The Spurs May Regret Not Extending Kawhi Leonard’s Contract

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Midnight on Friday, October 31st was the deadline for NBA teams to sign members of the 2011 Draft class to contract extensions. Now, negotiations must be halted until July 2015. Several notable players selected in 2011 agreed to new contracts with their respective teams including Alec Burks (Utah Jazz), Ricky Rubio (Minnesota Timberwolves), Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors), and Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers), who signed way back in July.

One player who was not signed to a new contract is San Antonio Spurs small forward and 2014 NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs could regret not locking up Leonard, one of the NBA’s budding young stars and a key to their championship run, before the deadline.

Photo Credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant, Getty Images

Selected with the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft out of San Diego State and acquired by the Spurs in a draft night trade, Leonard was signed to a standard four-year rookie scale contract. The first two years of a rookie contract are guaranteed, and the following two years are team options. After the fourth year, the player enters restricted free agency.

After showing improvement in each of his first three seasons and winning 2014 NBA Finals MVP, Leonard and his agents are holding out for a maximum contract. San Antonio could have offered Leonard a five-year, $90 million deal before Friday’s deadline. The Spurs, traditionally, have never shelled out max-type money.

Leonard is represented by agents Brian Elfus and Mitch Frankel of Impact Sports Management. Impact has done an outstanding job of securing at-or-above-market contracts for football stars like CB Brandon Flowers, LB Jerod Mayo, and most recently, DE Robert Quinn. Impact’s negotiation for Leonard will be the agency’s first time fighting for a basketball player of such high

caliber. Perhaps the Spurs view this as an opportunity to hammer out a team-friendly deal, but Elfus and Frankel have quite a bit of leverage.

When he hits restricted free agency in July, Leonard will be eligible to negotiate with and sign offer sheets from teams other than the Spurs. The Spurs will, however, have the right of first refusal. In this scenario, the Spurs are essentially letting the market dictate Leonard’s value, which could prove to be the catalyst that draws Leonard away from San Antonio.

Photo Credit: Soobum Im, USA Today

In restricted free agency, the max offer Leonard will be able to receive from another team will be worth around $70 million over four years. However, as we saw a few years ago with the Houston Rockets signing Jeremy Lin away from the New York Knicks, as well as this offseason when the Dallas Mavericks signed Chandler Parsons away from the Rockets, teams will come up with unique contract structures to sign restricted free agents. Frontloading or backloading deals to inflate salary cap hits, adding in favorable opt-out clauses, or even including no-trade provisions are just a few of the tactics teams can use to put competing organizations in situations that prevent the re-signing of restricted free agents.

Let’s be clear, as long as Leonard continues to ascend and play consistently, he will be coveted next July. Of the players who were extended on Friday (Burks, Rubio, Thompson), none had a PER above 15.8 last season. Leonard’s PER was 19.4. Leonard also had an EWA (Estimated Wins Added) number of 8.5, highest among the names mentioned above. He made 69% of his shots at the rim while ranking in the top 10 for field goal percentage on pull-up jumpers in the regular season. Leonard’s defense on LeBron James in the Finals was absolutely stellar, and he was named to the All-NBA Defensive Second Team.

Kawhi Leonard Poster

The Spurs’ core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili continues to age, and will not be able to play together at a high level for much longer. Team President/General Manager R.C. Buford and Head Coach Gregg Popovich have referred to Kawhi Leonard as the future of the franchise on more than one occasion. By not locking him up for five additional years when they had the chance, they could have caused a major detriment to the franchise’s future.

The Point

Though the Spurs may be maintaining some financial flexibility by not extending Kawhi Leonard’s contract, the team now risks losing him after this season. Sometimes, even if it goes against a team’s traditional behavior, it’s simply best to whip out the checkbook and offer a max extension. When the player in discussion is a high-character 23-year-old rising star like Leonard, the decision should be easier.

Sources: NBA, ESPN, Yahoo, Spotrac, NBC

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