What the Kawhi Leonard – DeMar DeRozan Trade Means For the NBA

It was sometime in December last season, as the city of Toronto was frozen in the cold, the five most important members of the Raptors’ front office were pacing around in the chamber of General Manager Masai Ujiri, along with franchise cornerstone, DeMar DeRozan.
In the words of DeRozan himself, “I didn’t know what the hell was going on, I thought, S***, I know I can’t be traded. It was like I was being called into the principal’s office.”
Turns out, the meeting wasn’t necessarily as malevolent as DeRozan had imagined (atleast at that point of time). Infact, Ujiri hailed DeRozan for having the potential to be the Kobe Bryant or Tim Duncan of Toronto. Superstars who stayed with one team during their entire career and because of their greatness, ensured their team’s status as a contender every year. But, there was a catch. Ujiri told DeRozan that he could only become a transcendent Raptor if he improved on the weakest aspect of his game, 3 point shooting. Spurred by the possibility of becoming like his heroes, DeRozan went to work and started taking (and making) more 3s during games. The Raptors finished the season with a franchise record 59 wins and locked up the first seed in the Eastern Conference. So far, so good.

However, in the playoffs, they came face to face with their perennial nemesis, LeBron James. Even with all the improvements the Raptors made during the regular season, the result was no different from the previous years. LeBron James did all but rip the heart out of the chests of the Raptors players during the series. DeRozan played alright during Games 1 and 2 but for Games 3 and 4 in Cleveland, it seemed that all of DeRozan’s game didn’t clear customs when they crossed the border into America. He went 0 of 9 from long distance and spent the fourth quarter of a must win Game 3 on the bench. This was the last meaningful game he played for the Raptors, a city that he loved and one that loved him back. It was a beautiful yet unusual relationship. American superstars had never really loved playing in Canada. The taxes are higher, it is colder and you have to go through customs for every road game that you play. Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh are prime examples of superstars who left Toronto for greener pastures.

When DeRozan signed his last contract extension, he talked about how much he loved the city and how he believed there is so much left for him to accomplish here. Even during the Summer League at Las Vegas, he was assured by team authorities that he won’t be traded.
And just like that, DeMar DeRozan has been shipped off to San Antonio, as a part of the somewhat anticlmactic culmination of the Kawhi Leonard trade saga. This deal (especially after LeBron James’ departure from the East) can help Toronto reach the NBA Finals for the very first time, while also providing an option for a complete rebuild next season.
The Raptors gave up DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected first-round pick and acquired 3 and D specialist Danny Green along with Leonard in the exchange.
When LeBron James opted out of his deal with the Cavaliers and joined the Los Angeles Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs lost a lot of leverage when it came to trading Leonard. They suffered another blow when James didn’t really demand for another superstar before signing with the Lakers. In fact, the Spurs lost leverage with every second that passed.
Leonard’s refusal to play with the Spurs even after the team doctors cleared him, led to a steep decline in the relationship. Because of an almost no-show last season, nobody knew if he was even going to be physically ready to play this season. On top of that, he openly declared that the only thing he cared about, was playing for a Los Angeles based team. This proclamation discouraged potential suitors from other teams from making offers. They didn’t want to blow their team up for a player who might only stay for one season. Leonard’s camp made this info very public that he had no intentions of suiting up for the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors weren’t threatened by it. Since they can fine Leonard for every practice or game that he misses, amounting to his entire $20.1 million salary, they didn’t buy into the possibility of Leonard not reporting to the Raptors training facility.
The Raptors organization firmly believed that they can sway Leonard into re-signing with them. The allure of a diverse, multicultural city with a loyal fan base (including superfan Drake) might just be enough to entice Leonard in 2019. However, these things are easier said than done. The Raptors have a rookie coach in Nick Nurse and for a player who has been coached by coaching royalty, Gregg Popovich, that’s hardly impressive. General Manager Masai Ujiri is known to be charismatic and influential with players. Maybe he can work his magic. Maybe a trip to the NBA Finals will help. Especially after LeBron James’ departure, the Eastern Conference is ready for a new champion. The Toronto Raptors, along with the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers are the top contenders for the recently vacated throne.
By the mid-season trade deadline, the Raptors can get a better idea of Leonard’s future plans. If he still seems intent on leaving, they can try to trade him to the Clippers or the Lakers. It will definitely be a downgrade from Leonard, but they can at least get something back. If that also doesn’t work out, the Raptors can start a complete rebuild after Leonard departs in free agency. They jettisoned the last three years of DeRozan’s expensive contract and don’t have to worry about getting caught in the dilemma of re-signing him to a ‘Supermax’ in his 30s.
And as far as being a contender for one year goes, if Leonard can return to his MVP level of play, he is definitely going to be an improvement over DeRozan. The addition of Danny Green also improves the defence significantly.
Five years after Ujiri was hired as the general manager of the Toronto Raptors, he has finally put his imprint on the team. He went beyond the usual, finding steals in the draft and undoing contractual mistakes from the past (Rudy Gay and DeMarre Carroll). He got rid of an expensive player who was good, but couldn’t take them to the next level and got a player, who at his best, is one of the top 3 players in the league instead.

