When an almost-27-year-old MVP candidate becomes available, the entire league takes notice. Most teams picking in the top 10 in Thursday's draft, if not all of them, have at least contacted the San Antonio Spurs about Kawhi Leonard and asked, essentially, "Keep us in the loop." Teams outside the top 10, including the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers, have done the same.
In theory, almost no team should pony up its best assets for a player who could bolt in a year without a nearly ironclad assurance he will re-sign. With Leonard, obtaining such assurance may not even be possible. No one knows whether they can trust the word of the advisors around him. There are deep suspicions that Leonard has already decided he wants to play for the Lakers.
Even so, teams will look hard. Leonard is a bona fide top-five player. He finished second in MVP voting in 2016, and third in 2017. Teams can go decades without acquiring a player that good.
Still: Unless Leonard signals a willingness to consider staying with rebuilding teams beyond L.A., they won't trade their best stuff for Leonard. The Suns and Kings can't afford the risk of flipping the No. 1 or No. 2 pick, respectively. Why would the Hawks deal, say, the No. 3 pick, John Collins and Taurean Prince -- gutting their team -- for Leonard, even if they saw some glimmer of hope he might stay? The Knicks might be tempted, but they almost surely won't include Kristaps Porzingis in any Leonard talks.
The Spurs haven't given up hope of reconciling with Leonard, league sources say, though it is unclear if the ballyhooed Gregg Popovich-Leonard summit in San Diego defused the tension. They still have the five-year, $219 super-max offer in the bag. They are projecting patience in preliminary talks.
Even so, the draft has a way of accelerating trade activity; if the Spurs receive an offer Thursday that meets their objectives, they should consider it. But there may not be enough time before then for any team to gain permission to speak with Leonard's camp -- or for the Spurs to arrive at a place where they would even entertain that question.
Pushing into July would help one of the rare suitors that can send out meaningful assets for Leonard and maintain a great team around him: Boston. Right now, the Celtics can't make any palatable offer that doesn't include one of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward or Al Horford. (They could in theory flip Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye and picks today, but that five-for-one monstrosity would raise roster limit complications. Leonard would also have to waive his trade kicker.)
July brings the possibility of signing-and-trading Marcus Smart, and acquiring Leonard without losing either Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. (Tatum is untouchable, regardless.) That may end up being Boston's approach: Attach the motherlode of picks -- that includes Sacramento's pick next season, provided it does not land at No. 1, along with future picks from Memphis and the Clippers -- to a package of Smart, Rozier, Yabusele (for his salary) and Morris, then dare the Spurs to do better. (The salary cap math on that barely works, and requires Leonard to waive some or all of his trade kicker. Smart would have to cooperate along several steps.)
It might sound ridiculous, but Boston will be wary including Brown, even if they get to speak with Leonard about re-signing. The Celtics are set up to contend for at least 10 years. The Irving/Hayward/Horford trio should carry them now. Brown and Tatum take over later.
Flipping Brown for Leonard tilts Boston more toward the present, and chips away at what looks like a bright future stretching well beyond 2025. To maintain that present-future balance, it makes more sense to use Hayward or Irving as the centerpiece of any Leonard trade. Boston does not appear inclined to go that route -- at least not now. If the Spurs deal Leonard, they should enter full rebuild mode and chase picks and younger players, anyway. (Also: A Boston defense featuring Brown, Leonard and Horford is one spicy meatball.)
Swapping Brown (and lots of other stuff) for Leonard would leave Boston with four players earning fat max contracts, including three -- Horford, Irving and Leonard -- who can negotiate fatter ones in 2019. If four such deals prove too much to bear, Boston might have to sell low on one. Meanwhile, Brown isn't eligible for a new deal until 2020-21, and his maximum salary starts at least $5-6 million below those of Hayward and Irving.
There's also this: What if Brown is on a path to becoming the next Kawhi Leonard?
There are striking statistical and stylistic similarities between Brown and the Leonard of 2012 and 2013. Like Leonard then, Brown already profiles as an elite multi-positional wing defender.
By the end of their second seasons, both had shattered developmental curves on offense. Remember: The Spurs hoped Leonard might turn into Bruce Bowen, only they weren't sure he would ever shoot well enough to even become that. "Our expectations weren't necessarily for him to be a 3-and-D guy," R.C. Buford, their GM, told me in the summer of 2013. "His track record didn't lead you to believe he could extend out to the 3-point line." Leonard remarked in that same summer that perhaps the Spurs might call some plays for him in 2013-14.
That was Leonard's third season, the year he won the Finals MVP, and even then, he ran about only six pick-and-rolls per game, according to Second Spectrum tracking data. The idea of Leonard as a No. 1 ball-handling option deadly enough to crack the MVP race seemed farfetched, even within the Spurs.
In his just-concluded second season, Brown used about five ball screens per game.
Both proved almost immediately they could bully smaller guards in the post. Both obliterated expectations as spot-up shooters by the end of their second seasons; Brown is ahead of where Leonard was.
More than two-thirds of Leonard's 3-point attempts in his second season came from the corners; he hit 43 percent of those, but just 13-of-53 non-corner 3s. Brown has hit almost exactly 43 from the corners for his career, but he's much more accomplished on above-the-break 3s than young Kawhi; Brown hit a very solid 69-of-184 (37.5 percent) on those longer 3s last season. He hit them over decent contests, and out of the pick-and-roll:
Playmaking was and is the final frontier for each. Brown averaged just 1.6 assists per game last season, and dished dimes on only 8.5 percent of Boston's possessions -- low even for a second/third-option wing type. Leonard in his second season: 1.6 assists per game, 7.7 percent assist rate. (Those numbers jumped in Year 3, but only a little: two dimes per game, 10.4 percent assist rate.)
