What can the Celtics trade for Kawhi Leonard?

After Friday’s news that Kawhi Leonard wants to be traded, Kevin Pelton and Bobby Marks talked about what the Boston Celtics should consider in a trade offer for Leonard:

Boston’s ‘good problem’

Kevin Pelton: The Boston Celtics are on the clock for Kawhi Leonard. That’s what I took from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reporting Friday, after we learned that Leonard wants to be traded by the San Antonio Spurs, that the Celtics are interested in making an offer after attempting to deal for Leonard at the trade deadline.

With ample young talent, copious draft picks and even some veteran All-Stars who could be available in the right trade, Boston is an easy first choice for any team looking to deal a star at this point. However, finding a fit between the Celtics and Spurs might not be as easy as it looks.

Boston has what might comfortably be termed a good problem: a lack of bad salary. There’s nobody on the Celtics scheduled to make between $ 6.7 million (Jayson Tatum) and $ 20.1 million (Kyrie Irving) in 2018-19, which makes it tricky for them to find salary to match Leonard’s identical $ 20.1 million salary unless one of their All-Stars is included.

So, Bobby, how can Boston make this work?

Bobby Marks: You are right, making the money work is the hard part. Remove the big three in Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, and Boston is potentially looking at players such as Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris and Guerschon Yabusele to send in return. The Celtics do have the partially guaranteed contracts of Daniel Theis, Semi Ojeleye and Abdel Nader to throw in as filler but would need to guarantee the contracts of each because only a small amount is protected in their deals (in the case of Theis, his salary is fully non-guaranteed).

The Celtics could use restricted free agent Marcus Smart in a trade if the guard agreed to a three-year contract for around $ 36 million; the contract would have to be a minimum of three years based on the rules for a sign-and-trade deal. Combined with Smart’s salary (which would count just $ 6 million for trade matching purposes because of the base-year compensation rule), Brown, Morris and Yabusele, the finances would work for Leonard. In fact, that trade works (by $ 11,426) even if Leonard does not waive his 15 percent trade kicker that would add $ 3 million to his $ 20 million salary for next year.


Hayward, Irving and draft picks

Marks: Kevin, I know this sounds cold, but wouldn’t you want to swap Brown and replace him with Hayward, even if that meant taking back Pau Gasol?

Pelton: That’s an interesting thought, Bobby. Assuming full health, Hayward is certainly the better player at this stage of their careers, but his biggest strength relative to Brown — shot creation — becomes less valuable to a Boston team that would in this scenario already have Irving, Leonard and Tatum in the starting five. Brown is an ideal role player alongside that group.

The Celtics would probably end up saving some money in that version of the trade, which has value given the team’s tax situation. Including Theis’ non-guaranteed salary, Boston will start the summer about $ 12 million below the tax line. Adding salary in a Leonard trade would make it that much more difficult for the Celtics to avoid starting the clock on the repeater tax, which could become exorbitant in a few years.

By 2019-20, Boston’s payroll could balloon. Irving can become a free agent that summer and command a raise of more than $ 10 million on his current salary. Leonard would be in the same position if the Celtics were able to re-sign him.

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However, including Hayward in a trade the year after signing him in free agency is probably a nonstarter. But what about Irving? After all, Boston has no more certainty that Irving will re-sign as an unrestricted free agent next summer than it does with Leonard. Would you consider swapping the two players?

Marks: You are certainly right about the cumulative future salary. I don’t see how it would be feasible to have four players on max contracts (Hayward, Horford, Irving and Leonard) at the start of the 2019-20 season — not to mention the likelihood of the repeater clock starting this year based on the Celtics’ projecting to be a tax team.

If Boston offered Irving, the San Antonio front office would have plenty of pros and cons to debate. When healthy, Irving is a top-10 talent and one of the best point guards in the NBA. He would certainly give Gregg Popovich plenty of lineup options with Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray in the backcourt.

Aside from the health concerns — which are certainly something to consider — Irving’s expiring contract and the amount it would cost to retain him could keep Spurs GM R.C. Buford up at night. Irving has been noncommittal about his future in Boston, and losing him for nothing would be a risk. Of course, because of Leonard’s health and expiring contract, you can make the same argument if you keep him instead.

