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Why the Kawhi Leonard soap opera in San Antonio looms large over Phoenix this summer

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After backing out of a deal for Kyrie Irving last summer, are the Suns ready to finally move all-in for the next superstar possibly hitting the trade market?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

As we reach the finish line of this roller coaster season for the Phoenix Suns, it turns out more stamina is needed because this offseason will make this a year-long marathon.

Being one of only six teams currently with cap space, alongside being one of very few teams with the flexibility and asset capital, Phoenix is set up to go a bevy of different directions between now and August.

However, the biggest domino this summer is nestled in the confines of San Antonio, but persistent drama has been swirling there all season long around their newest face of the franchise after David Robinson and Tim Duncan. That’s a foreign sentence to write because that honestly has never occurred before there.

Yes, LaMarcus Aldridge quietly asked out this time a year ago with his own frustrations, but head coach Gregg Popovich was able to quickly squash that into a long-term extension.

I don’t know if that has the same possibilities this time around with Kawhi Leonard, because this is a story filled with different perspectives and “he said, she said” types of ideas. It seems that Leonard’s quadriceps injury was misdiagnosed, causing him to lose a lot of trust around the Spurs’ organization.

Currently, Leonard is in New York rehabbing his quad under the guidance of NBPA (NBA Players Association, including his own staff of doctors according to reports). And he still went back to the east coast even after his teammates pleaded with him to return for this final stretch heading into the playoffs.

Whether the relationship between Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs can be mended over the next few months or not, it’s the main topic of discussion for franchises looking to sneakily enter the sweepstakes if this takes an even darker turn soon.

On Monday, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that rival executives will inquire about the availability of Leonard this summer.

Compared to where we were less than three months ago, that’s a huge change. Not only is Leonard not on great communication terms with the Spurs right now, but he’s also hired new representation alongside re-negotiating a more lucrative deal with Jordan Brand.

This shift from Leonard signals something new on the horizon. Whether it’s requesting out this summer or having more say on the roster San Antonio puts forth around him before he signs his 5-year, supermax extension which will be on the table if he wants.

I honestly believe there is a strong possibility that Leonard has played his last game in San Antonio and forces a power play out of there, in a very similar manner to how Kyrie Irving did with Cleveland in 2017. If that idea comes to fruition, Leonard's market will be way higher than Irving could ever wish he could have last year.

Not only is Kawhi Leonard one of the best two-way players in this league, he’s been in the running for Most Valuable Player two of the last three seasons. Oh, yeah, he doesn’t even turn 27 until this summer, so you will be acquiring him in probably his athletic peak once he signs a contract somewhere.

Even though he’s only played in 9 games this season due to this fiasco surrounding his quad injury, Leonard is someone you move almost everything for if he’s given a bill of clean health by doctors.

When Kawhi was last an All-Star in 2016, he averaged 25.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block on 48.5/38/88 shooting splits. As you can see, he’s a dominant force when actually on the basketball court.

That leads me to a question I imagine people in the Suns’ front office are also pondering at the moment: If Leonard asks out, should we get involved? The easy answer to that is yes, absolutely, but at what cost?

Let’s first compare Phoenix’s situation to other franchises who are deemed most suitable fits to pursue Kawhi Leonard: Boston and Los Angeles (Lakers). Both teams have what Phoenix can offer, picks and young assets, but those pieces might be deemed more valuable in San Antonio’s situation. While the Celtics can offer a package around either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum, a litany of picks, and likely Al Horford’s contract to match salary, the Lakers could sweeten the pot themselves by offering up picks around Brandon Ingram.

If Leonard tells San Antonio farewell, do the Suns have more attractive pieces on the table than an Ingram or Tatum? On the surface, yes, and that’s what makes it intriguing from their point of view if they sign Devin Booker to his max extension this summer.

Outside of Booker himself and possibly their top pick this year, if the lottery lands them inside the top two, everything should be on the table if they want to pair them up and make a dynamic duo immediately.

With the highest odds to land the No. 1 pick right now, let's say it does convey that way. With Booker and, I assume, Deandre Ayton in the fold in that scenario, do you offer up Josh Jackson as the centerpiece around their war chest of future picks and other young players?

Honestly, if the Suns were to pursue Leonard it would take Jackson to secure him. I can’t imagine a package centered around T.J. Warren plus picks is going to cut it for San Antonio.

