NEW YORK • A National Basketball Association (NBA) off-season frenzy expected to revolve around LeBron James took its first wild twist on Friday, with reports that the San Antonio Spurs' star forward Kawhi Leonard wants to be traded.
Amid a growing belief around the league that long-time Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would soon meet Leonard to try to repair the team's deteriorating relationship with their best player, multiple reports indicated that the 2014 NBA champions and NBA Finals Most Valuable Player no longer wished to stay with the franchise that acquired him on draft night in 2011.
The San Antonio Express-News first reported Leonard's stance. Publicly making a trade request is against NBA rules, and the depths of Leonard's dissatisfaction with the Spurs have not been voiced by the player himself.
The two-time All-Star appeared in only nine games in the recently concluded season because of the lingering effects of a quadriceps injury he suffered during last year's Western Conference Finals.
The list of potential trade suitors is expected to be long, despite inevitable questions about Leonard's long-term health, and feature numerous high-profile teams, including both the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks.
With Leonard under contract next season at US$20.1 million (S$27.2 million), San Antonio do not have to rush into any deals and can still try to mend fences with him. But the Lakers and the 76ers, in particular, have a strong incentive to try to persuade the Spurs to engage in trade talks this month.
Both are known to be at the front of the pack that plans to chase James in free agency this summer.
Acquiring the 26-year-old before the market opens July 1, when James is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract with Cleveland, would be a huge potential recruiting boost when James starts fielding pitches from other teams - and the plea from his hometown Cavaliers to stay.
The Spurs are the only team that can offer Leonard a five-year "supermax" contract extension - worth an estimated US$219 million - but Leonard's leverage is his ability to forgo the final year on his contract and become a free agent in July next year.
If the Spurs cannot repair the relationship and do not trade Leonard before the next trade deadline in February, they risk losing their most prized asset without getting anyone or anything in return.