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Celtics may be early front-runners in hypothetical Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes

Alex Reimer
April 09, 2018 - 11:53 am

Though the Celtics can still win a playoff round with their depleted roster, it’s unfathomable they can make any sort of run in the Eastern Conference with Kyrie Irving sitting on the sidelines. That means it’s time to start peeking ahead to the summer, where the Celtics will likely once again be at the center of the NBA’s hyperactive rumor mill. 

Get ready for months of Kawhi Leonard talk.

It’s been a bizarre season for Leonard, who's missed all but nine games due to a quadriceps injury. The star forward hasn’t played since Jan. 13. 

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich brusquely referenced Leonard’s situation last week, telling reporters Leonard “and his group” are only going to play when they feel like “they’re ready to go.” Those comments make it appear as if Popovich is tired of Leonard’s camp, whomever they may be.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reports several general managers are preparing to call the Spurs about Leonard’s availability. Though he’s only signed through 2019, Leonard is a top-five player in the league when healthy. Just last year, Popovich called Leonard the “best basketball player in the world.” That praise, along with Leonard’s incredible two-way ability, should be enough to propel teams to swoon after him.

On paper, few clubs are as well-positioned as the Celtics to make a run at Leonard. Boston could center a package around Jayson Tatum and their 2019 first-round pick from the Grizzlies, which is top-eight protected. While giving up Tatum would be difficult, a starting lineup that features Irving, Leonard, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford would almost certainly be the favorite in the East. On “Dale & Keefe” Friday, Jackie MacMullan, who boasts about Tatum, said even she would include the rookie sensation in a blockbuster trade for Leonard.

Tatum might be the best player the Spurs could realistically receive for Leonard. Bleacher Report runs down six realistic trade partners for the Spurs, including Boston, which would also package Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier and Daniel Theis in its hypothetical trade proposal. The Bucks could include sharpshooter Khris Middleton in a deal, but he’s only signed through 2019 as well. Tatum, of course, would just be entering the second season of his rookie contract next season.

The Cavaliers’ interest probably hinges on LeBron James' status for next year. Acquiring Leonard could convince James to pick up his player option and stay with Cleveland for another run. But outside of the Nets’ 2018 first-round pick, the Cavs don't have much to offer in terms of players. A group of players that features George Hill, Kyle Korver and Ante Zizic certainly wouldn’t be enough to allow the Spurs to keep contending.

Philadelphia is the sleeper suitor, especially if it's serious about recruiting a superstar to propel its jump to contention. Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric and the Lakers’ 2019 first-round selection is an enticing offer. 

In the Western Conference, the Lakers would appear to be the frontrunner for Leonard. They could package several high-ceiling youngsters, including Brandon Ingram and rookies Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. That may be the best collection of players on the whole, but the Spurs would have to be comfortable keeping Leonard in the same conference. 

In order for the Celtics to be legitimate players for Leonard, they would probably have to dangle Tatum. Sports Illustrated reported last week Boston is only willing to make Tatum available for Anthony Davis. Yes, the Anthony Davis trade talk will almost certainly continue to percolate in the ensuing months as well. 

Either way, players like Leonard aren’t available all that often. With that in mind, the possibility remains the Spurs could make up with their star forward, and sign him to a Supermax contract. But barring that scenario, the Celtics should be in the mix. They have the assets to do it and contend instantly, which is a reminder of Danny Ainge’s superb job in building this club. He's positioned the Celtics perfectly. 

The Celtics’ 2017-18 season may have effectively ended with Irving’s second knee surgery. But the summer rumor mill promises to be as active as ever, and it’s already getting started. 

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