How Much is Kawhi Leonard worth?
As the San Antonio Spurs get set to celebrate their 2013-14 NBA championship on Wednesday with a parade and celebration at the AT&T Center, there are already members of the front office thinking about how they can hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy again next season. Back-to-back championships have eluded them throughout their historic run since 1999 that features 15 consecutive 50-win seasons and now five championships.
With the way that keeping last year’s team intact paid off this season with revenge over the Miami HEAT, it’s clear that the Spurs are going to go into 2014-15 with a very familiar look and feel. The only thing that could drastically change this is if Tim Duncan decides to decline his player option for $10.3 million next season and retire. However, given his health, ability to still contribute at a high level and the entire Spurs organization and city of San Antonio yearning for him to return, it’s hard to see how he walks away. Manu Ginobili is also expected to return.
The Spurs have three pending free agents of note: Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner and Patty Mills. Making the assumption that Duncan comes back and Tony Parker’s partially guaranteed contract gets paid in full at $12.5 million, the Spurs are going to have an inclusive salary just under $55 million. The NBA salary cap is expected to rise to $63.2 million with a luxury tax threshold of $77 million. That gives the Spurs $8 million to spend in free agency to bring in someone new if they desire and another $14 million to bring back their three free agents, whose Bird rights they possess. They’re not going to have any trouble keeping the band together, in other words.
The most interesting part of their summer could be their contract negotiations with NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, the 15th overall pick in the 2011 draft, is eligible for a contract extension on July 1 and the Spurs will have until October 31 to come to an agreement with him. If not, they’ll have to issue a $4 million qualifying offer and let the market dictate his price in restricted free agency. That’s not the preferred route for either party, though.
Leonard has exploded into one of the premiere small forwards in the game. He’s a truly unique player because of his ability to guard four different positions and make a major impact on a game without having a single play called for him offensively. He’s as low maintenance as they come and is the most prototypical Spur to come along since Duncan.
Gregg Popovich has long labeled him the team’s next star. However, it took a bit before Leonard sold the rest of the team on that idea as well. When R.C. Buford acquired Leonard, it cost the Spurs George Hill, who was beloved by the Spurs coaches and players alike. This meant that Leonard entered San Antonio with big shoes to fill.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Duncan said. “He came in here after a lockout season, worked hard with us during that summer, and I can’t say that I saw the player that I saw tonight at that point. What R.C. and Pop saw in him for him to become the player he is today, it’s amazing because that summer I was like, ‘Hey, we gave up someone, it was George Hill who had been playing really solid for us.’ Obviously, you get attached to people and disappointed in that. He comes in here and don’t know a thing about him. He works hard and continues to improve year after year. You see him play the first two games and everybody’s talking to him. Everybody’s saying to him: Just stick with it, just play hard, do the little things, whatever, whatever, whatever.
“And he shows up in the last three games and just plays out of his mind. He’s not worried about just doing the little things. He wants to do it all, and he plays with a confidence that is just amazing. I’m honored to be on this team right now because he’s going to be great for years to come, and I’m going to hold on as long as I can.”
Leonard’s stardom has now peaked, but after two games he was on the verge of becoming one of the scapegoats if the Spurs came up short against the HEAT again. After averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds in the Finals last year, Leonard’s impact was minimal through the first two games. But, a talk from Coach Popovich led to his eruption over the next three games.
“I just talked to him about not being in that deferment or that defer sort of stage,” Popovich said. “The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game. You are the man. You’re part of the engine that makes us go. And it starts with his defense and his rebounding, and he’s starting to feel his oats offensively, obviously, because I have not called a play for him the whole playoff. I do not call his number. Everything he did was just out of the motion and out of offense, and he’s learned it well.
“In the future, obviously, we’ll use him a lot more on an individual basis. But it’s not really our style, and he appreciates that.”
In order to assure the Leonard is a Spur in the future, the organization can offer him a five-year contract in the neighborhood of $78.8 million. That averages out to $15.7 million a year, but it would start at just over $13 million with annual 15 percent increases. It wouldn’t kick in until the 2015-16 season when the Spurs have Duncan and Ginobili’s contracts coming off of the books to help offset the increase and avoid the luxury tax, but traditionally the Spurs have stayed away from max contracts.
Taking a look at their history, Duncan is the only player to receive the max from them. Hall of Fame center David Robinson played 14 years in San Antonio and never made more than $14.8 million in a single season. In fact, there were just five years in his career where he made over $10 million.
The Spurs will likely point to the similar meteoric rises that Parker and Ginobili underwent and how they were compensated when negotiating with Leonard because as good as he has become, he’s closer to their level than Duncan, who is the greatest power forward to ever play the game.
Ginobili’s biggest contract extension in terms of annual salary was a three-year, $39 million deal; Parker’s was four years, $50 million, with the final year only being guaranteed for $3.5 million. They easily could have gotten more had they hit the open market, but they were willing to sacrifice financially in order to stay in San Antonio and compete for a championship.
Considering how comfortable he looks in San Antonio and the fact that he’s been in the Finals twice already in his three-year career, Leonard will likely be willing to make the same sacrifice. He could hold out and potentially get a near max deal on the open market next season, especially if he builds off of his Finals MVP performance and takes another step forward, which is not out of the question as he’s only 22 years old. Leonard isn’t money motivated, though. He’s motivated by winning and no franchise has done that more over the last 15 years than the Spurs. He may lose out on a little bit of money to stay a part of it, but they’re not going to low ball him or try to strong arm him in negotiations. They’re going to take care of him and likely offer him something in the $12-13 million per year range. And, if he continues to develop and show that he’s worth of the kind of money they gave Duncan, whose career salary exceeds $200 million, they’ll be more than happy to write that check as well the next time negotiations roll around.