The NBA’s third season has been evolving for nearly a decade. Ever since The Decision in 2010, July has become an increasingly poor time for anyone with an interest in NBA transactions to take a vacation. Summer is the time for blockbuster trades and seismic shifts by way of free-agency signings. The complete takeover of July is a coup for the league, a boon for the NBA media (except those looking to partake in celebrity yachting season in the Mediterranean or a mere day trip to the nearest beach), and a new form of entertainment for fans. The benefits for the players, aside from the accumulation of wealth that comes with a new, fat contract, are less clear. Today, Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan cannot be enjoying the latest chapter of Transactional Theater.
Leonard is heading north of the border, DeRozan is leaving his best NBA friend and the team he seemed eager to rep in perpetuity, and nobody is happy. Danny Green is also repatriating to Canada, and Toronto is sending Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 protected first-round pick to San Antonio. This is not the end of the Kawhi Leonard contretemps that many expected, though perceptive ears at summer league in Las Vegas may have had a sense. Leonard and his group made his desire to play in Los Angeles, a premiere basketball market, very well known. Toronto may be Canada’s biggest city and a world-class food destination, but Leonard and his group are likely not wondering, “Keke, do you love me?” For Leonard, this trade is tantamount to an exile.
He’ll play out the remainder of his contract alongside Kyle Lowry and a promising young team. The Raptors could be Finals-bound with Leonard, but a healthy Celtics squad will still be the favorite in the East, and the Sixers will be lurking. It’s hard to see this trade as anything other than a punishment from the Spurs. San Antonio ignored his request, sending him to the other conference instead of a Western rival, presumably because Kawhi opted to sit out all but nine games last season to treat his ailing quad, refused to cooperate with the Spurs way, and seemingly leaked his interest in the Lakers to the media in ways his group deemed beneficial. Ultimately, Leonard had little leverage outside of threatening to sit out this season, and as free agency played out since July 1, the possible destinations that San Antonio would facilitate deals with diminished.
The return for Leonard isn’t nothing. DeRozan is an All-Star who has improved and modified his game in impressive ways. But when hypothetical trade offers were discussed, DeRozan, a secondary player from the scrappy 2017-18 Raptors Bench Mob, and a pick were never proffered. That’s because it’s not a good enough offer. It is far from the rumored Godfather offers that the Spurs reportedly sought from the Celtics and the Lakers. The Spurs and the Raptors are both inheriting aggrieved players who reportedly don’t want to be on their new teams and are furious with the teams from which they came. DeRozan took to his Instagram story to imply that he was lied to and that the Raptors have no loyalty. It’s hard to disagree on the second part, even accepting that the NBA is a business and team president Masai Ujiri had to make tough decisions after enduring an embarrassing sweep in the Eastern Conference semifinals. DeRozan re-signed a near-max deal with the Raptors in 2016, without the assurance that his buddy Lowry would follow suit (though he did on a shorter deal a year later).
July has become a frenzied month in which the league is remade. For five consecutive summers, a marquee player has switched teams and changed the terrain for the coming season. Usually it’s fun, and, increasingly, the changes are to the players’ benefits. LeBron James has made landmark decisions for himself and his family three times in a decade. Kevin Durant joined the enemy to get a ring. Chris Paul found a way out of the Clippers. Those moves elicited a round of “holy shit!” followed by giddy prognostication. This trade has elicited a round of “Wait, what? That’s it?” followed by a survey of the collateral damage. The Spurs seem petulant in their move to send Leonard almost as far from Los Angeles as possible, while the Raptors seem callous in trading away one of the team’s devout stars. DeMar DeRozan is one of the more lovable guys in the league, a leading voice in the NBA’s campaign to discuss mental health, and one-half of the most fun friendship in the league. This is not a fun trade.
With the rising stakes that each NBA summer brings, the definitive answer to who controls the NBA has gotten murkier. The superstars have done their best to assert their power. Durant’s and James’s insistence on short-term deals (until James’s recent four-year agreement with the Lakers) has kept their options open, while limiting the amount of long-term planning that their respective teams can engage in. Paul engineered a trade to Houston, and both Paul George and Kyrie Irving asked to be sent elsewhere. San Antonio and Toronto halted the trend of player control with one dreary move.
An earlier version of this piece stated that Toronto is one of Canada’s biggest cities; it is the biggest.