players and picks if they play their cards right, as the new administration helmed by Magic Johnson needs to make a splash this summer.
We’ll see whether this reported trade request has legs soon enough. Even if it does, the Spurs will have choices, if they remain patient. Both the front office and the fan base have had months to prepare for this time, so there’s no reason to panic now.