It turns out that in an alternate universe, the San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard might very well have ended up being traded to the Boston Celtics rather than the Toronto Raptors. This news is somewhat surprising given that the Celtics weren’t seen as the biggest bidders for the All-Star forward’s services.
While we don’t know the full details, it’s been reported that Boston GM Danny Ainge offered the Spurs a relative bounty of first-round draft picks. During his podcast last Tuesday, ESPN’s Zach Lowe briefly discussed what he had heard as far as what Boston was willing to give up: “I think the Celtics offered most of their best draft picks. … At least two of the picks, if not all of them, that they own from other teams including the Kings, Grizzlies and Clippers, I think those were all in the deal, and the Spurs were like, ‘No, we don’t want that.'”
If true, this would have been quite a respectable offer, as it would have included next year’s potentially valuable Sacramento Kings’ first-rounder — unless it ends up being first overall — along with protected first-round picks from the Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers. Plus, as Yahoo Sports’s Dan Feldman has pointed out, NBA rules would have required the Celtics to send players to the Spurs to match Leonard’s salary, so there would have had to have been more there.
The fact that the Celtics were willing to make such an offer seems like a significant indication of how the team is approaching this upcoming season. While Ainge has a reputation of hoarding draft picks and other tradable assets, he was apparently willing to open up the cupboards for Leonard even though the soon-to-be free agent could have ended up being a single-season rental. The Celtics are officially in win-now mode, in other words.
Obviously, the deal didn’t work out. Instead, the Spurs ended up making a controversial trade that sent Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 pick. The reason for this, presumably, was that the Spurs weren’t going to make a trade without getting a quality starter in return.
That wasn’t going to happen with Boston, mostly because they are in a win-now mode. By all accounts, Boston was unwilling to give up any of its “top five” players. This presumably meant that the big names (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford) weren’t going anywhere, and — possibly more significantly as far as San Antonio was concerned — neither were Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, two young potential stars who are currently on valuable rookie contracts.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, the Spurs weren’t interested in rebuilding. Even in a normal situation, it would have been difficult for one of the most successful NBA teams of the 21st century to justify trading the player who was supposed to be Tim Duncan’s successor for future assets and role players. It would be doubly difficult for the organization to do so knowing that Gregg Popovich’s tenure as head coach was far closer to the end than the beginning. If you employ the best coach in the league, you simply can’t flirt with the idea of punting away his last few seasons with the franchise, even if winning a championship out of a brutally competitive Western Conference appears to be a rather remote possibility.
Would the Celtics have a better chance of winning a title next season if they had a healthy Kawhi Leonard on the roster in place of Jaylen Brown? Almost certainly. The Celtics, however, see Tatum and Brown as not just potential long-term contributors, in contrast to a potential flight risk in Leonard, but players who could help them win a title right now. It’s hard to blame Boston for wanting to hold on to both of them.
Would the Spurs have been better off in the long run using the Leonard trade as a chance to hit the reset button on the franchise, especially given the unlikeliness of beating the likes of the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs? Possibly. It also could have been a recipe for disaster. It was a safer move for the Spurs to find a way to remain a very good team despite losing a legitimate MVP candidate. They succeeded in that by bringing DeRozan to the mix. Not every team can, or should, have to go through the Process whenever adversity strikes.
Assuming that these most recent reports are true, both the Spurs and the Celtics had valid reasons not to give into the other’s demands. It’s irrelevant whether or not Boston’s final offer for Leonard was an objectively “better” one than Toronto’s because, ultimately, it wasn’t the right one for San Antonio. Value is always relative.