Leverage: Spurs vs. Lakers

One of the most interesting stories of the offseason is that Kawhi Leonard reportedly no longer wants to play for the Spurs and has demanded a trade. The dominant emerging narrative around this story is that the Lakers have strong negotiating leverage in any potential trade talks for Leonard, but here I argue that it is in fact the Spurs who have the most leverage.

It's widely believed that the Lakers don't feel pressured to get a trade done right now for two reasons: First, LeBron James' signing has already made them relevant even if they don't get Kawhi. Second, they will have enough cap space in 2019 that they feel as though they can simply wait a year and sign him outright. The Spurs, on the other hand, appear to be under the gun because if they don't trade Kawhi now, he may refuse to play for them, or even if he does, they will lose him in a year "for nothing" in free agency.

But there's a factor here beyond player value and assets that no one seems to be considering, and that's contention. If the Spurs were to trade Kawhi to the Lakers, it would effectively create another superteam in the West, thus creating a scenario where it becomes a nearly insurmountable obstacle for the Spurs to reach the NBA finals for the next 3-4 years. They would essentially be "giving up" and clearing the field for a while. This is the real cost of trading Kawhi to the Lakers (as opposed to a team in the East), and the Spurs should rightfully be demanding a huge return for paying such a cost.

Now, you can argue at length that the Warriors would still be better than the Lakers with Kawhi (although I might disagree), but the important point is that it would be very hard for any third rival team to beat both of them, and nearly every path to the finals would involve doing just that (the only realistic way of avoiding it would be if a team won the first overall seed, and the Lakers and Warriors finished exactly #2 and #3 and therefore had to play each other before the conference finals).

Lastly, let's evaluate the possiblity that Kawhi does not play or that he leaves "for nothing" in 2019. The former doesn't seem like a high probability. Sitting out the whole season would probably destroy his market value. Teams are currently willing to risk that there are no lingering injury issues from last year because of his MVP-caliber play in previous seasons, but if he sits out another year, the alarm bells will certainly start to go off.

The latter scenario, while more likely, is still not as bad as it may seem. If Kawhi plays next year and returns to his superlative form, the Spurs could put a supermax contract on the table and dare him to leave millions behind. Players may express preference for one locale over another but the difference between a supermax contract and the max contract that the Lakers can offer is substantial, and I don't think Kawhi makes the kind of money in endorsements that LeBron does, which mitigates that concern.

Finally, Teams are frequently willing to do sign-and-trade deals for free agents that they could have signed outright to get around salary cap problems or to get a bigger paycheck for their new star player. For instance, if the Lakers wanted to make another big free-agent signing next year, they may want to free more cap space by using a sign-and-trade for Leonard instead of signing him outright. In this scenario, the Spurs may get some assets in return.

In short, the Spurs incentives for enabling the Lakers' dream scenario are very low, and therefore their leverage here is higher than it might appear.