Maybe this was how it was always going to end. Ever since Zaza Pachulia stepped underneath Kawhi Leonard in the 2017 Western Conference finals, Spurs fans have been living a nightmare. The player they thought would inherit Tim Duncan’s kingdom, and lead San Antonio for the next decade, was seriously injured. Then he was disgruntled with the way the team handled that injury. Then he came back, but for only nine games of the 2017-18 season. Then things got really bad: a trade request, a fog of rumors and whispers and blame, and finally, overnight, he was gone. One of the stranger NBA stories in recent memory—the most stable franchise and most selfless star engaged in a spectacular and public feud—came to a strange, anticlimactic conclusion.
I woke up Wednesday to a text from Bill Simmons bat-signaling me for a Kawhi Leonard Emergency Podcast. The Spurs had just dealt their disgruntled superstar, along with Danny Green, to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick. I thought I was dreaming. I would imagine Spurs fans thought it was a nightmare. But it’s real—another complicated NBA breakup with stars trading places. Players of Leonard’s and DeRozan’s magnitude are rarely moved for each other, so there are lots of ramifications and complications attached. But while fans are sorting through their emotions and franchises are redoing their marketing materials, a reality is starting to take shape: This trade may hurt, but it makes sense for both teams.
San Antonio received what seems like a light haul for Leonard, but it was in a no-win situation. Leonard’s value was depreciated: He played only nine games last season because of a quadriceps issue that first surfaced in 2012. And even now, there’s an air of mystery surrounding the severity of that injury and whether it’s still causing him discomfort. There is no guarantee that he’ll return to his MVP-caliber form. With a lack of clarity regarding Leonard’s true value, the Celtics and Sixers weren’t willing to go all in, the Lakers weren’t biting, and any other team with reported interest—Clippers, Suns, Blazers, Nuggets—didn’t offer enough to outbid the Raptors. Multiple league executives say the Spurs were prioritizing scoring in all prospective trade packages for Leonard, not picks or unproven players.
That’s exactly what the Spurs got: a two-time All-NBA player in DeRozan; a solid, young two-way big in Poeltl; and a pick. It’s not too shabby. The Spurs won 47 games last season almost in spite of the Leonard situation. LaMarcus Aldridge carried the load on his way to a year that earned him MVP votes.
This isn’t the first time the Gregg Popovich–R.C. Buford brain trust has resisted public demands to start from scratch. There were calls for drastic measures back in 2011, when the underdog Grizzlies beat San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs. That was the franchise’s second successive postseason disappointment, following the 2010 playoffs, when the Spurs got swept by the Suns in the second round. It seemed like the Tim Duncan window was closing, but the Spurs chose to remodel rather than rebuild. They dealt George Hill for Leonard, who was supposed to be their new Bruce Bowen but then became a star. That changed everything. The team eventually won a fifth championship in 2014, and Leonard was the Finals MVP. San Antonio would be in a better position with a healthy, invested Leonard. But this deal isn’t the end of the world for the league’s winningest franchise this century.
DeRozan and Poeltl will allow the Spurs to sustain their winning ways while bringing along younger talent like second-team All-Defense guard Dejounte Murray, point guard Derrick White, and rookie wing Lonnie Walker IV, an explosive athlete with dynamic scoring upside.
DeRozan is rightfully knocked for his shaky defense and antiquated midrange game in a league where 3s rule the day. But despite his flaws, he’s a proven second- or third-tier star who has mostly stayed healthy over his career. He has been named to back-to-back All-NBA teams and has gotten better each season. In 2017-18, DeRozan developed his playmaking after working all last summer with trainer Chris Farr to improve his passing and shooting. DeRozan averaged 2.8 more potential assists per 40 minutes this season since he looked for teammates instead of jacking up contested jumpers, which helped propel Toronto to its best regular season in franchise history.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, DeRozan’s 3-point shot fell apart midseason; he shot 36.6 percent from 3 through 41 games, then 27 percent for the rest of the season and playoffs combined. Maybe Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland, widely regarded as the best shot doctor in the world, can work his magic on DeRozan to help him consistently reach the level we witnessed early last season. DeRozan resembled a legitimate MVP candidate in the season’s first half by averaging 25.4 points, five assists, and 4.2 rebounds points with a 57.9 true shooting percentage.
Spurs fans have to be disappointed they couldn’t acquire forward OG Anunoby, but Poeltl is a good screener, efficient finisher, and active rebounder who improved as a defender. Pau Gasol is 38. Aldridge is 33. Poeltl gives them a future interior presence.
Playing for the present while building for tomorrow is the Spurs’ way. San Antonio’s dynasty has been defined by relevance; seemingly every year, they are in the conversation about the best teams in the league. That era of relevance isn’t over even though the Leonard era is. They’ll keep winning games while the Warriors’ reign continues for the next season or two, buying themselves time to figure out how to best approach the 2020s.