If something along the lines of this sort of trade happened — Leonard for Jackson, Dragan Bender, Miami pick, Milwaukee pick (2019 1st if it doesn’t convey this year), plus possibly the Miami pick in 2021 — it would not only allow the Spurs to immediately rebuild around Jackson and three picks in the top 20 (which could allow them to move up into the draft, too) but signal the end of an era there.

Meanwhile, the Suns would only be sacrificing maybe one of their own picks in the future, which might not even be needed if the Spurs are desperate to move him if it ever got to that point soon. Outside of losing Jackson and Bender, Phoenix has now reshuffled the deck for a Big 3 of Leonard, Booker, and Ayton.

Not only is that an immediate playoff contender out West, but if general manager Ryan McDonough built properly around those three in free agency, they could quietly be a surprise.

Why would either team do this? Well, if you remember, the Spurs were actually trying to dangle Aldridge to move up into the top five to nab Jackson. They have an obvious affinity for him, which could signal a preference compared to other prospects like Tatum, for example.

The big question from McDonough’s point of view, though: After saying no to Irving because of Jackson, will he do so for Leonard? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think it might be a harder choice because I’m seeing the two-way profile Jackson is crafting.

Over his last 11 games, Jackson has started to smooth out his shot more and has thrived as of late without Booker or Warren. He’s not only collecting 21.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 2 steals but his confidence is also skyrocketing in the process.

After his selection, former head coach Earl Watson actually threw out the Kawhi Leonard comparison his way. And after his strong play since January, that honestly might not be out of the question for Jackson. If he smooths over that shot, he’s going to be a consistent two-way monster.

“I think in the future, people are going to say he’s the next Josh Jackson because most defenders they are not really skilled in passing and scoring, just tough defenders,” Watson said at Jackson’s introductory press conference. “You might have a tough guy who can hit a spot-up three out of the corner, but this guy is different. He has the ability to be a great defender, impact games like Ron Artest or Kawhi Leonard defensively. He’s not afraid of challenges.”

That latter statement has held up thus far. Jackson not only has endless confidence in his shot whether it’s going that night or not, but he’s always wanting to guard the elite of the elite in this league right off the bat.

Jackson has told me before about how he measures himself against the likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and his longtime friend and mentor Draymond Green to see where he stands. After scoring 36 on Green and the Warriors, Jackson has continued to blossom in other areas outside of scoring proficiently at the rim.

In addition, the No. 4 pick in the 2017 Draft has seen his playmaking take steps forward but so has his on-court IQ. He’s realizing now how to change speeds more easily and even split double-teams out of traps.

After arriving in Phoenix with his family back in June, Jackson actually threw out a Golden State comparison with how their young roster was set up then. The Warriors’ Big 3 were all young and had to go through growing pains early on, too, so that could occur with Booker, Jackson, and (insert name here).

“Well, I thought that was one of the more special things about this team is the youth that we have, and like you mentioned, being able to grow together,” Jackson said of this roster’s potential to flip into victories soon. “I remember watching Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green when they were all young and they didn’t seem to click as well, but as time went on and they got older, they just had the best team chemistry at how I look at them.”

It’s not on the surface right now, but if that drama in San Antonio reaches a boiling point over the next few months, Phoenix will be thrown into the fray as a possible trade partner ASAP.

Sure, Jackson might become Leonard 2.0, but the actual one might be staring the Suns right in the face this summer.

Is Leonard the player McDonough finally caves in for to build an immediate contender in the Western Conference alongside Booker and its top pick? I believe if their chips fell perfectly in the lottery, this might lead them towards making a more win-now move compared to continuing to stockpile bricks on #TheTimeline’s foundation.

If things fall apart, I expect those two teams to immediately hit on some dialogue but will it fall apart in the end like the proposed three-way trade with Cleveland and Indiana that would have put Irving alongside Booker in the backcourt?

Now, it’s going to get very interesting in Phoenix this summer with the number of routes they could decide to go in for future team building, but this could vault all the way up near the top if San Antonio’s usually quiet, well-mannered two-way superstar forces his way out of The Lone Star State.

Poll

If their pick landed inside the top two and Kawhi Leonard asked for a trade, should the Suns offer up Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, 2018 picks (MIA + MIL), and the 2021 Miami pick?

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    Absolutely
    (437 votes)
  • 62%
    No, stick with this young core
    (725 votes)
1162 votes total Vote Now