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NBA Off-Season 2018: Could LeBron’s Move to the Lakers Help the Clippers Land Kawhi Leonard?

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It might be a long shot, but there’s some reason for optimism.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

NBA insider Shams Charania was on Colin Cowherd’s show today, discussing the latest surrounding Kawhi Leonard’s request to be traded from the San Antonio Spurs. According to Shams, LeBron’s move to the Lakers may have decreased Kawhi’s desire to play there, increasing his interest in the Clippers. Not only does this further suggest that the Clippers would have good odds of retaining Leonard if they traded for him, but it suggests that Kawhi won’t be eager to join the Lakers in free agency next summer whatsoever, which increases LAC’s odds of ending up with the star forward who reportedly wants to play in Los Angeles.

Here are some key quotes from Charania, as originally transcribed by Tomer Azarly of ClutchPoints in his analysis of these rumors.

“One thing that is made abundantly clear, and I’m going to stress this: there’s no guarantee that when Kawhi Leonard hits the market next summer, that he’s going to sign with the Lakers, period.” said Charania. “I think his options have broadened a little bit. Just inside L.A., there’s another team obviously in L.A. I think he’d be very much open to the Clippers.”

“The Spurs are going to hold out and keep and open dialogue with him and his camp,” adds Charania. “I think around Kawhi, what’s been made abundantly clear is there’s not an interest to go join a super team. I don’t think he’s jumping for joy that LeBron James is in LA with the Lakers. If anything that’s gonna make him look more towards the Clippers because this is a guy that won Finals MVP against LeBron, you think he’s amped up and wants to join LeBron now? I think that’s been overstated and the spurs are beginning to realize that they might have a broader market for him.”

While Leonard’s supposed decreased interest in the Lakers is definitely a big advantage for the Clippers, Shams’ reporting isn’t the only reason to be optimistic.

The Lakers have been at the forefront of the Leonard sweepstakes for the last several weeks, but reportedly cooled in aggressiveness in recent days—likely coinciding with LeBron’s reported conversation with Magic Johnson where he committed to joining the Lakers regardless of a Kawhi trade, relieving the pressure on the organization to make a godfather offer to the Spurs that they believed would increase their chances of signing LeBron. A rumored reluctance to part with Brandon Ingram, along with the subsequent free agent deals the Lakers have made, seem to suggest that the team is following the same hardball negotiating tactics that they did with Paul George and Indiana a summer ago: daring the Spurs to trade Leonard’s expiring deal somewhere else in hopes that they can simply sign him for free next summer. Combine that with the Spurs’ rumored predisposition towards not helping the Lakers add a superstar (that is logically only strengthened by James’ pre-existing presence on the roster, which means sending Leonard to the Lakers essentially builds another Western Conference superteam), and the supposed leader in the Kawhi race may not be in front any more.

If the Lakers are indeed out, then that would make the Clippers’ primary competitors for Leonard Boston and Philadelphia, and while it’s no sure thing that the Clippers can make the best offer of that group (in fact, both the Celtics and Sixers have the assets to put together far superior offers, but are unlikely to part with their most treasured young players), they can definitely be competitive. It’s unclear what Boston’s final offer for Kawhi would be, but if the Celtics are uneasy about re-signing him next summer, it’s safe to believe reports that they’re unwilling to part with either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, omissions that render whatever offer they drum up noncompetitive.

The Sixers have reportedly offered a deal centered around Robert Covington and Dario Saric—that’s a framework that the Clippers can compete with. Saric is a very good player, and three years younger than Tobias Harris, but Tobias has pretty clearly demonstrated that he’s the higher-caliber player right now. On top of that, the four years and $47 million remaining on Covington’s contract subtract value from Philly’s package, despite him having some utility as a player. The Clippers can put expiring contracts around Tobias that serve the opposite function of Covington, relieving San Antonio of Pau Gasol and/or Patty Mills’ negative contract(s) while providing the Spurs with serviceable veterans for 2018-19 who will turn into massive cap space next summer. The Sixers may have improved their flexibility on that front with a separate trade today to acquire Wilson Chandler. Chandler’s $12.8 million expiring contract is eligible to be aggregated with other salaries and re-traded immediately, so the Sixers could hypothetically offer the Spurs a choice between Covington’s youth and long-term security, or the cap flexibility and veteran presence of Chandler. NBA.com’s David Aldridge reports that the Sixers are unlikely to re-package Chandler, but let’s be honest—if the Spurs say they’re dealing Kawhi to the Clippers unless Philly is willing to replace Covington with Chandler, we all know that the Sixers would be foolish to hold out.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that Shams’ report clearly opens the door for dark horse candidates to come and make a play for Kawhi. While there’s a ton of risk associated for teams outside of L.A. given Leonard’s stated preference to come to Southern California, the Lakers being out of the running for Kawhi’s services in free agency next summer would significantly increase the odds that another team could re-sign him if they are able to impress in a one-year tryout.