As for Toronto, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri made the ultimate championship-or-bust move by dealing the best player in franchise history, one who re-signed with the team long-term in 2016 for a better player who reportedly doesn’t even want to be there. It’s a testament to how upside down the league has gotten that this makes its own kind of sense.
As we see more superstar movement, we are also seeing more public ruthlessness by teams. It sucked when an injured Isaiah Thomas was dealt from Boston for Kyrie Irving, and it stinks that such a well-regarded ambassador for Toronto sports got flipped for Leonard. But both Ujiri and Danny Ainge would do those trades over, every day of the week.
Leonard is a necessary risk for the Raptors, a franchise stuck in limbo after experiencing another beatdown by LeBron James. Even after LeBron’s departure to the Lakers, the Raptors weren’t favorites in the East, which boasts Boston, Philadelphia, and possibly even Indiana. Few realistic moves could have helped Toronto, and Ujiri found another team in need of a shake-up in the Spurs. Leonard will either take the Raptors to the next level or accelerate their rebuild.
Leonard might not be happy, but if he returns the same player or better than what he was in 2016-17, the Raptors will immediately improve on both ends. Their defense fell apart on March 18 last season, when the Thunder ended their 11-game win streak. Since that date, they posted a subpar defensive rating of 107.2, including the playoffs. Leonard should help them sustain a higher defensive level along with Green and Anunoby. The Raptors suddenly have three switchable wings who all shoot 3s well along with solid defensive guards (Kyle Lowry, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet). Toronto replaced a turnstile in DeRozan with a brick wall in Leonard. Defense should be the foundation, but it’ll be more intriguing to watch how the team’s offense evolves.
New Raptors coach Nick Nurse should try to revive the Leonard we saw in the 2017 playoffs:
That’s when Popovich funneled more of the offense through Leonard, who averaged 27.7 points and 4.6 assists during his 12-game run. Over this stretch, 40.6 percent of Leonard’s plays came in the pick-and-roll. He was typically dominant as a scorer and showed flashes of greater upside as a playmaker. The Raptors could cast Leonard in this role, and we might witness him undergo a drastic change. It would be like Mark Ruffalo going from Terry in You Can Count On Me to the Hulk in The Avengers.
Maybe a new offensive identity, a run at the MVP award, and a big shoe deal would convince Leonard to stay in Toronto. He’ll have the whole country of Canada behind him and one of the most passionate fan bases in the league rooting for him during a potential Finals run.
Even if Leonard walks after next season, Ujiri still had to make this move. The team was heading toward a rebuild—Leonard’s exit would just expedite it. Lowry, VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka will be unrestricted free agents in 2020. DeRozan could be, too (he has a player option worth $27.7 million for the 2020-21 season). League sources have long felt that Ujiri has had an itch to start over ever since he was named Toronto president in 2013. (The odds are the Raptors wouldn’t have felt compelled to re-sign DeRozan to a big extension in 2020 anyway, the year he turns 31.)
Ujiri also admitted at the 2017 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference that the Raptors “were trying to trade” some of the leftover players from the last regime. But Toronto was too good to rebuild. Circumstances have changed. If Leonard isn’t healthy or makes it clear he’s leaving next summer, or if the team underperforms, Ujiri can let the situation play out then jump-start the rebuild in 2019, or blow it up before the trade deadline by dealing Leonard again.
The Raptors liked Kentucky point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander prior to the draft, The New York Times’ Marc Stein first reported last month. If they still have interest in Gilgeous-Alexander, who was acquired by the Clippers in a draft night trade, then the Clippers could become a possible trade destination for Leonard. The Clippers don’t have a lot else to offer, but Gilgeous-Alexander could turn himself into a highly valuable asset if he successfully follows up his impressive start in the Las Vegas summer league. And if it gets to that point for Toronto, then the Lakers could feel forced to join the bidding war.
For this to happen, Leonard would must produce for the Raps, and Toronto would need to create the type of leverage that the Spurs were unable to. Of all teams for Leonard to be traded to, both Los Angeles franchises have to be feeling good today that Leonard was dealt to the coldest city in the league, and to a worse team on paper than the Celtics or Sixers (both of whom still retain flexibility to make a move for the next star that’s available, though the path to the Finals should be harder with Leonard in Toronto).
If the Raptors do eventually seek a trade, the Lakers or Clippers could try to keep their powder dry until free agency and make a run at outright signing him, thus avoiding the same mistake made by the Knicks in dumping all their valuable pieces for Carmelo Anthony in 2011. The Raptors hope it doesn’t come to that, though. Leonard could be Toronto’s savior.
It was harsh a move to trade DeRozan two years after he committed long-term, but loyalty doesn’t exist in sports. It never has. Leonard is the gamble that raises Toronto’s title odds, and he was available only because he pushed his way out of San Antonio. Ujiri made the right move in trading two years (possibly a third if he opts in) of middling with DeRozan for one year of potential greatness with Leonard. None of the players dealt on Wednesday or the teams have any obligation to be faithful. One chapter of the Leonard drama has been written, but an even stranger one could be coming soon.