In the process, the Raptors didn’t lose their best prospects OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. They also managed to retain valuable role players like Delon Wright and Fred Van Vleet. A lineup with Leonard, Anunoby, and Green can be very formidable with their defensive prowess and 3 point shooting. However, the irony in this situation is hard to ignore. The Raptors have finally got two players who can guard LeBron James, one of whom is widely considered to be the best option to guard James in the entire league. But, LeBron James is gone from the East now.
The departure of Jakob Poeltl, a solid and nimble center with a very high basketball IQ almost ensures that big man Jonas Valanciunas is not going anywhere. However, the ceiling for Valanciunas doesn’t seem to be much higher than the level he is currently playing at.
For the Spurs franchise and it’s fans, the end of the Kawhi Leonard trade saga might come as a relief, but it’s also bittersweet. Not so long ago, he was hailed as the franchise torch-bearer for the post Tim Duncan era. TNT’s NBA analyst Steve Smith had famously said that Leonard was ‘born to be a Spur’. Even today, the real reason behind the decay of the team-player relationship seems to be a mystery for the fans. The airwaves are rife with speculation, and no real description.

Sources close to Leonard’s camp say that after his Finals MVP performance in 2014, he was annoyed by the fact that the Spurs delayed offering him a max contract in order to keep some cap space for next year’s Free Agency.  However, he eventually understood the logic and accepted it.
Last year, the team doctors and Leonard’s personal doctors disagreed on the nature of his injury and the designated time frame for his return. However, that’s not very unusual and happens in the NBA from time to time. That couldn’t have been the only reason for the fracture of the relationship. It must’ve been a combination of things. And now, Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor.
On the surface, getting DeRozan for Leonard is a downgrade but it was also the best that the Spurs could get in the current market. Gregg Popovich is probably not interested in spending his last few coaching years at the helm of a rebuilding team. That was apparently the biggest reason why the Spurs never showed any interest in trade packages which were loaded with draft picks and unproven young prospects (Philadelphia and Boston). The Celtics weren’t ready to even trade Jaylen Brown unless they got some kind of assurance about Leonard’s health status. The package of Robert CovingtonDario Saric, and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick, offered from the 76ers didn’t impress the Spurs. As per Markelle Fultz, there was never any concrete discussion between the Spurs and the 76ers about him. The Spurs made it clear that any deal with the 76ers will require at least Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid.

As per league sources, trade talks with Boston and Philly froze weeks ago. Reportedly, the Spurs lowered their asking price with other potential trade partners. However, no realistic deal was built.
Getting DeRozan for Leonard ensures at least one thing for the Spurs, they are going to make the playoffs this season as well. Last season, they won 47 games and secured the 7th seed without Kawhi Leonard for the majority of the season and with a line-up that was riddled with injuries. DeRozan and All Star LaMarcus Aldridge can launch 40+ mid range jumpers in a game and ensure that the Spurs win at least 50 games over the season.
However, this move is only a short term fix. With Kawhi Leonard gone, a rebuild is imminent. DeRozan is a good player but he is not a franchise altering talent like Leonard. The Spurs might make the playoffs while the two of them are there, but they aren’t really going to contend for a title.
Since DeRozan has 3 years of his contract remaining, the Spurs can trade him to acquire pieces for a rebuild. However, the trade value of a high volume, mid range jump shooter isn’t very high in today’s NBA. So it’s unlikely that the Spurs will get anything much more than his inefficient 20 points per game over 3 years.
For Kawhi Leonard’s dream destination of the Los Angeles Lakers, not trading for Leonard is a calculated risk which will help them preserve their young prospects like Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball. Paul George choosing to stay with OKC was an anomaly and the Lakers management was wise enough to see through that.

By not trading for Leonard now, the Lakers can aggressively pursue free agents in the 2019 class. They will have LeBron James, cap space, and the league’s most glamourous city to entice free agents like Klay Thompson and Leonard. Yes, acquiring Leonard now would’ve made them a stronger threat to the Warriors for this season, but choosing to not rid their team of young talent might end up being more helpful in the long run.
The Toronto Raptors should expect sustained excellence on both ends of the floor from Kawhi Leonard. The former Finals MVP is a proven clutch performer, quite unlike the hit or miss duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Leonard is an excellent 3 point shooter. An extremely valuable asset in today’s NBA. Aside from being a low post threat, Leonard is also far more efficient than DeRozan from the mid range. Defensively, DeRozan at his best is only slightly better than Kawhi Leonard at his absolute worst. Leonard is on the way to joining Scottie Pippen as two of the greatest perimeter defenders in NBA history.
This move seems to be worth a shot in every sense for the Raptors. What Kawhi Leonard wants, nobody really knows. He might want to play with LeBron James and the Lakers, he might want to lead his own team with the Clippers or who knows, if the Raptors impress him enough, he might commit to staying long term with them. One year is a long time. People, seasons, decisions, everything can change through it.
One’s heart might go out for DeRozan. A guy from sunny California made the frigid confines of Toronto his home. He embraced the team and the fans. He didn’t even meet other teams during his free agency. He worked hard and got better every season and despite all assurances, he was shipped out.
This is the harsh ‘business’ side of things in the NBA. DeRozan might be sad, Raptors might be happy, Leonard might be confused and the Spurs might be relieved. Whatever the case maybe, they will all move on in the end, one way or another.

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