Add Kawhi Leonard to the list of NBA stars interested in playing in Los Angeles.
That interest is mutual from the city’s two NBA teams — with some conditions.
The star forward’s willingness to leave the Spurs became clear Friday morning, when the San Antonio Express News first reported he wants to be traded. According to sources not authorized to speak publicly, the Lakers have long been Leonard’s preferred destination, though the Clippers are among the teams he would consider.
Leonard, who turns 27 this month, was born in Los Angeles. He went to high school in Riverside and played at San Diego State. A two-time All-Star and defensive player of the year with San Antonio, Leonard won an NBA championship in 2014 and was named most valuable player of the Finals.
He’s signed through 2019-20 but can opt out after next season, and also is eligible for an even more immediate pay day.
The Spurs can offer Leonard a five-year, $219 million “supermax” contract this summer — significantly more than any other team could next year. However he missed most of last season with a quadriceps injury.
Neither the Lakers nor Clippers have had trade discussions with the Spurs, as both teams have concerns about the severity of Leonard’s injury. He spent several months away from the team while rehabbing, which led to public barbs from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich about Leonard’s absence — an unusual move for the Spurs.
While the Lakers are open to trading any player on their roster, how much they are willing to give up depends on their confidence in his health.
It’s also unclear if the Spurs would be willing to trade Leonard to the Lakers or any other team. If they are, other teams might have more significant assets to offer, especially given that the Lakers do not have a lottery pick this year. They will select 25th in next week’s draft, a pick they got in a trade with Cleveland.
The Clippers have more to offer than the Lakers. They would be willing to create a package with forward Tobias Harris and the 12th or 13th pick in this year’s draft, according to a source not authorized to speak publicly.
Magic Johnson and the Lakers so far have failed to land a homegrown star player to turn around the team.
Last summer, Paul George’s agent told the Indiana Pacers that his client, a Palmdale native, planned to become a free agent this year and sign with the Lakers. Irritated, the Pacers traded George to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Thunder star Russell Westbrook, another L.A. native coveted by Lakers fans, then signed a $205 million extension to stay in Oklahoma City.
George, who was cheered heartily during his visits to Staples Center last season, was noncommittal after the season ended about whether he would return to Oklahoma City. George is expected to become a free agent this summer, as is LeBron James, who could leave Cleveland again in search of a better opportunity. The Lakers are expected to make a push for both.
A trade for Leonard could give the Lakers the easiest path financially to creating a team that can compete for a championship. It would allow them to add a star without taking as much of a salary cap hit as they would if they simply signed a player to a maximum contract.
The Lakers have spent the past year and a half hoarding salary cap space for free agency in 2018 and 2019, giving themselves the flexibility to build a championship roster. Leonard is part of the reason they saw the summer of 2019 as a strong one for free agents. Right now they have the cap space to add two maximum contracts. It will be difficult for them to add two max contracts and re-sign forward Julius Randle without clearing more cap space.
Staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.