Kawhi Leonard has a reputation around the NBA as a quiet, reserved superstar. Oh, he’s also known as one of, maybe, 4 people on planet Earth capable of defending LeBron James. Leonard enjoyed a meteoric rise to superstardom after being drafted by the San Antonio Spurs with the 15th pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. His rise was due in part to his Bill Russell Award-winning performance in the 2014 NBA Finals, where Leonard poured in 17.8 points per Game all while being the primary defender on a LeBron James at the absolute peak of LeBron’s powers.
Since making himself a household name with his championship heroics, Kawhi has earned two All-Star appearances, two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and two All-NBA First Team Awards. In that time he has also become an elite scoring threat, averaging 25.5 points a game to lead the San Antonio Spurs to a 61-21 record in an unforgiving Western Conference that featured now two-time NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant in his first year on a Warriors team that had won 73 games the year before. While the show Leonard put on in the 2016-2017 season was overshadowed in the Western Conference standings by the Warriors, and the MVP voting by a triple-double averaging Russell Westbrook, there was no longer any question Kawhi Leonard was a superstar.
Then it all went wrong. A seemingly minor thigh injury in the preseason, spiraled into a year long drama for the famously stable and successful Spurs. Involved with the real-life drama was, among other things, rumor of a rift between Kawhi and the Spurs medical staff, passionate players-only meetings where Spurs players reportedly pleaded with Kawhi to play, and most importantly, a year of “Will he or won’t he” that would put even the most twisting Derrick Rose injury saga to shame. Leonard would only play 9 games for the Spurs last season, despite reports he had been cleared by the Spurs medical staff to play in games. It was reported Leonard simply did not trust their judgement that he was ready to play and refused to return to the court.
Leonard’s absence and the ensuing drama made the Spurs a team that barely made the playoffs, and were quickly dispatched by the Warriors in five games in the first round. And now most recently, Yahoo Sport’s Shams Charania dropped this bombshell:
Leonard has grown uncomfortable with the Spurs and is ready for move, league sources tell Yahoo. https://t.co/uTux1nZYHV
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 15, 2018
That piece of news made every NBA fan’s ears perk up and envision a scenario where the 2017 MVP Second Runner Up could come to their team. Bulls fans speculation would then be fueled by a comment by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst stating “The Chicago Bulls definitely have a trade package to put together for Kawhi Leonard.”
While the exact meaning behind his statement is unclear as to whether he is stating the Bulls intend to put together a package for Kawhi Leonard or simply have the pieces to do so, it is still something that is worth examining for the Bulls.
The first question in every Bulls fans mind is “what would a package for Kawhi look like”, secondly “Would Lauri Markkanen have to be involved” and finally “imagine what having a player like that on the Bulls would be like”. While none of these questions may be answered simply, there is enough precedent in the league of disgruntled superstars forcing trades to more desirable situations to make an educated guess on all of the questions stated above.
The first question is easily the most important, what would Kawhi Leonard cost the Bulls to acquire? In short, the answer is highly dependent on another question which is “Would he come with a contract extension” The odds of that are low, given Leonard has two years, with a player option on the second year, remaining on his current deal and likely wouldn’t be interested in trapping himself in a potentially undesirable situation for the next six years. So with the likelihood of him being a sure member of the team beyond next season low, Leonard likely controls his fate due to his ability to refuse to commit anywhere long term unless it’s the place he really wants to go, which ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported is currently his hometown Los Angeles. Potential concerns about the injury and the bizarre saga are also something to consider when looking at his trade value.
The fact that Leonard would likely come without an extension and the heightened existence of injury concerns from last year, severely limit what the Bulls would offer for him. It’s safe to immediately take Markkanen off the table once an extension is shot down. This leaves the Bulls two more elite ceiling players to offer (Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn) and two more players who’s ceilings may be lower but still showed flashes last year of being above-average NBA players (Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis) as well as the 7th and 22nd overall picks in the upcoming draft. Between those six assets, is there a package that could pry an unhappy Leonard from San Antonio? Absolutely. A package would likely include one piece from each category listed above (Elite Ceiling, good ceiling, first round pick) as well as perhaps another piece of minor compensation or perhaps throw in players that are included for salary reasons.
So to put it in perspective, you’re likely going to see a package that looks like: Zach LaVine, Denzel Valentine, and the 22nd overall pick for Kawhi Leonard. While that package for a player of his caliber is fairly easy to stomach, the Spurs may insist that the pick be number seven, and the Bulls likely turn that down fairly quickly. So whether a package the Bulls feel comfortable offering matches what the Spurs may want or could get from another team is hard to say. But should the Bulls pry Leonard for a comfortable price, his fit with the remaining pieces would be special.
In this scenario the Bulls retain Lauri Markkanen, as well as Kris Dunn and the seventh overall pick. All of the sudden you have a player reminiscent of a young Dirk Nowitzki, playing alongside a proven superstar in Leonard, and the 7th overall pick that will be a selection from a group of tantalizing prospects the Bulls will have available to them with the seventh pick. You also have a point guard that flashed superstar potential at times during his first season in Chicago. On paper, assuming health and continued development (best case scenario) that’s a championship core for the next 4-5 years with Leonard starring in the middle of it.
While it would still be up to GarPax to assemble a group of talent around the new core through the draft and free agency, there is no question the acquisition of Leonard would make Chicago a premier free agent destination for veterans and role players in free agency. If the right moves were made, the Bulls would be an instant contender in the East for years to come.
While it’s fun to fantasize about the Bulls magically acquiring a true superstar and accelerating the rebuild to near completion in one year, the odds of it happening are likely very low. The Bulls have not been on any lists as rumored destinations, and the price they offer would likely not beat a desperate team like the Lakers who could, and likely would, offer Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball for Leonard. But there’s no denying that should Leonard end up in Chicago, the Bulls will have violently altered the franchise for the second time in as many years, and will instantly be in the conversation as Eastern Conference Champions. It’s also possible they added a selfish player with injury problems. For now Leonard is an unknown. Greg Popovich has a history of forcing players to stay even if they’re upset such as he has done with LaMarcus Aldridge. So the odds are probably low that Leonard ends up in Chicago, but it’s fun to think about what if.
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