NBA fans probably hadn’t even had their morning coffee before learning arguably the most surprising news of the summer: Kawhi Leonard is heading to Toronto, according to multiple reports. The Spurs will send Leonard, the 2014 Finals MVP, to the Raptors for a package including DeMar DeRozan.
Leonard has been embroiled in a dispute with San Antonio for nearly a year now, and told the organization he wanted to be traded earlier this offseason. The former No. 15 pick played in only nine games last season, and has reportedly expressed a strong desire to play in Los Angeles when he becomes a free agent in 2019.
The Raptors won 59 games in 2018, but were swept out of the playoffs in the second round. DeRozan, 28, has spent his entire career in Toronto. He averaged 23 points per game last season.
Toronto reportedly will also acquire Danny Green in the move, while San Antonio will receive DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 first-round pick. Let’s grade the deal for each team.
San Antonio Spurs
It’s clear from this move that San Antonio intends to stay competitive instead of using Leonard to kick off a full rebuild. It’s an, uh, interesting strategy. DeRozan is a good player, and while anyone was going to be a massive downgrade from Leonard, I’m not sure how he’ll fit in San Antonio. The Spurs’ system and coaching staff should be able to lift anyone to their highest potential, but now not only will DeRozan have to worry about another playoff matchup with LeBron, he’ll have to add Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden to his list of postseason obstacles. This isn’t to say that DeRozan will be expected to carry San Antonio the same way Leonard did. But retooling a championship contender around DDR hasn’t shown to be a viable long-term strategy, and that could only be magnified in the West. (DeRozan, by the way, seems genuinely upset with the Raptors for moving him.) Adding to the disappointment of this trade: DeRozan is under contract for at least two more seasons at $27.7 million per year, with a player option for 2020-21. The Spurs added longer salary commitments in this deal, despite receiving a significant downgrade in talent.
Losing Green also hurts. Though he wasn’t quite the sharpshooter he’s been earlier in his career, Green was one of the best perimeter defenders in the league on an affordable contract. If the Spurs are still trying to win, he’s the kind of player you keep around. And how did San Antonio not demand one of the Raptors’ young players be included? Poeltl won’t exactly make anyone excited, especially when the Spurs could have reasonably targeted someone like OG Anunoby.
The question for San Antonio will ultimately be: Was there a better package available? We may never really know. The Lakers, who appear clear to wait for Kawhi and punt on this season, maybe never made their best offer. The Sixers probably never got serious about offering Markelle Fultz. When viewed through that lens, the Spurs didn’t do an awful job. But San Antonio will be second guessed for not ultimately choosing the “prospects and flexibility” route as opposed to trading for an established player. You can never really win when trading a superstar. And Pop deserves better than to coach a tanking team in the twilight of his career. Still, this deal could have fascinating consequences for years to come for the Spurs. Hopefully they didn’t send Leonard to Toronto out of spite.
This is a worthy gamble for the Raptors. On one hand, Leonard has apparently already expressed he does not want to be in Toronto. On the other, the Raps are acquiring a top-five player in the league (when healthy) and potentially massively upgrading a team that was the No. 1 seed in the conference, that saw its bogeyman (LeBron) head West. Will Leonard operate in good faith? That’s the biggest question here. We’ve already seen him basically sit out a whole season—will he do that again? It would be shocking if Leonard basically gave up two seasons of his prime by not reporting to the Raptors, but this whole situation has been oddly handled from the start. Assuming Kawhi is ready to play though, Toronto is going to be very interesting next year. The Raptors should be right in the mix with the Celtics and Sixers if they can coax a full effort from Leonard. Convincing him to stay for the future will be a whole different problem, but acquiring a talent like Kawhi and figuring it out from there is kind of a no-brainer.
(Adding Green is gravy. He’s a great defender, and he will give Toronto some good lineup flexibility it’s often lacked in the playoffs. A Kyle Lowry-Green-Leonard-Anunoby foursome has potential no matter who is playing center. First-year coach Nick Nurse is going to have some very accomplished pieces to play with.)
The beauty in the move for the Raptors is even if Leonard never shows up or is on cruise control for the whole season, dealing DeRozan is beneficial either way. Toronto had clearly maxed out with its current core, and the Sixers and Celtics seem poised to overtake the Raptors sooner rather than later. If Leonard flames out, the Raptors can rebuild on the fly without DeRozan‘s contract weighing them down. (Leonard and Green are both essentially expiring deals.) Ultimately, Toronto was paying superstar money for someone who hadn’t proven he could carry the franchise in the playoffs. In the Kawhi trade, the Raptors acquire a true superstar who’s already gone toe-to-toe with LeBron in a Finals series, and another useful piece with postseason experience. And if one or both of Green and Leonard decide to leave, Toronto can go to work on building a new roster with championship potential without a max contract weighing it down. There’s risk involved here for the Raptors, but it’s the kind you have to take for a talent like Leonard.