Does Suns GM Ryan McDonough finally cash in, pursue Kawhi Leonard?
The Phoenix Suns have been waiting. They’ve been waiting with draft picks and cap space since 2013 to maintain flexibility for the next star or potential star to be available on the trade market.
You know this, I know this and most of all, Suns owner Robert Sarver and general manager Ryan McDonough know this.
Every long-term commitment the Suns have made has been with the caveat of still having enough room to maneuver. Even with T.J. Warren’s extension and Brandon Knight’s immovable contract, Phoenix can still do things.
One of the things the Suns have likely kept a close eye on is one of the NBA’s most bizarre situations this decade in San Antonio.
The Spurs are the most well-run franchise in the NBA and are, uncoincidentally, the most tight-knit when it comes to anything getting out in the media.
That’s a significant pretense to what is happening with their franchise player Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard did not play in the first 27 games of the 2017-18 season due to a right quad injury. He returned in mid-December, including making one appearance against the Suns, when he still did not look close to the player he once was. He also suffered a partial tear in his left shoulder.
When he again returned in mid-January, it took four days for Leonard to be ruled out for an unknown amount of time to continue rehabbing his right quad.
That led to the truly odd twist of the Spurs medical team clearing Leonard to play, but Leonard instead wanted a second opinion. He ended up sitting out the rest of the season.
From there, it was rather hush-hush, until after the team’s first playoff game against the Golden State Warriors.
Head coach Gregg Popovich was asked about Leonard’s status and then said, “you’ll have to ask Kawhi and his group that question.”
The Spurs are the opposite of messy, but that is one hell of a messy answer.
You’re not going to believe this, but it took less than two full hours for a report from ESPN’s Chris Haynes to say that Leonard has not been cleared by “his medical team.”
This was taking place with Leonard soon to be eligible for the “super max” extension of five years and $200 million. If he left San Antonio, he would pass up that opportunity.
For more on the noise, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright released an in-depth report on Tuesday. The continued belief is that the relationship between team and player could be irreparable, which is why the context of what has happened and his contract status is so important.
It’s also important to note Leonard is 26 years old, has made First Team All-NBA the past two seasons and has a player option on his contract in 2019 that he will almost certainly decline to get a max deal.
This is where we get back to the Suns and McDonough.
If Leonard were to want out this offseason, he would be the best player to be on the trade market, since, well … Kobe for those nine seconds we thought he might be a Clipper?
The issue, though, is that player option, making Leonard essentially a one-year rental.
Assuming Leonard would not sign a contract extension from the jump, the Suns now have to do some serious risk assessment.
This is not a time to spend a bunch of, uh, time, on how much it would cost to acquire Leonard.
He’s one of the five best players in the NBA and in his prime, so let’s assume the price is pretty freaking high.
Spare your disagreements for a second and let’s also assume it would take an offer somewhere in the range of Josh Jackson and an unprotected Suns first-round pick to keep the Spurs on the phone and conversations flowing.
Where do the Suns go from there?
They’ve endlessly expressed an interest in winning more games next season and contending by 2020.
That’s pretty tough to do without a bonafide All-Star and the Suns could have one — potentially two depending on the development of Devin Booker — if they were to acquire Leonard.
They could also have Leonard for one season before he bolts for Los Angeles, Miami or New York. In that case, the rebuild would be continued by someone other than McDonough.
That’s the gamble trading for Leonard would be, but it should also speak to how much of a gamble this and next offseason are, in general, for the Suns.
They could sign Houston Rockets center Clint Capela to a max deal and have him be the latest example of a player with far less value outside Mike D’Antoni’s system.
They could sign Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon and be stuck with another perimeter-oriented player who can’t shoot.
They could trade for Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker, sign him to a long-term deal and see him significantly regress right when the youngins are ready to start winning 40-50 games.
Or perhaps worst of all, they could fail to offer enough for Leonard in trade talks and have him be the next Kevin Love, Kristaps Porzingis (for 36 hours) or Kyrie Irving they failed to acquire when an All-Star caliber player became available.
There’s uncertainty down every path for the Suns, even if they were to procure a top-five player in the NBA.
That’s how difficult rebuilding is in the NBA. Not everyone can be the Philadelphia 76ers and have two once-in-a-generation talents fall into their lap via lottery ball luck.
Even when you have a once-in-a-generation talent like Booker selected at No. 13 in the NBA Draft, there are immense challenges in the way to win with him.
McDonough’s extension signed last offseason was a lifeline, but it’s the only one he had left. It runs out in 2020, right when he is supposed to have his team playing in late April and May two years after finishing with the worst record in the NBA.
It’s possible, but he has to do a whole lot better than twiddling his thumbs and waiting to make his big move(s).
You know this, I know this and most of all, Sarver and McDonough know this.