By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Celtics tried their hardest to pry Kawhi Leonard away from the San Antonio Spurs at the 2018 NBA Trade Deadline.
That was back when the Spurs had hope that their relationship with Leonard was salvageable. Before Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich wanted Leonard to just ‘stay away’ from the team. Before Leonard felt betrayed by the Spurs and lost trust in the way they were handling his quad injury. And, ultimately, before Leonard officially demanded a trade out of San Antonio.
Time flies when you’re miserable and not playing.
And while the Celts have emerged as the odds-on favorite to land Leonard, those details since the deadline non-deal are scary.
In other words, I’m out on Leonard coming to the Celtics.
Let’s go beyond the fact that Leonard, limited due to that aforementioned quad injury, played in just nine games last season.
…But if we want to get downright petrified about this, I would advise you to please realize that Guerschon Yabusele spent more minutes on an NBA court than Leonard did this past season (Yabu totaled 235 minutes while Leonard played 210). In defense of Leonard being a better player than Yabu (the jury’s still out), it’s worth noting that Leonard was considerably effective in that nine-game sample last season. The 26-year-old averaged 16.2 points per game and shot 46.8 percent from the field… but that is a lot of time away from game action. Especially when you look through his game log and realize that his last game was all the way back on Jan. 13, when he contributed 19 points and had a season-high in rebounds (8), assists (4), and steals (4) in a 28:26 of a 112-80 win over the Denver Nuggets. Some nine months ago by the time the 2018 NBA season begins.
If Leonard’s quad injury is indeed as serious as he would have led you to believe, that’s another make-or-break All-Star kind of talent to add to a 2018-19 C’s squad already hoping for successful rebounds for both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.
That’s if Irving and/or Hayward would still find themselves in Boston after a Leonard-to-Boston trade, mind you.
That brings us to the next point: This player is going to require a haul that is simply not worth the price.
Barring some sort of other complicated series of moves, the hypothetical deals out there have involved one of Irving or Hayward making their way to San Antonio as part of the asking price for the two-time All-NBA First Team Leonard.
Hayward is maybe the only player on the Boston roster that Celtics president Danny Ainge cannot trade. He’s untouchable. That’s not because Hayward is this transcendent talent, but rather the fact that he’s five minutes into a max contract that took him out of Utah, where he had made a name for himself and was the centerpiece of that franchise’s plans. Saying to hell with that and trading him a year — and a horrific leg injury — into that contract is the equivalent of burning any bridge of trust with any potential star free agent or trade piece for years to come. Ainge is a madman, we know, but he’s not into self-destruction.
That makes moving Irving, who can (and will) opt out of his contract next summer, the more likely choice. But even that feels like a stretch. While Irving has admitted that he will not re-sign with the Celtics right now, you don’t get the impression that it’s because he doesn’t like it here. Irving himself came out and said that ‘financially’ it just doesn’t make sense. That’s because he can make about $80 million more (from the Celtics) next summer. Like Irving, Leonard holds a player option next summer, and much like it Irving, it seems absurd to expect Leonard to do anything except opt out.
Now, even if Irving is on the fence about staying in Boston on a new long-term deal, I’m infinitely more comfortable with Irving Uncertainty than I am Leonard Uncertainty.
How could you be anything but?
Not only has Irving proven himself to be a fit within Brad Stevens’ system, but this is a player that presents fits for the opposition in a guard-dominated NBA. Klay Thompson outright admitted that he was happy that the Warriors were not going against Kyrie in the fourth installment of the Cavaliers-Warrior Finals showdown earlier this month. You can love wings, but if the Celts are coming out of the East and truly competing with the West next year, it’s with Irving as their starting point guard.
Oh, and given the fact that you’re dealing with Popovich and the Spurs, too, there’s no way that you can escape this trade without parting with one of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. They aren’t biting on some nonsensical package built around the playoff prowess of Terry Rozier. And Brown is emerging as a legitimate two-way threat and has years of team control still on the books while Tatum is a 20-year-old stud that even LeBron James think is built for stardom in this league. If I’m moving either one of those players, it’s for somebody that I know I can bank on being a) healthy and b) here for the long haul.
You don’t get either one of those assurances with Leonard coming to the Celtics.
You don’t even know if Leonard would like it here.
That may be the most damning point of all in this. Leonard did not get along with Popovich, and basically wanted Popovich to change his entire operation to appease him. Stevens has been considered the league’s second-best coach behind Popovich, and it’s obvious that Stevens has looked towards Popovich as an unofficial mentor of sorts. Stevens is a lot more Pop than he is Coach-X, Y, and Z, and expecting Leonard to suddenly love his situation in Boston seems like wishful thinking.
And Leonard, a California native, has a reported interest in joining the Lakers. This means that Leonard could essentially dominate, be a model citizen, and everything in between and still bolt to the Lakers. Given the aforementioned cost to acquire Leonard, that would be downright criminal for the C’s to have shortened their championship window for such an obvious end.
The counterpoint, of course, is a simple one: Leonard is an incredible talent. This guy was the NBA Finals MVP when the Spurs won it all in 2014, and he’s a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He’s the kind of player that fits into the Celtics’ wing-loving ways, and he could truly be the key for the Green to be the team that finally stops Golden State’s incredible run.
But with confirmed red flags galore, the one-year promise of Leonard seems like a hard pass.
Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.