Kawhi Leonard Trade: Are the Toronto Raptors Now Legitimate Title Contenders?
On Wednesday, the San Antonio Spurs officially announced the blockbuster trade that sent former Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard along with Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for All-Star DeMar DeRozan, young center Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round draft pick.
The trade ends a months-long drama during which Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs’ brass reportedly deteriorated completely. Despite private wishes to be dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers, Leonard is now a member of the Raptors. The Lakers reportedly engaged the Spurs in trade discussions shortly after it came out that Leonard wanted to leave San Antonio, but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.
If Leonard buys in, the Raptors suddenly look quite formidable in the LeBron-less Eastern Conference. As for the Spurs, this move sets them on a much different path than the one down which they have traveled for the better part of the last two decades. How does this trade impact next season’s prospects for both sides?
Raptors Are Contenders
ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported early Wednesday morning that Kawhi Leonard “has no desire to play in Toronto.” If true, it’s an incredibly lame mindset with which Leonard is currently operating. With one year left on his current contract, he will have the chance to play next season in a new environment. Rather than being excited for the new challenge, it sounds as though he may already be trying to force his way out of Toronto.
For this, though, let’s just assume Leonard buys in and gives the Raptors his all next season. If he plays to his full potential, this is a scary squad on paper, particularly on the defensive side of the floor. Kawhi is considered by many to be the best on-ball defender in basketball, and general manager Masai Ujiri will be adding him to a group of players with established chops on the defensive end of the floor.
With Leonard and Green now on the roster, new Raps head coach Nick Nurse can deploy a 5-man lineup of Leonard, Green, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka. Each of those players is one of the best defenders at their respective positions, which makes that lineup look downright suffocating.
In light of the trade, the Raptors’ chances to win the 2018-19 NBA title were slashed to +2500. Toronto is still behind the heavily-favored Golden State Warriors (-170), Boston Celtics (+650), Los Angeles Lakers (+850), Houston Rockets (+925) and Philadelphia 76ers (+1600).
Despite the odds, it’s hard not to be intrigued by what Ujiri has done here. Knowing the risk that Leonard may well walk away as a free agent next summer, he opted to roll the dice on a risky move with the goal of winning a championship next season. If the Raptors are getting the all-world version of Leonard we’ve seen in the past, he may well be the best player this franchise has ever seen. It still may not be enough to dethrone Golden State at the top, but if the Raptors make a deep run and impress Leonard in the process, who’s to say they won’t be able to convince him to sign a contract extension to stick around next summer?
If you’re the Raptors, this is a move you have to make. Players of Leonard’s caliber don’t hit the trade market very often, and, while Toronto is a great city, the Raps still haven’t had much success at all in terms of luring star players to town in free agency. So, the most logical path to contention for them is to build through the draft and to make smart trades.
Ujiri has an excellent track record in the draft. In recent years, the team has drafted useful role players like Anunoby, Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, Jonas Valanciunas and others. The Raptors have managed to build a strong, deep roster without ever going into full-on tank mode, which says a lot about the quality of their talent evaluation.
The Raptors aren’t exactly among the NBA’s glamour franchises at this point, but they have built a massive, rabid following as Canada’s lone club. The team has been among the Eastern Conference’s elite over the last few years, but they have routinely come up short in the playoffs. The most disappointing effort was clearly this past postseason run when they were easily swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers despite having breezed their way to the No. 1 seed in the conference during the regular season.
Ujiri faced a choice. Either he could give it another go with the same core of talent that has routinely come up short, or he could make an aggressive move to try and shake things up. With this trade, Ujiri has effectively kept most of the team’s core together while also landing a bona fide superstar along with a quality 3-and-D role player in Green. Toronto really had nothing to lose by making this deal. If Leonard flees as a free agent next summer, trading DeRozan, who is owed well over $20 million in each of the next 3 seasons, will effectively give the Raps quite a bit of money to spend in free agency.
As mentioned previously, Toronto isn’t exactly Miami or Los Angeles when it comes to destinations for most NBA players. Still, it’s hard to argue with the notion that the Raptors have been one of the league’s best organizations for the last handful of years. If a player wants to play in front of a passionate fanbase with a team that will contend on a yearly basis, there aren’t many places that fit the bill better.
Losing DeRozan will hurt, especially for the fans. The Raptors are the only pro franchise DeRozan has ever known, and he spurned the chance to leave for his hometown of L.A. a couple of summers ago when he inked a fresh 5-year deal to stay in Toronto. DeRozan had become the face of the Raptors franchise since he was drafted ninth overall out of USC back in 2009. An Instagram post from DeRozan makes it sound as though he’s rather devastated to be moving on, but the Raptors had to do this deal if they wanted to get a superstar-caliber talent. DeRozan is great in his own right, but nobody in the right mind would choose to have him on a roster instead of Kawhi.
What About the Spurs?
