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Three Takeaways From the Kawhi Leonard–DeMar DeRozan Blockbuster Trade

Kawhi to the Raptors! DeRozan to the Spurs! Let’s make sense of the biggest trade of the NBA offseason.

DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kawhi Leonard’s long nightmare is over—and it’s time for a new one. Leonard ran out of patience in San Antonio last season, as he didn’t play for the Spurs after mid-January amid a prolonged saga that saw Kawhi get injured and then his relationship with the franchise deteriorate. As of Wednesday, Leonard’s trade wish has come true, with San Antonio agreeing to a deal.

But be careful what you wish for. Leonard is heading to the Raptors, a team that, according to ESPN’s Chris Haynes, he has “no desire” to play for. In return, the Spurs will reportedly get a package headlined by All-Star DeMar DeRozan, making this the most star-studded trade since last offseason’s Kyrie Irving–for–Isaiah Thomas deal.

The trade shakes up the East’s power dynamic—and puts a lot of players in genuinely weird situations. Here are three quick thoughts on the deal.

1. The Raptors Want a Finals Appearance Now

LeBron James has been very mean to the Raptors. Toronto has been one of the strongest teams in the Eastern Conference for years now, winning the Atlantic Division four times in the past five seasons and earning the East’s no. 1 seed in 2017-18 behind a franchise-record 59 wins. But James has repeatedly crushed the Raptors’ dreams, sweeping them out of the playoffs in each of the past two years. Toronto’s franchise high point remains a 2016 conference finals berth (a six-game series loss to LeBron’s Cavs). With LeBron signing in Los Angeles this summer and canceling his annual reservation for the East’s NBA Finals slot, however, the conference is suddenly wide open—and the Raps no longer have to worry about the guy who has repeatedly ruined their best-laid plans.

Had they laid low this offseason, the Raptors would have entered the 2018-19 campaign as one of the East’s top contenders. They were the top seed last season, and their biggest antagonist has left. But they chose to upgrade from DeRozan, an All-Star, to Leonard, an MVP candidate when healthy. In replacing a star with a superstar, they could become the East’s team to beat.

Of course, Toronto had to give up a bit of its future to make this deal happen. DeRozan was the Raptors’ franchise player—he’s the team’s all-time leader in points and games played—and is under contract through 2019-20 (with a player option for 2020-21). The Raptors also are set to give up a protected 2019 first-round pick and 22-year-old center Jakob Poeltl. The Raptors have a solid core of young, homegrown talent, but those players were expected to grow alongside DeRozan, who was committed to being Toronto’s star for a few years. Instead, Leonard will almost certainly leave in free agency next offseason, when he can opt out of his contract. With DeRozan gone and Leonard likely leaving … will OG Anunoby be Toronto’s best player in 2020?

This is the Raps’ window. The Celtics and Sixers both seem like budding Eastern Conference powerhouses, but they’re still young and figuring out the full extent of their capabilities. So Toronto has taken a contender and added Leonard, who immediately becomes the best player in the East, in the hopes of reaching heights the franchise never has. (And then losing to the Warriors in the Finals, because, well, that’s all non–Golden State teams can really hope for these days.)

2. This Trade Makes Everybody Involved Sad

Role players generally don’t have any say in where they’re being traded; when it comes to stars like Leonard and DeRozan, though, the players’ desires are typically taken into account. This makes sense: Franchises don’t often choose to invest in franchise-caliber players who do not like that given franchise. This move is the exception.

Leonard reportedly does not want to go to Toronto. He’d been hoping to go to his hometown of Los Angeles. Toronto isn’t the NBA city farthest from L.A., but it’s pretty damn close. It snows there, and instead of cartons of milk Ontario sells bags of milk, which you’re supposed to cut open and put into a pitcher. A bag filled with liquid! Ridiculous. Kawhi wanted to be traded somewhere that felt more like home than San Antonio. Instead, he will spend all of February looking at the thermometer and being mad that both (a) it’s really freaking cold, and (b) his logic that “Wait—maybe it’s actually warm, because that temperature is in degrees Celsius” is flawed, and yes, it’s really freaking cold.

DeRozan reportedly isn’t happy either! Toronto has become his home. Like Leonard, DeRozan is from L.A.; unlike Leonard, he’s become a huge fan of living in Canada. He garnered huge interest from the Lakers and Clippers when he was a free agent in 2016, and passed on both to sign a long-term deal with the Raptors. Here he is talking about his goal of becoming the greatest Raptor of all time, and how he enjoys celebrating Thanksgiving twice, the Canadian version in October and the American version in November. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have also become best friends. DeRozan bought Lowry soap! They think their kids are in love!

With this deal, both Leonard and DeRozan will be dumped into places they’ll probably dislike. Then again, Kawhi seemed pretty sad in San Antonio and rarely smiles in general. Maybe he just hates everything?

Also probably sad: LeBron James, who chose to play for the Lakers ostensibly in the hope that he could team up with Leonard or Paul George. Instead, George is content to smoke cigars and lose in the first round of the playoffs with Russell Westbrook, while Leonard will have to wait a year if he wants to come to L.A. Good luck with Lance and Lonzo, LeBron!

3. Gregg Popovich Is Gearing Up for One Last Run

Pop is 69 years old. The 2018-19 campaign will mark his 23rd consecutive season coaching the Spurs, tying him with Jerry Sloan for the most seasons coaching a single franchise in NBA history. The second-longest-tenured active head coach in the league is Erik Spoelstra, who took the reins with the Heat 12 years after Pop took over the Spurs. Pop has been with the Spurs forever; he probably won’t be with the Spurs for two forevers.

So it appears that Pop wants to win during his last few years on the sideline. The Spurs probably could have gotten more youthful parts in a trade for Leonard, as the most-rumored deal of the offseason revolved around San Antonio acquiring Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers, although it’s unclear whether such an offer was ever on the table. One also imagines that the Spurs could have gotten more of the Raptors’ younger talent: Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, etc. Instead, the Spurs got a legit star they can plug into Leonard’s spot in the starting lineup on Day 1. They took a roster that made the playoffs in the West, exchanged one All-Star for another, and positioned themselves to compete over the next few years.

Just looking at last season’s record and result, the Spurs’ run of relevance seemed over: They won 47 games in 2017-18, their lowest total this century, and won just a single playoff game, their low mark since 2009. Considering that the team on the court didn’t feature Leonard for most of the year and has now added an All-Star, though, I’d bet on Pop constructing this group into something reasonable. Pop was never going out with a rebuild.