Irving would likely cost $ 188 million to re-sign as a free agent in the summer of 2019, and with the salary cap possibly spiking from $ 101 million to $ 108 million in 2019-20, we could have more than the eight teams with cap room this year.

But if Boston were to throw in the 2019 Sacramento or Memphis draft pick (to which the Celtics hold the rights), that’s a deal certainly worth talking about. If the offer were Irving alone, it would be a no for me.

Let’s say Boston elects to include Brown. Wouldn’t you hold back on adding draft picks to a deal?

Pelton: That’s a fascinating question and one I’m not sure I can answer until after free agency plays out. How much the Celtics should be willing to offer here depends in large part on their confidence in re-signing Leonard as a free agent.

If Leonard is really set on playing for the Lakers, I’d feel a lot more comfortable making a big offer if the Lakers use their cap space this summer to sign LeBron James and another player, which would take them out of the market for free agents in the summer of 2019. (James and another max free agent alone would prevent them from creating max space, even if they traded everyone else on the roster.)

I do think it’s interesting that conventional wisdom has assumed that the Celtics will act aggressively in pursuing Leonard after they were unwilling to do what it took to get Jimmy Butler or Paul George last summer. (Though, depending on whom you ask, their offer for George might have been more attractive in a vacuum at the time than what the Indiana Pacers got.)

Yes, Danny Ainge dipped into the stockpile of draft picks to add Irving last summer. But knowing what we know now about Isaiah Thomas’ health, that looks more like a deal too good to pass up than a case of Boston going all-in on a star player. Yes, Leonard is surely the best player of this group. Still, I don’t think the Celtics are going to offer as much for him as a possible rental as they would a player under contract for several years.

If Leonard is only a rental in Boston, what’s his trade value? Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

Ranking Boston’s best pieces

Pelton: Let’s wrap up by pondering this question: Which of Boston’s players and picks have the most trade value?

Marks: It pains me to say this because I was part of that Brooklyn front office involved in the infamous trade with the Celtics, but Tatum and Brown have the most trade value on the Boston roster.

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1 Related

As I wrote in the Celtics’ offseason focus, Boston has two players in Brown and Tatum on controllable rookie contracts for at least the next two seasons. They will combine to earn $ 11 million in 2018-19, are potential All-Stars and have proven they can play at a high level — as evidenced by the playoffs this past season. Don’t get me wrong, Kawhi Leonard is a top-five NBA player, but paying him $ 32 million in 2019-20 when the Celtics’ duo earns half that would make me pause.

Boston’s future draft assets are still absurd: The team could have four first-round picks next June. The Sacramento first (protected only if it’s No. 1 overall) is the crown jewel because the Kings are still rebuilding even after missing the playoffs for 12 straight seasons. The depth in the Western Conference means we will likely see Sacramento in the lottery once again.

Pelton: No doubt, Tatum is the Celtics’ most valuable player in terms of trade value. I might put the Sacramento pick ahead of Brown, who still has to prove that he can remain an above-average 3-point shooter after improving from 34 percent to nearly 40 percent in his second season.

We’ll know more about where to project the Kings when we find out how much talent they add this offseason. Like the Nets last year, Sacramento won’t have any incentive to lose games late in the season. That could hurt the pick’s value, though the change to the lottery format would still mean a decent chance of it landing Nos. 2-4 in that case.

The protected pick the Memphis Grizzlies owe Boston from the Jeff Green trade is a sleeper. If the pick ends up in the top eight next year — a distinct possibility if Memphis suffers injuries like this season — it’s top-six protected in 2020 and potentially unprotected in 2021, when Marc Gasol will be 36 and Mike Conley 33.

We’ve gotten this far without even mentioning Terry Rozier, whose emergence during the playoffs made the idea of an Irving for Leonard swap plausible. Rozier has demonstrated that he could be a low-end starting point guard, and he is making just $ 3 million in the last year of his rookie contract, so he’d surely command a pick in the back half of the first round if the Celtics were to make him available.

Add it up, and Boston is in enviable position to win any bidding war for a superstar on the trade market. The question now is whether the Celtics are willing to go deep into the treasure chest to take a chance on re-signing Leonard.

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