Last season, the Spurs finished with the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference before being easily beaten by the eventual champion Warriors in the first round of the postseason. San Antonio played the vast majority of the season short-handed, as Leonard was active for just 9 games due to a lingering quad injury. Despite the Spurs’ medical staff reportedly having cleared him to return to action, Leonard opted to stay away from the team in order to train by himself for the stretch run.
That reportedly rubbed a number of Spurs the wrong way. The team was one of the better teams in the conference at full strength, yet their lone superstar chose to do his own thing rather than try to help them win. It’s hard to fault a guy like Kawhi for doing what he felt was in his own best interests, but his actions clearly negatively affected his relationship with his teammates.
The Spurs reportedly tried to convince Leonard to stick around, to no avail. So, they did what they had to do. Rather than risking losing him for nothing as a free agent next summer, the Spurs opted to recoup some valuable assets by trading him away. Some wondered whether the Spurs would be looking to bank a boatload of future draft considerations, but instead the team chose to take on an established All-Star in DeRozan along with a promising young big man in Poeltl.
The draft pick is nothing special. The pick is protected 1-20 in next year’s draft, which means the Raptors will keep it if it lands anywhere between Nos. 1 and 20 overall. If that winds up happening, the pick will instead convey as a pair of future second-rounders.
In light of the trade, the Spurs’ 2018-19 title chances went from +2500 way down to +12500. They are still easily in the upper tier of the league in terms of championship odds, but just about every team is a long shot in this era of Warriors dominance. Rather than rebuild, the Spurs clearly have hopes of remaining relevant in the coming years. Head coach Gregg Popovich isn’t getting any younger, so one would imagine he doesn’t really want to be on hand for a full-on roster teardown. So, San Antonio will try to go in a different direction without enduring a tanking.
The fit with DeRozan coming to town is interesting. Rather than being a guy willing to bomb away from long range, DeMar is a guy that lives in the midrange. That also just so happens to be the case for the Spurs’ incumbent star player, LaMarcus Aldridge. In this day and age of pace-and-space hoops, can a team thrive with a couple of guys happy to take 16-footers playing alongside one another? We don’t have any other similar examples in the present day NBA, so Popovich will have an interesting task on his hands.
DeRozan is still only 28, so he has plenty of good years in front of him. I’m sure he will get over his initial disappointment in being traded and prove to be a useful cog in the Spurs’ machine. San Antonio has had a way of surpassing preseason expectations for years now, so don’t be surprised if the Spurs find their way to the top of the Western Conference standings once again this season.
Still, barring some other drastic changes, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t a title-winning roster. The Warriors have actually managed to get better this summer, and the Rockets aren’t too far behind. After those teams, the West is essentially a crapshoot. The Lakers and Nuggets appear to have improved, while the Blazers, Thunder, Pelicans, Jazz, Timberwolves, Clippers and (maybe) Mavericks will be left to jockey with one another for the other playoff positions. The Spurs are much closer to that second tier than they are to the Warriors/Rockets tier at this point.
The Lakers have seen their title odds improve as much as anyone’s this summer with the addition of the world’s best player, LeBron James. The addition of James figures to easily be enough to vault the Lakers into next season’s playoffs. However, given the current state of the rest of the roster, it’s hard to imagine this team winning a championship.
We know the Lakers had interest in Kawhi when he was a Spur, but might they still take a stab at nabbing him from the Raptors? NBA rules prevent Leonard (or any other player in the deal) from being traded again for another 6 months, which means Toronto can’t legally deal the player until January at the earliest. Let’s say that things between Kawhi and the Raptors aren’t working out well for either side, which leads Ujiri to entertain trade offers prior to the February deadline. Rather than losing him as a free agent, Toronto could be persuaded to get something in return.
If the Lakers are sitting near the top of the West, would Magic Johnson have the courage to part ways with some of the team’s young assets in order to pry Leonard early and make a run for Golden State next season? Considering LeBron will be 34 this coming December, the Lakers can’t afford to sit on their hands and wait too long. While he seems superhuman, James won’t be at the top forever. The Lakers should have plenty of desire to try and win it all as soon as they possibly can.
Taking a stab on the Lakers to win it all next season at +850 has tons of value. LeBron’s new team certainly won’t have an easy road, as they will likely have to get through both the Warriors and the Rockets just to make it to the Finals. Still, having LeBron and adding a player of Kawhi’s caliber would close the gap considerably between L.A. and those top dogs in the conference.
There is a strong chance Leonard makes his way to Los Angeles next summer as a free agent, but we just saw with Paul George staying in Oklahoma City that nothing is certain. The Lakers thought George would fall into their laps this summer, but the Thunder were able to convince him to stick around on a new long-term deal. The very same thing could possibly happen with Leonard in Toronto if he is open-minded.
It’s hard to say at this point what the future holds, but it looks as though both the Raptors and the Spurs made out well here. The Raptors were able to shake things up and land a superstar in the process, while the Spurs were able to get Leonard out of their own conference while getting an All-Star and a useful big man in return. The Raptors make for a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference if Leonard plays up to his caliber.