Everyone woke up Wednesday morning to an NBA bombshell — Kawhi Leonard being traded to the Toronto Raptors in a deal centered around DeMar DeRozan. That’s a lot to absorb before the first cup of coffee.
This was far from perfect but as good a deal as San Antonio was going to get. It’s not equal value, the Spurs wing defense just got a lot worse, but with other teams keeping their best assets out of trades the Spurs got a player who was an All-Star and All-NBA (second team) last season, one who keeps them relevant for a few years (until Gregg Popovich likely retires). This delays the impending rebuild a couple of years. And, they sent Leonard out of the West.
Here are my five big takeaways from the blockbuster trade:
1) The Toronto Raptors won this trade. This was a bold and smart move by the Raptors on multiple levels. While the Lakers, 76ers, Celtics and everyone else slow-played this trade — or only offered picks and young players for a rebuild the Spurs did not want to start yet — Raptors GM Masai Ujiri jumped in with both feet and gave the Spurs something they wanted in DeRozan, an All-Star player who keeps them in the playoffs and dangerous right now. That was enough.
There are two key reasons this trade works for the Raptors (it’s a solid double, if not a home run). First, they didn’t give up much outside DeRozan — just Jakob Poeltl (who did show promise in his two years in Toronto) and a top-20 protected pick in the down 2019 draft. Toronto got to keep OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam, the young group of players they are high on. If Leonard is healthy — something we do not know for sure, he could be slowed slightly and be merely good rather than transcendent — Leonard is an upgrade over DeRozan and the4 Raptors are a threat to the Celtics at the top of the East.
Second, now the Raptors have a season to try to both win a ring and win Leonard over. The ring may be a lot to ask, but if Leonard is playing like an MVP again a trip to the Finals is certainly not out of the question. And once there, anything can happen.
The attempts to win Leonard over long-term probably will fail, but the Raptors get to take their shot. Toronto is a city a lot of players love to visit, the Raptors have a large and passionate fan base (all across Canada, they are a national team), and the Raptors are going to win a lot of games. Toronto also has more money: The Raptors can offer Leonard a five-year, $189.6 million contract next summer, the most any other team can put on the table is a four-year, $140.6 million. ($140 million is a lot less than the $221 million the Spurs could have guaranteed.) The model is Paul George in Oklahoma City, but the difference is George was open to the idea of staying from the moment he stepped off the plane (where Thunder GM Sam Presti made sure there were a lot of Thunder fans to cheer and greet him). Leonard likely is not so open minded.
If Leonard bolts next summer, then the Raptors took their big swing and start a rebuild (that they have discussed internally in the past year). It’s not a massive setback.
2) Kawhi Leonard — and his uncle/management — did not get what they expected or wanted. Around the league, there is a lot of talk about Leonard’s Uncle Dennis/advisors wanting to build a marketing empire around the 27-year-old entering his prime. To get an idea of their plans, think about what LeBron James or Russell Westbrook have with their brands. The sense was Leonard’s team felt the small market of San Antonio and the team-first style of the Spurs were holding them back. (Leonard’s stoic personality is a bigger part of that problem, but we’ll table that discussion for now.) Plenty around the league think those close to Leonard fanned the flames of discontent surrounding the injury and treatment until it was a full-blown fire and Leonard decided he wanted out of town.
Leonard (and his camp) reportedly are not happy campers right now.
The Spurs will have no response but a sly smile (they took the best deal on the table for them). Offers were not going to improve, and the Spurs did now want the zoo of bringing Leonard into training camp.
Leonard is a free agent next summer and can go to the Lakers or Clippers (or Knicks or Sixers or any other team he wants). However, to get the max contract he wants Leonard will have to prove he’s healthy and back to his MVP-level ways — and that means suiting up and playing for the Raptors. Sit out another year — via hold out or with the quad injury — and no team is going to jump in with a max.
3) DeMar DeRozan may be pissed now, but he will come around. Leonard wasn’t the only player unhappy with the trade — DeRozan had been loyal to Toronto, didn’t even meet with other teams in 2016, was active in the community, and was told at Summer League he would not be traded. Then, wham.
DeRozan has every right to be angry. Then he will get over it — the Spurs are maybe the most welcoming organization in the league. The city of San Antonio will embrace him. Most importantly, Gregg Popovich will understand DeRozan and put him in spots he likes on the court, places he can do damage. DeRozan will get to the line, make passes (he’s become a quality playmaker) and — at least during the regular season — make the Spurs a challenge every night.
San Antonio — with DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge — will be the kings of the midrange jumper, although both are pretty efficient at it. The Spurs wing defense will be unimpressive, something a little disturbing in a conference with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and now LeBron James. San Antonio will be no threat to Golden State or Houston, but they will be relevant. DeRozan will come to enjoy it.
4) The Lakers will just wait this out… and be a little nervous. Clippers, too. On the one hand, we saw this movie last summer: The Lakers choose not to put their best young players into a trade to secure an elite player because they believed said star will come to them in free agency. Only he didn’t, the next summer decides to stay put in the Midwest — without even meeting with the Lakers — and the Los Angeles misses out.
On the other hand, Leonard to the Raptors feels different from Paul George to the Thunder — George was open to the idea of playing with Russell Westbrook and seeing what the experience was like. As noted above Leonard is not happy being sent north of the border. It’s early, but good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks he stays long term. Next summer Leonard likely will bolt, and while the list of options could expand beyond the two teams in Los Angeles, that pair remains at the forefront. (As noted before, while the Lakers are the consensus favorites to land him, I heard from sources around the league that is no lock. The Clippers are in play.)
For the Lakers, even if they miss out on Leonard next summer, things still line up well: They have cap space, LeBron, and the market most players be in. They will land someone.
Still, the Lakers have to be a little nervous that things change with Leonard over the course of next season. Maybe it’s the Raptors, or maybe he likes the East and the idea of playing with Kristaps Porzingis, or maybe a million things. It should make them a little nervous, because in the NBA crazy things happen.
5) Just a reminder, loyalty in the NBA is dead. Next time you want to complain about how players are not loyal to teams/cities anymore, remember this move. Just a week ago in Las Vegas, Raptors officials told DeRozan to ignore the rumors, he was not getting traded. This is a player who — where Vince Carter and others tanked/pushed their way out of the city — embraced all things Toronto. He was active in the community. He spoke openly of wanting to be a Raptor for life and the greatest Raptor of all time. He was the willing face of their franchise.
They traded him anyway.
It’s a cold, cold business. Teams treat players like assets, and more and more players are treating teams the same way. Loyalty is nearly forgotten, and rarely rewarded,
It’s just fans that pay.