April 05, 2018
Philadelphia's chase of another star player has been one of the worst-kept secrets in sports over the last year. Every move they've made, including the decision to decline of Jahlil Okafor's option and the one-year, big money deals for JJ Redick and Amir Johnson have been with the future in mind. There is a two-year window for the Sixers to leverage their cap space to add the final piece of the puzzle, and they intend to take advantage of it.
But most discussion of the subject has been on the free agents available in the summer of 2018, with a particularly large focus on LeBron James. James' ties to Sixers star rookie Ben Simmons are clear as day, and Philadelphia's front office would leap at the chance to sign him this summer. Other big names on the market, like Oklahoma City's Paul George, will draw interest from the Sixers' braintrust when free agency opens later this year.
There are alternative ways to skin the proverbial cat, however, and there may be a name on the market nobody expected to become available this soon.
Usually the picture of stoicism and success, the San Antonio Spurs have dealt with the weirdest saga outside of the Markelle Fultz situation this season. Kawhi Leonard, one of the league's 5-10 best players and firmly in his prime at age 26, has missed the majority of the season with ongoing issues in his right quad. More importantly, there is a reported divide between San Antonio's star and the franchise, with Leonard rehabbing and working out away from the team in New York.
"I don't know when he's going to feel, he and his group are going to feel like they're ready to go," Gregg Popovich told reporters on April 1. "If I knew, he'd be here. When he and his group feel he's ready, he'll be ready."
His lingering absence and the allusion to outside figures influencing him has prompted more reporting, including the suggestion from ESPN's Brian Windhorst that teams will be calling the Spurs this offseason to inquire about his value.
Wouldn't you be interested in acquiring one of the three best players in basketball? That's an oversimplification of the argument, but in his last healthy season in 2016-17, Leonard was a leading MVP candidate and almost assuredly the best two-way player in basketball.
This is a fact that was not lost on people around the league or in Philadelphia. In private conversations about the MVP race last season — eventually won by Russell Westbrook — several higher-ups in the Sixers organization offered that their fictional votes would have gone to Leonard. There is an almost universal admiration for his game in Philadelphia, informed by both personal experience and broader preferences for an organization in the midst of building their own elite defense.
Leonard has long been one of the league's best individual defenders on the wing, a long, hyper-athletic stopper that consistently takes on the toughest perimeter matchup on a given night. While some of his star peers around the league will hide off-ball on defense to conserve energy for the offensive attack, Leonard consistently takes the challenge of shutting down an opponent's best player — as much as one can in a switch-heavy league, anyway.
Assuming both would remain following his theoretical acquisition, a three-man combination of Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, and Kawhi Leonard on defense would be a nightmare for opposing teams. Combine that athleticism and switchability with Joel Embiid anchoring the backline, and the Sixers would quite easily become the scariest defensive team in the league.
On the offensive side of the ball, Leonard is just as, if not more valuable to his theoretical Sixers teammates. Closer to a traditional power forward coming out of college, Leonard has transformed himself into one of the league's best catch-and-shoot players in the league during his time in San Antonio. Nearly one fifth of all his shots came on catch-and-shoot threes during the 2016-17 season, and Leonard knocked down 43 percent of them en route to the best scoring season he has had as a professional.
Coming from Popovich's system in San Antonio, Leonard would fit like a glove in the motion offense run by Brett Brown. There would be minimal adaptation required and little lingo to learn, so Leonard would have a much smaller adjustment window than the average star player joining a new team. Brown has never hidden his affinity for Leonard, and he lauded the Spurs' star during San Antonio's visit to Philadelphia last season.
"Kawhi Leonard is one of those unique players that we're seeing grow before all of our eyes. He has gone from something that was just gifted physically and then you saw the emergence of – he might be the best two-way player in the NBA," said Brown.
Leonard is just about the perfect player to throw into Brown's system and his philosophical ideal of what an NBA wing should be in 2018. He can break you down in the halfcourt, get stops on the defensive end, and tear down the court in transition when the moment calls for it. Leonard is capable of shouldering a heavy load on the offensive end — his usage rate soared over 31 percent in 2016-17 — but he is unselfish enough to play within the confines of a ball-sharing offense and do the hard work away from the ball.
A Sixers team built around Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Leonard would instantly become a favorite in the Eastern Conference, and his age would allow them to compete right away while also not feeling as though their championship window would only be open for a few years, as it might with an older free agent signing.
It seems cruel to "The Homie" that he is always the first man up in fake trade talks, but it says more about his leaguewide value than it does about how the organization feels about him. Quietly, Saric has become one of the more valuable young trade chips in the league thanks to a breakout season as a three-point shooter.
We discussed Leonard's catch-and-shoot ability above, and that's the area where Saric has made the most visible strides during the 2017-18 season. Over 45 percent of his total shot attempts have come on catch-and-shoot threes this season, and he has connected on 41.6 percent of those shots, taking and making them at an elite level. His emergence as a three-point shooter this season has been key to making the league's best five-man unit work.
This is not to say Saric is Leonard as a shooter, because the shot variety is nowhere near as diverse. Leonard is capable of coming screaming around screens, shooting off the dribble, and doing things as a shooter Saric generally isn't. A high percentage of those catch-and-shoot threes are Saric popping out to the perimeter after setting a screen:
But Saric fits the mold of the sort of player the Spurs — and smart organizations in general, really — tend to covet. He's a high IQ, highly-skilled player who can shift in and out of different roles on offense depending on the situation. Popovich loves having shooters and passers at as many positions as possible, and Saric's passing from the four spot would allow him to replicate some of the success he had when Boris Diaw played there during San Antonio's most recent title run.