They didn't start out as natural quick-thinking pick-and-roll players. They were (and are) physical drivers who like to burrow into defenders until they reach a comfort zone, and then rise up. That can work, but it is not the sort of slicing action that draws help and unlocks kickout passes; defenses can almost stay home in five-on-five mode:
Leonard grew into a decent passer starting in 2016 -- not even close to a great one, but good enough for a team to run a functional offense through him. He showed hints of something more in the 2017 playoffs, but then Zaza, and then sadness.
Whether Brown can make similar progress is by far the biggest question about him -- one the Celtics are surely trying to answer now. He has a tendency to get a little single-minded and reckless around the basket, hoisting up wild shots instead of making easy passes -- like the one to the corner staring Brown in the face before Joel Embiid swallows him:
He sometimes holds the ball a beat too long, so that help defenders are already rotating back when he releases a pass:
He misses cutters here and there. He appears to sometimes see them a second late, when the defense is already closing windows. On other trips, he doesn't seem to have the confidence to try thread-the-needle passes. Adventures in nuanced pick-and-roll play can end in miscommunication and sad-trombone comedy:
Some of his floaters are awkward -- launched almost from the foul line, released on the way down.
Young Leonard was cagier than current Brown at navigating crowds with a live dribble. (Ginormous hands helped him develop a tighter handle.) He was calmer, more under control, better at stopping and pivoting into floaters and short jumpers. He could already stop on a dime, and pogo-stick straight up into clear airspace as defenders fell away. Brown doesn't have the same balance; he often flicks up shots with his body flying sideways, or toward the rim. He has been more turnover prone than Leonard.
Brown shot 37 percent on 2-pointers outside the restricted area; Leonard was about 45 percent in his second season, and drained a Nowitzkian 51 percent of his long 2s in Year 3. Leonard was (and is) a much more accurate free throw shooter.
It takes young guys a long time to read the game in motion, and Brown is already making strides. He's learning to change pace, keep defenders on his hip, and trick defenses:
The results are scattershot, but Brown will improve with reps:
He is starting to hit the brakes, Leonard-style, and hop into clean, controlled midrange looks instead of careening toward the rim:
He has a nice crossover, a nascent Eurostep, and a softening left hand:
Brown isn't ponderous off the catch -- a good sign. As soon as he sees Khris Middleton duck that first screen, Brown changes direction, knowing he can dust Middleton the other way.
A 21-year-old finishing that baby over Rudy Gobert, with his off-hand? Sheesh, as the kids say.
Brown is a monster athlete, but his explosiveness doesn't translate into games as much as it should. That will change as he hones his feel and his jumper. Skills are not discrete things. They interact. One skill amplifies or diminishes another. As Brown becomes more confident and anticipatory with the ball, his athleticism will sing louder. He will gain separation more easily.
Brown is not Leonard now, and might never be. Skeptics wonder if his 3-point shooting uptick will sustain. Kevin Pelton's SCHOENE scores peg Leonard and Brown as only mildly similar through two seasons. Leonard in 2012-13 was already swiping steals at alarming rates, snaring more rebounds than Brown, and posting better advanced numbers. He is more physically imposing, enveloping victims with a crazy 7-3 wingspan (compared to seven-feet flat for Brown) and those frying pans with fingers. He is the best perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen.
To be an MVP candidate with average passing skills in the pace-and-space era, a perimeter player has to be off-the-charts fantastic at every other part of the game -- not just good, or even very good. Leonard got there.
Leonard's developmental curve was unusual. Players don't grow from where he was in his first two seasons into MVP candidates. To expect the same from Brown is unreasonable.
But sometimes smart, tenacious and skilled players defy reasonable. Leonard did. Brown might. His jump from Year 1 to Year 2 was jarring. The Celtics aren't ready to put a ceiling on him, and they shouldn't be. He may never crack the top five in MVP voting, but it is not a stretch to imagine Brown making an All-NBA team and busting into some of those lofty "two-way player" conversations.
Most executives around the league consider it a no-brainer for Boston to toss Brown into any Leonard trade, provided the Celtics get the requisite assurances about Leonard's health and willingness to re-sign. It's not -- not given Brown's youth, salary and potential to grow into something like 90 percent of prime Leonard.
But that last 10 percent is why you probably do it. It is the 10 percent that separates the very best players. It wins championships. Every one of those 10 percentage points is exponentially harder to find than the one below it.
Boston has put itself in such a good position that it can deal future for present and still feel good about the future. A healthy Leonard will be a superstar for at least the next five seasons. Tatum will be one soon. They'd still have extra picks, and maybe that is the bright line in the end if trade talks with the Spurs advance: If you get Brown and Rozier, you don't get that Sacramento gem -- and perhaps not the Memphis one, either. (Boston could move Rozier for some very nice things now, but they need his salary -- or some replacement salary -- to make most Leonard deals work.)
Adding a fourth max salary would make for a painful luxury tax bill in 2019-20, but Brown and then Tatum are on pace to create the same problem starting only a year later. Maybe Horford would take a discount on annual salary to lock in a long-term deal. Worst case, you trade one of the big-money veterans for whatever you can get.
If everything lines up right -- and only then -- Leonard is good enough, and still young enough, that you probably hold your nose and deal Brown in exchange. If anything about Leonard feels off or unknowable, Boston can sit tight and feel fine. Brown is that intriguing.