Extension Candidate: Kawhi Leonard

The accolades bestowed upon Kawhi Leonard are well-deserved, but there’s no doubting that he’s a beneficiary of impeccable timing. He scored at least 20 points in each of the last three games of the NBA Finals, leading voters to tab him as Finals MVP. That was the first time in Leonard’s three-year NBA career that he had strung together that many 20-plus-point games, and only the second time he’d ever so much as scored that many points in back-to-back games. Part of the reason for that no doubt has to do with the Spurs’ ball-sharing offense and coach Gregg Popovich‘s penchant for strictly limiting the minutes his starters play. Yet It also speaks to the notion that even though Popovich believes Leonard will be the team’s marquee figure some day, that day has yet to come.

Of course, teams base their decisions about whether to hand out extensions based on what they think will happen in the years ahead, and less so because of what’s happened in the past. Popovich, who shares front office duties with GM R.C. Buford, has made it known that he envisions a bright future for the 23-year-old, subtly tipping his hand in a manner that’s atypical for the taciturn Spurs franchise. Of course, Popovich never said just when he thinks Leonard’s time will come, or just how much the Spurs are willing to invest to ensure that when it comes, it comes to San Antonio.

Still, Leonard is confident that agent Brian Elfus and the Spurs will work out an extension by the October 31st deadline, allowing him to avoid restricted free agency next summer. Leonard is in so many ways the quintessential Spur. He’s goes to such great lengths to avoid the spotlight that his reserved demeanor stands out even on a team that’s almost universally reflected the modesty of Tim Duncan for the past 17 years, and teammates are fond of kidding Leonard about his shy streak. Leonard is also a homegrown talent, having only briefly passed through the hands of the Pacers on draft night before the trade that brought him to San Antonio. He’s never played for any other NBA team, just like Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, from whom he is supposed to inherit the mantle of Spurs stardom.

Leonard is a strong three-point shooter and rebounder, two areas that the Spurs pride themselves upon. His three-point percentages haven’t strayed from a range that starts at 37.4% and ends at last season’s mark of 37.9%, which is telling of the sort of yearly consistency that the Spurs also thrive upon. He grabbed the eighth-most rebounds per 100 possessions last season among all players 6’7″ or shorter, according to Basketball-Reference, and his 19.4 PER from this past year was better than all seven of the players in front of him on that list.

The former 15th overall pick is improving, having shot 52.2% from the floor last season after back-to-back sub-50% seasons his first two years. The Spurs gave up nearly 4.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when Leonard was on the floor last season compared to when he wasn’t, as NBA.com shows, while the Spurs defense was worse by 2.6 points per 100 possessions when Leonard was on the court as a rookie. Still, there are doubts about whether he can carry a team, as is the case with just about every player who’s never averaged at least 10 field goal attempts per game, or as many as 13 points per contest.

Inevitable change is coming to the Spurs. Duncan is 38 and Ginobili is 37. Their contracts expire after the coming season, and there’s a decent chance that this will be the last for both of them. Parker is 32, but it remains to be seen whether he can continue to produce at a high level into his late 30s as Duncan and Ginobili have, even amid San Antonio’s best efforts to preserve his body. The Spurs roster is deep, stocked with quite possibly the best collection of role players the league has seen in quite some time. Still, Leonard is the only Spur under the age of 30 who appears capable of playing like a star some day, barring the development of yet another surprise from the latter stages of the draft, like Parker and Ginobili.

Spurs players have long sacrificed for the benefit of the team, with Parker’s extension from earlier this month the latest example. It would fit with Leonard’s personality for him to follow suit, but doing so would break with the practice that others in his position have employed. Klay Thompson and Ricky Rubio have reportedly asked for the max this summer, and the Cavs wasted no time in doling out a max extension to Kyrie Irving in July. It would not be altogether surprising if Elfus were to start negotiations at the same price point.

The Spurs can probably afford to pay Leonard the max more so than they can stomach parting with him, especially since the 25% max for which Leonard is in line is much less than what the max for a veteran star would entail. Of course, San Antonio won’t lose Leonard anytime soon as long as they’re willing to pay him the max, either through extension or restricted free agency, and as long as Leonard doesn’t take the drastic step of accepting his qualifying offer next summer, which would be a shock.

There are no guarantees in restricted free agency, as this summer has proven. Greg Monroe and Eric Bledsoe are staring discount deals in the face while Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons, probably less desirable players, wound up with a max deal and a three-year contract for just under the max, respectively. I predicted last month that Leonard would end up signing an extension for four years and $50MM. If the Spurs propose those terms, an improvement on what the Suns reportedly have on the table for Bledsoe, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that it’s the best offer that Leonard will see. It might not be quite the financial reward that passed through his mind when he clutched the Finals MVP trophy, but it would afford him stability within an organization he personifies. That seems like the sort of reward that Leonard would seek most fervently.

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