Also critical for San Antonio: Saric remains under team control for what is likely to be another six seasons. He's only in the second year of a rookie-scale contract, with restricted free agency likely to follow after the 2019-20 season.
If we were having this conversation last June, Markelle Fultz would have probably been the first player you'd bring up in constructing theoretical trades for stars. Viewed as one of the most polished offensive guard prospects we've seen in some time, the 19-year-old would have been a slam-dunk headliner for any team hitting the reset button by sending a star packing.
But what is his value today, as we look at the market in early April? That's anyone's guess. Because he's so young and because so many teams are in the dark on what was actually going on with Fultz during his long layoff, his value around the league could be almost anywhere on the spectrum.
Assuming he's not presently untradable due to leaguewide uncertainty, Fultz is almost exactly what teams look for when they trade proven vets for young talent. He's potentially an elite-level shot creator for himself and others, and like Saric, is a high-skill player at an extremely young age. Though San Antonio theoretically already has their point guard of the future in Dejounte Murray, both players are long and athletic enough that they can trade off assignments between the one and two spots on a given night.
Fultz's shooting concerns are going to be present no matter where he goes, but in San Antonio they might be able to mitigate them more than they could elsewhere. San Antonio's shooting coach Chip Engelland has a sterling reputation around the league, and as he helped do with Leonard, Engelland has turned non-shooters into good shooters and good shooters into elite shooters. He has even minimized the impact a bad shooter can have on an offense — a great Grantland feature on Engelland once detailed how he convinced Tony Parker to just shoot less from outside, and an increased focus on two-point success powered his rise to the top of the game.
Given their initial investment in Fultz, trading him away this soon would be an insanely tough call for Philadelphia's front office, and they would need assurances from Leonard regarding both his health and his willingness to sign with the Sixers long-term. Leonard has a player option in his contract following the 2018-19 season, which he will almost certainly decline in order to get a hefty raise on his next deal.
Dealing two talented young players under team control for as long and Fultz and Saric are would be almost impossible to do without some promises on future commitment. Even if it's Leonard agreeing to opt-in for the 2019-20 portion of his contract — which is very unlikely — some hush-hush deals would probably need to be made.
Haven't thought about this guy in a while, have you?
That's because the writing is on the wall for Bayless' time in Philadelphia. He has been relegated to towel-waiving duties now that the Sixers have Marco Belinelli to fill the bench shooter role, and that shouldn't be expected to change moving forward.
Where he is useful, however, is helping the Sixers to match salaries for trade purposes, and that's part of the reason the Sixers had no interest in outright cutting him, as a lot of fans would have liked to do after the deadline passed. Many of Philadelphia's most tradable players are on small salaries for the time being, so the money on Bayless' deal helps make up the difference in an exchange.
Unfortunately, having that $9 million on the books for another season also serves as a tax for any team dealing with the Sixers, and would probably spice up the draft compensation the Sixers would need to attach in order to get a deal done. Thankfully, the Sixers are still pretty flush with draft assets for the time being. San Antonio would most likely have their eyes on the Lakers pick the Sixers are likely to own this year, a chip the team would like to hold onto but, in my opinion, ultimately pay if it meant acquiring another legitimate star.
Though the Sixers are built around two players who are only 24 and 21 years old, there is a case to be made that their title window might be shorter than other teams who have thrived while built around young stars. Embiid's health complications add a layer of permanent uncertainty to their process of team-building, and the Sixers are keenly aware he is the rock upon which their foundation rests.
Along with the knowledge that their bushel of cap space will quickly disappear after extensions kick in over the next couple seasons, this is why obtaining another star is such a priority for Philadelphia, beyond the obvious logic of obtaining as many good players that they can.
Everyone would like to believe Embiid will be a healthy and productive star for the foreseeable future, but promising teams built around young big men have disintegrated quickly before. The 1986 Rockets interrupted the Lakers' dynasty and looked well on their way to owning the next decade, built around the combined talents of Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon. But an injury halfway through the next season prompted the Rockets to trade Sampson to Golden State, and they would not compete at a high level again until Olajuwon led the franchise to titles during Michael Jordan's baseball sabbatical in the mid-90's.
Unlike with LeBron (who turns 34 next season), obtaining Leonard would theoretically allow the Sixers to compete now and in the future. An extension in 2019 would see him play the duration of his prime in Philadelphia, and set him up to resign with the team again in his early 30's should both parties be interested. That would give the Sixers an elite player in his prime as Embiid and Simmons come of age over the next couple seasons while allowing him to sink into a sub-star role as he transitions into his early-mid 30's during their respective peaks.
There would certainly be an incentive for the Sixers to ramp up their efforts to compete with Leonard in the fold, but the same sense of urgency dictated by LeBron's arrival would not exist. That fact comes with a cost, of course: LeBron would join this team at the cost of nothing more than your cap space, while Leonard would only arrive if you were interested in sacrificing valuable young talent to obtain him.
Still, opportunities to obtain an elite two-way player who fits perfectly within your team structure do not come around very often. Assuming the medical reports get the green light from people you trust to take care of such matters, obtaining a legitimate superstar to round out your group is trade you make any day of the week.
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