The NBA world woke up to a huge surprise this morning, where the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes finally drew to a conclusion. San Antonio elected to trade Kawhi Leonard along with Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl, and a protected first-round pick, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. According to Woj, the Raptors and Spurs have been in trade talks for a few weeks now, where talks have almost died along the process. However, after much speculation of Kawhi wanting out of San Antonio and talks of him being interested in joining the Lakers after this next season, the Spurs were finally able to get him out of town with at least something in return.
There was a lot of rumors of the Spurs trying to get a trade package from the Lakers, but San Antonio refused to send Kawhi to a Western Conference rival such as the Lakers, especially after they were able to sign LeBron James. However, the Spurs refusing to make a deal with the Lakers could prove to be regretful for them, for the Lakers potentially had the best young package of players they could have offered (Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, etc.), but who knows how those trade talks went down, if there even were trade talks.
However, still looking at it from the Spurs side, DeRozan was probably the best player they could have received from any trade, therefore forgoing any kind of rebuilding process, keeping their intentions clear that they remain focused to stay competitive. Poetl and the protected first-round pick are nice sweeteners to add to the deal, but after losing both Kyle Anderson and franchise-great Tony Parker, it remains unclear to see if this team can even be competitive in the loaded Western Conference, especially with the Golden State Warriors’ reign seeming to not have an end anytime soon.
Now, as for the Raptors, this deal at first glance seems silly. My initial thought was “what are the Raptors doing?” Kawhi becomes a free agent after this upcoming season, so he will have his choice to play wherever he wants, and there will be 29 other teams that will gladly have him on their roster that will be competing with Toronto to get him to play with their team. Why give up DeRozan, fresh off arguably his best season which led Toronto to the top seed in the East, for a rental player in Kawhi?
Then I looked at it a little deeper. Let’s compare this to the Paul George situation last offseason with the Indiana Pacers. He also made it clear that he was unhappy in Indy, and stated that he wanted to play in L.A. Then comes the Oklahoma City Thunder, who jumped in and made a trade for George, which, again, initially looked like they gave up some key pieces for a rental player (albeit wasn’t as big as a package as the Raptors are giving up for Leonard). Then this offseason rolls around, and lo and behold OKC was able to resign George to remain with the team. If a small-market team like OKC can convince George to stay, who’s to say a large market city like Toronto can’t do the same with Leonard?
Here’s the other thing. Let’s say the experiment doesn’t pan out and Leonard decides to walk next season. Worst case scenario, Toronto dumped DeRozan’s contract to create a little more cap room for the class of next offseason. They also have a few player and team-options that may get declined that will create even more room for moves to make in free agency, as well as some younger players on the roster to already build around (OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet all played serious minutes last season). This team won’t be in terrible shape if Leonard leaves. They won’t be as good as they were without DeRozan or Leonard, but there had to be change in this organization. Things just weren’t working for the Raptors, and change needed to be made, and that’s exactly what president Masai Ujiri did with this trade.
Big picture here is that the East got worse this offseason with LeBron’s departure, with Toronto, Boston, and Philadelphia looking to be the serious contenders to come out of the Eastern Conference finals. Toronto may have felt that they couldn’t compete with the likes of the Celtics and Philadelphia, especially with Boston getting Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back for the next year’s playoffs, and Philly’s youth to make step forward to progress. This trade makes Toronto better, and with a potential starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Green, Leonard, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas, along with some of those younger players coming off the bench, this team has the makings to be a serious contender in the East.
Another team that was not directly involved with the trade but will almost assuredly be brought up are the Lakers. They were the favorites to land Kawhi, especially this offseason in hopes of forming their own super team with LeBron, Kawhi, and potentially George or DeMarcus Cousins. The swung and missed on everyone except LeBron, but they there is still hope for next season. Next year’s free agent class has some big names, Leonard being one of them. If Kawhi is unhappy in Toronto, then Los Angeles is instantly labeled the favorite to land him. Does this trade hurt or help their chances to land him? It’s hard to determine at this point. One would think it would help, but again, we can look at the George situation from last year, so a repeat occurrence could happen. Personally, I felt they should have made a trade for him so they could resign him and bring in a third star without having to worry about going over the cap. Signing Leonard in free agency means less money to spend on a third star, for teams are allowed to go over the salary cap when resigning their own player.
San Antonio’s back was up against the wall here. A lot of pressure was on them to trade Leonard after he was unhappy with them, ultimately giving the leverage to other teams in the league. The Spurs risked playing Leonard this season and him walking for nothing in return, so they had to make a move. Personally, I (and the whole NBA universe) thought a trade with Lakers would be beneficial for both sides. The Lakers would get their second star to play along LeBron as well as having the ability to resign him and go for a third star in next season’s free agency class. In return, the Spurs would land a package to start a rebuild with a solid nucleus of younger players. To me, this would be perfect for the Spurs. Push back their window to contend a few years while Golden State continues their dominance for the foreseeable future.
Ultimately, landing DeRozan for Leonard while there was the possibility of no teams biting on a trade winds up making this a win for the Spurs. Could they have gotten a better deal? Sure. But they also could have gotten nothing for Leonard, and landing DeRozan was probably the best, already established star they could have landed with any team willing to trade for Leonard. We will see how the DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge duo will work out; both of whom make their living from mid-range. Toronto will have to do their best to convince Leonard that this will be the place to be, and that he is better off playing in the East than the West. If Leonard walks next season, then it will be disappointing for the Raptors, but not devastating. Change needed to be made in Toronto, and Kawhi was well worth the gamble for them.