When healthy, San Antonio Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard is a card-carrying MVP candidate and one of the game’s premier all-around talents. But here’s the thing: Leonard hasn’t really been healthy since the 2017 playoffs, when he landed awkwardly on Zaza Pachulia’s foot in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. Between that season-ending ankle sprain and a mysterious quad injury that sidelined Leonard for all but nine games of the 2017-18 season — fueling rumors of a growing rift with the Spurs organization — most of the recent headlines about Leonard have been over rehab schedules and locker-room turmoil, not his on-court brilliance.
Friday’s report that Leonard wants a trade out of San Antonio was the latest (and most significant) piece of news in that department yet. According to ESPN’s Chris Haynes and Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard would prefer to be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, which might help lay the groundwork for a superteam featuring Leonard, LeBron James and Paul George. These rumors were enough to cause a spike in the Lakers’ playoff futures, where they now have 6-1 odds of winning the 2018-19 title — after winning just 35 games last season. But while that development would shift the paradigm, would this Big Three really be able to challenge the Warriors for supremacy in the West? And are the Lakers even the team that can offer the best package in return for Leonard?
If L.A. does manage to reel in the trio of stars, it would finally replenish the Lakers’ supply of future Hall of Famers, a resource the franchise mined for championship runs almost continuously from the 1940s through the 2000s (before Kobe Bryant retired to become an Oscar-winning filmmaker). It would also represent a brand new kind of Big Three, one made entirely from scratch. Up until very recently, history’s top three-star arrangements came together at least semi-organically, with one (if not two) of the members already on the roster before the third piece of the puzzle was added. Even in newer cases such as the 2010-11 Miami Heat, you usually needed at least one existing player on the roster to play Dwyane Wade’s role and help recruit other stars to join up.
|Year||Team||Star 1||Star 2||Star 3||prev. Stars|
|2019||Lakers (?)||LeBron James||Kawhi Leonard||Paul George||0|
|2018||Rockets||Chris Paul||James Harden||Trevor Ariza||2|
|2018||Thunder||R. Westbrook||C. Anthony||Paul George||1|
|2017||Warriors||Kevin Durant||Stephen Curry||Draymond Green||2|
|2015||Cavaliers||LeBron James||Kevin Love||Kyrie Irving||1|
|2013||Lakers||Kobe Bryant||Pau Gasol||Dwight Howard||2|
|2012||Clippers||Chris Paul||Blake Griffin||DeAndre Jordan||2|
|2011||Heat||LeBron James||Dwyane Wade||Chris Bosh||1|
|2010||Thunder||Kevin Durant||R. Westbrook||James Harden||2|
|2008||Celtics||Kevin Garnett||Ray Allen||Paul Pierce||1|
|2008||Lakers||Kobe Bryant||Pau Gasol||Lamar Odom||2|
|2004||Lakers||Shaquille O’Neal||Kobe Bryant||Gary Payton||2|
|2004||T-Wolves||Kevin Garnett||Latrell Sprewell||Sam Cassell||1|
|2003||Spurs||Tim Duncan||Manu Ginobili||Tony Parker||2|
|1997||Rockets||H. Olajuwon||Charles Barkley||Clyde Drexler||2|
|1996||Bulls||Michael Jordan||Scottie Pippen||Dennis Rodman||2|
|1994||Jazz||Karl Malone||John Stockton||Jeff Hornacek||2|
|1994||Magic||Shaquille O’Neal||Penny Hardaway||Nick Anderson||2|
|1988||Bulls||Michael Jordan||Scottie Pippen||Horace Grant||1|
|1987||Pistons||Isiah Thomas||Adrian Dantley||Bill Laimbeer||2|
|1983||76ers||Julius Erving||Moses Malone||Bobby Jones||2|
|1983||Lakers||K. Abdul-Jabbar||Magic Johnson||James Worthy||2|
|1981||Celtics||Larry Bird||Robert Parish||Kevin McHale||1|
With Leonard coming from San Antonio, James from Cleveland and George from Oklahoma City, this would be the first Big Three we could find that formed with three newcomers all meeting in a new city. Things have been trending in that direction for a while: Although the vast majority of Big Threes in the 1980s and ’90s were formed by adding a third star to a two-man core, plenty of recent Big Threes have seen two new faces joining one existing star’s squad. But this would be a new Big Three experiment that pushes the boundaries of how they can be formed even further.
If the Lakers do manage to haul in Leonard, George and James, their new team would instantly be good enough to at least give the Warriors some competition in the Western Conference next season. Let’s mix our CARMELO projections, which use historical comparisons to model out a potential career arc for each current NBA player, with the L.A. superteam scenario detailed here by my colleague Kevin Pelton. In it, he assumes the Lakers sign James and George with their cap room, and that San Antonio accedes to a trade that sends Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Luol Deng’s onerous contract to the Spurs in exchange for Leonard. Here’s how CARMELO thinks that team looks on paper:
CARMELO would expect that team, with a projected efficiency margin of plus-5.9 points per 100 possessions, to win about 54 games next season, even with stray waiver-wire pickups logging 10 percent of the team’s available minutes. The team would also have the star power of a bona fide championship contender, with James arguably ranking as the best player in the league,2 Leonard capable of snagging MVP votes and George checking in as a five-time All-Star by the age of 28. There would be questions about fit — since James, Leonard and George overlap in both position and skill set — and no guarantees about Leonard’s health. But this Big Three would certainly vault L.A. back into the championship conversation, where it hasn’t resided in a while.
However, before these Laker bros start making plans for a parade down Figueroa Street next June, it’s fair to ask whether the Lakers are really the most likely destination for Leonard. Although Leonard may want to play in L.A., he’s also still under contract with the Spurs for one more season, so San Antonio still controls where he’d eventually end up landing. And if they can help it, I’m guessing Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford would prefer not to set a superteam up for the franchise that’s faced the Spurs in 34 playoff games since San Antonio’s dynasty began in the late nineties.
Moreover, Los Angeles may not even have the best package to offer the Spurs in a deal for Leonard. Our colleagues at ESPN.com put together their seven favorite potential Leonard trades, including the Lakers’ Ball/Kuzma/Deng swap mentioned above. For each of those scenarios, I added up CARMELO’s five-year upside values, which project a player’s wins above replacement over the next five seasons with negative-value comparable players zeroed out.3 According to that measure, L.A.’s deal is among the best San Antonio might be able to get — but it has competition from Miami, Toronto, Philadelphia and others:4
|POR||McCollum||12||Rd 1 pick||4||16|
Injury status notwithstanding, superstars like Leonard don’t come up for grabs on the trade market often, and where they end up landing can often shape the destiny of the league. If Leonard does ultimately team up with James and George, the resulting Big Three would indeed reshape the NBA championship picture for years to come. The financials of such a deal are tricky, though doable. What’s unknown now is the desire of Leonard, James and George to play together — a necessary component, since the latter two are free agents — and whether the Spurs would be willing to trade their star to a rival team in the West. In other words, this Big Three is unlikely as the situation currently stands. But just the same, we’ve seen stranger things than this happen during the NBA’s summer silly season. Stay tuned.