By Don Wanlass
Last week it was LeBron James. This week it is Kawhi Leonard.
The off-season rumor mill continues to grind out possible trades or free agent signings that can make either local basketball team — the Lakers or the Clippers — relevant in the NBA hierarchy again.
Free agency doesn’t start until July 1, but the next 10 days will be full of anticipation as the fight to recruit James, Leonard, Paul George or any other prime player heats up.
Leading up to the NBA draft June 21, the Clippers had emerged as key players in any possible trade for players with their two first-round draft picks at 12 and 13.
The Clippers might not have players like Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma to sweeten trade pots but those two draft picks could well do the trick, especially with the Spurs loathe to trade Leonard to the Lakers. They could make Leonard happy by shipping him to Los Angeles, without totally satisfying him by sending him to his preferred team.
The Clippers have reportedly put consultant Jerry West in charge of the Leonard project. Jerry West working against Magic Johnson doesn’t seem right, but that’s what this off-season battle might come down to.
Leonard is one of the quietest superstars in the NBA, which is what made him such a perfect player for the San Antonio Spurs, a team that stresses teamwork over stardom, going back to the days when David Robinson was playing center for them.
Gradually, the tandem of general manager R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich surrounded Robinson with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli and Tim Duncan and became the NBA’s second most successful team of the last 20 years behind the Lakers until the Golden State Warriors came around.
Now Robinson is long gone, Duncan is retired, Ginobli and Parker are aging and Leonard is coming off his first major injury.
Leonard played high school ball in Riverside but was not highly recruited out of high school, eventually signing with San Diego State after being ignored by Ben Howland at UCLA. He has blossomed in the NBA as a two-way player who can score, move without the ball and play defense at the other end.
He has one more year on his contract and has announced he would like to sign with the Lakers when he is a free agent. That has prompted the Spurs to try and trade him rather than lose him for nothing next off-season.
But no team will give the Spurs what Leonard is worth in a trade without some assurance he will resign with them next year.
The Spurs right now say they won’t trade him to the Lakers, but a package of Ingram, Kuzma and the team’s first-round draft pick this week might change the Spurs’ mind.
But the Clippers can counter with two higher draft picks and someone like Tobias Harris, who had a break-out year with the Clippers last year after coming over from the Detroit Pistons in the Blake Griffin deal. Harris averaged more than 19 points a game after the trade.
Popovich and Leonard reportedly had dinner June 19 in San Diego trying to mend fences after the Spurs questioned everything from Leonard’s manhood to his pain threshold as he recovered from a quadricep injury last season.
Leonard is 26 years old with seven years in the NBA. He has averaged 16.3 points a game over his career, but that ballooned to 23.4 over the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons before last year’s injury.
If Leonard comes to the Lakers they don’t need Paul George because the two are very similar players.
George grew up in Palmdale and has made in clear he would love to play for the Lakers, his favorite team as a child. He is two inches taller than Leonard and two years older. Overlooked by UCLA and other Pac 12 schools, he starred at Fresno State before being drafted by the Indiana Pacers in 2010. He has a career scoring average of 21.9 points a game and seems to have completely recovered from a scary broken leg he suffered in 2014.
Both Leonard and George would make the Lakers or Clippers better. Either one would make it easier to recruit James to join him and that would help both local teams return to the playoffs next season.
For the next 10 days, it will be mere speculation as to where Leonard, George of James will land.
But at least the Lakers and the Clippers are in the mix. This time of year, that’s the best they can hope for.
BACK ON TRACK: Here it is, June 21, and the Dodgers are only 1 and ½ games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League West and back in contention for a wild card spot if they can’t overtake the Diamondbacks.
I still hear a lot of criticism about the way the Dodgers do things but I like the philosophy of the Dodgers front office and the way manager Dave Roberts gets his team to respond to the philosophy.
During the lengthy season, teams generally play two three-games series a week. There are an occasional two- or four-game series, but basically the season is a series of three-game series.
The Dodgers philosophy is to win every series. That isn’t always going to happen, but that is the goal. It’s easier and a lot more attainable than winning every game.
The Dodgers got off to a horrible start to the season splitting three of their first five series and losing the other two series to Arizona. At the time, they were 5-9.
They then swept a series against the San Diego Padres to rise to 8-9 and defeated the Washington Nationals in the following series to reach .500.
They then went 3 ½ weeks without winning another series, falling to 16-26 on May 16. Since then, the Dodgers are 22-8 and have won eight of their last nine series, splitting a four-game series with Philadelphia.
And the Dodgers are getting healthy, which has to scare the Diamondbacks. Rich Hill pitched six scoreless innings in his return to the rotation June 19. Clayton Kershaw is due back next week. The Dodgers have found another gem in Ross Stripling, who is 6-1 on the season and has pitched himself into the rotation for the rest of the season.
The bullpen still has some issues, but the Dodgers can hit and that makes them dangerous. They already have five players with 10 or more home runs with three others knocking on the door with eight or nine.
When the Dodgers do lose, like the 2-1 loss to the Cubs in the second game of a doubleheader June 19, it is usually because they didn’t hit in the clutch.
In the doubleheader, which they split, the Dodgers were four for 29 with runners in scoring position. One of those hits won the first game of the doubleheader, a two-run ninth-inning double by backup catcher Kyle Farmer.
The Dodgers 40-man roster depth provides them with players at the minor league level who are ready and able to step up to the major league level in case of injury. Max Muncy is this year’s version of Chris Taylor.
The season isn’t half over yet, but after a slow start, the Dodgers have turned things around and are in contention, right where they belong.