Latest on Kawhi to the Raptors and other Leonard trade buzz

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with Kawhi Leonard. (Darren Abate/AP)

In an otherwise slow news cycle in the NBA — hey, look: the Sacramento Kings just traded for former Sacramento Kings draft bust Ben McLemore! — the rumour mill continues to churn on the Kawhi Leonard trade front.

On Monday night, news surfaced that the Toronto Raptors were in the “driver’s seat” among the several teams believed to be in negotiations with the San Antonio Spurs. It stemmed from a brief conversation between ESPN reporter Brian Windhorst and Zach Lowe during the latest Lowe Post podcast episode in which Windhorst suggested that the Raptors were bona fide contenders for the 27-year-old former Finals MVP’s services, but would likely have to include OG Anunoby to garner the Spurs’ interest in any proposed deal.

Lowe himself confirmed the Kawhi-to-Raptors rumours held weight, then offered his own fake trade proposal of DeMar DeRozan, Pascal Siakam and at least one first-rounder.

On Tuesday, the latest comes from (are you sitting down?) ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, who teamed up for this story on Leonard considering taking part in USA Basketball’s mini-camp in Las Vegas scheduled for next week (he was one of 35 players invited back in April).

That news is noteworthy for two reasons: One, the head coach of Team USA is none other than Spurs bench boss Gregg Popovich, the man who Leonard (and his camp, led by his uncle who is also his agent) have decided the two-time defensive player of the year no longer wants to play for.

Second, if he plays, it’s an opportunity for Leonard to demonstrate he’s fully recovered (or close to it) after missing all but nine games last season to do a nagging right quad injury — the diagnosis, timelines and subsequent treatment of which is centre stage in the Spurs-Leonard divorce proceedings.

Tuesday’s ESPN report unearthed more noteworthy information on the Leonard trade front:

Leonard’s impending free agency is seriously impacting his trade value

Last week we covered the two fundamental risks involved in dealing for Leonard. The first — his short and long-term injury status — could be put to rest with his potential USA Basketball camp participation.

But the second — his upcoming free agency — remains the biggest road block in any potential Leonard deal.

Leonard’s contract expires following next season, making him one of the biggest targets in the 2019 free-agent class. With months of buzz swirling suggesting he intends to sign in Los Angeles with the Lakers, teams outside L.A. are reportedly increasingly convinced that in trading for Leonard they would be acquiring a one-year rental player, making it less and less viable to mortgage the future in any deal for the all-world talent.

In the report, the Raptors are listed along with the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trailblazers and Washington Wizards as teams who have been in talks with the Spurs thus far. Yet offers are said to be underwhelming given Leonard’s supposed future plans.

For example, Wojnarowski and Shelburne report that Portland’s trade offer didn’t include either Damian Lillard nor C.J. McCollum, the team’s only all-star calibre talent.

How much are teams willing to give up for a rental player, even if that player is a top-five talent and arguably the NBA’s best two-way force? Not all that much, it turns out.

The original front-runners are, for now, out of the race

When it became clear Leonard and the Spurs had reached a breaking point in their relationship, and Leonard’s camp suggested he won’t step in the San Antonio locker room again, three teams were front-and-centre in early trade rumours. All three teams had the combination of valuable assets to leverage in a trade, and a path to title contention that could entice Leonard to re-sign with them next summer.

The Los Angeles Lakers were the front-runners, given they are said to be Leonard’s destination of choice. But the Spurs asking price — reported to be Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and multiple picks (or: all of their assets) — was too high and the Lakers seem content to see how their talented young nucleus responds to playing alongside LeBron James next season.

In the East, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers were popular landing spots, however the ESPN report details that neither team was willing to include their best players in a package for Leonard, given the aforementioned risks and the bright futures their clubs already have in store.

Boston reportedly is unwilling to include five key players — Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford — while the Sixers won’t offer any of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons or 2017 first-overall pick Markelle Fultz.

San Antonio is playing hardball

The Spurs reportedly won’t allow opposing teams to contact Leonard directly and won’t divulge any medical reports until after an agreement is already in place, leaving all of the question marks surrounding their superstar firmly in place.

What’s more, the Spurs aren’t willing to take a discount for Leonard — at least not yet.

For their part, general manager R.C. Buford and the San Antonio front office appear to be unaffected by a seemingly dwindling trade market.

“If the Spurs are losing deal leverage,” Wojnarowski and Shelburne write, “they aren’t operating in a manner that suggests they’re peddling a depreciating asset. San Antonio has been determined in demanding a sizable return on Leonard.”

What would make for a “sizeable return” in the eyes of the Spurs, you ask? The team continues to be asking for an all-star-level player, an elite-level prospect, as well as multiple draft picks in return for Leonard. In a vacuum, that would be well worth it, but as the scenario continues to unfold the obvious risks of giving up that much can be hazardous.

As was originally reported by Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post, any offer San Antonio would entertain from the Raptors would likely have to include one of DeRozan or Kyle Lowry, along with one or two young players like Siakam, Anunoby, Delon Wright and Jakob Poeltl, as well as future draft picks.

Stay tuned.

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