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What to Make of the Post-Kawhi-Trade NBA

Are the Raptors the team to beat in the East? Are the Spurs a playoff team with DeMar DeRozan? And who is the biggest challenger to the Warriors? We reassess the NBA landscape after Leonard’s move to Toronto.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA looks a bit different than it did at the beginning of the week. The Western star migration finally came to a halt with Toronto’s trade for Kawhi Leonard. But are the Raptors even the team to beat in the East with an MVP candidate in the fold? Our NBA staff contemplates that and more big questions brought about by Wednesday’s deal:

1. OK, now who’s the favorite in the East?

Jason Concepcion: Assuming Kawhi is healthy and engaged, the Raptors. Leonard basically melts DeMar DeRozan in every aspect of the game. He’s a solid 3-point threat who can score in a variety of ways—pull-ups, post-ups, drives—and he’s the more efficient player overall. And on defense, he’s Kawhi Leonard. He’s a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He’s one of four forwards since 1990, along with Scottie Pippen, Gerald Wallace, and Draymond Green, to lead the league in steals, and he gets his rips in the flow of the game without gambling. Danny Green as the throw-in is interesting because he’s legitimately a good player. The Raptors’ clutch of vibrant young players—Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam—will be one season better and Kyle Lowry is still a junkyard dog baying at the moon. Yes, the Boston Celtics will have Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back. But I give the Raps the edge. They’re a real threat to make the Finals.

Jonathan Tjarks: The Celtics. The Raptors are a more formidable team if Kawhi is healthy and engaged, but Boston is still loaded. The Celtics’ starting five of Irving, Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Al Horford is incredible, and they also brought back Marcus Smart, their best perimeter defender and one of the vocal leaders of the team. The only real concern for Boston is managing the egos of everyone involved.

Danny Chau: It’s still the Celtics until proved otherwise, especially if Kawhi decides to sit out and watch a chunk of his next-year salary lit on fire. Leonard’s arrival in Toronto shifts the axis out East, but so do Irving and Hayward, neither of whom played in last year’s playoffs. The Celtics are built for every style, every climate, and every conceivable challenge they would possibly face in their conference. If Hayward returns at even 80 percent of what he was in his final season with the Jazz, that’s an invaluable two-way player to pair with every other two-way player they have on their roster. Unless Kawhi suddenly has a change of heart up North, or unless Ben Simmons suddenly becomes Reggie Miller from 3, I don’t see Boston losing ground.

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Philadelphia’s shaky playoff exit highlighted Boston’s depth—without Irving or Hayward. The C’s retained their roster this offseason and will finally have the chance to show off the team the front office put together last summer. Swiping Leonard makes Toronto interesting, but there’s no way of telling yet how that will shake out. Boston isn’t the sexiest choice, but it’s the safest one considering their veteran core.

Justin Verrier: Boston. If Leonard ends his silent protest, the Raptors could field a beyond-the-wall death lineup (Lowry-Green-Leonard-Anunoby-Ibaka) able to hold its own against the very best of any conference. And while Philly’s Adam Dunn–esque big swing and miss this offseason is indeed a disappointment, it still has the natural progression of its young core, and the wild card of last year’s no. 1 overall pick relearning to shoot, to look forward to. The Celtics, though, can start a player at all five positions who either already is an All-Star or who could realistically be an All-Star within the next five years. Their roster isn’t without faults; there has been a lot of metal going in and out of their two best players over the past year. Then again, if either Irving or Hayward falters, they can buy back in by acquiring another frontline player with their Scrooge McDuck vault of assets.

2. Who is the East’s alpha dog player?

Tjarks: Giannis Antetokounmpo. He’s a 6-foot-11 point center who averaged 27 points on 53 percent shooting, 10 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.4 blocks a game last season at the age of 23. Those are LeBron numbers. And he could be even better this season with a new coach in Mike Budenholzer, playing in a modern offense, and with more spacing in the frontcourt from Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova.

O’Shaughnessy: There are so many conditions factoring into this answer. It could be Leonard if he returns from his quad injury the same player he was in 2017. It could also be Ben Simmons if his shot improves over the summer. But I’m going with the forgotten MVP candidate, Giannis. The 23-year-old has gotten better every season; under developmental wizard Mike Budenholzer, his teammates should be better complements to his game.

Concepcion: In my heart, I want it to be the Greek Freak. I love Giannis’s energy, his engaging personality; love that time he streamed himself bragging about the bell his girlfriend gave him that entitles him to sexual favors and his clear delight in that moment. I love the way he covers entire city blocks with a few strides and the way, after these bounding forays through space and time, the play he makes wrenches strange animal gurgles from my mouth. He’s just so fun. Fun is underrated these days. And he’s not allegedly being controlled by a Svengali-like relative. But it’s Kawhi. Which is boring. So boring. Now that he’s not a Spur, we can all feel less guilty, less basic, about pointing out what a dull dude he is. While writing this, I realized I had forgotten what his voice sounded like. So I Googled “Kawhi interview” and ended up on his 2014 appearance on Live! With Kelly and Michael and I clicked play and I fell asleep. Anyway. Kawhi has shown that he can be part of a winning team and he’s shown he can operate within a system and he’s been a Finals MVP and he’s really, really good. He’s one of the best three or four players in the league (again, assuming he’s healthy).

Verrier: Giannis. I had to fight the contrarian itch, because Victor Oladipo, Joel Embiid, and maybe Simmons all deserve consideration here. But then I remembered that Antetokounmpo almost upended the most complete team in the conference last postseason without a worthy coaching staff or supporting cast.

I believe in Budenholzer. I believe in adding stretch 4/5 types this summer. I don’t believe in most other things this front office does. But I believe in a 23-year-old point guard in a center’s body can make the most of it.

Chau: Kawhi. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, unless you’re an NBA star who incites chaos and contempt without uttering a word. He is a staggeringly efficient offensive player; he is a defender with the instincts of a ball-hawking point guard, the lateral agility of a wing, and the length of a center. He is an absolutely devastating basketball player, and despite all the drama, I want, more than anything this upcoming season, for him to remind the world of that. If he’s healthy and willing, he is the most complete player in the conference, a player who, like LeBron, has the potential to single-handedly take a team through to the Finals.

Toronto Raptors v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Four Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

3. Which of these best describes the Spurs as currently constructed: (A) title contender, (B) playoff team, (C) lottery team, or (D) other?

Tjarks: B. The Spurs won 47 games while getting virtually nothing from Kawhi, and now they are plugging in an All-NBA player into that role. DeRozan, for all his flaws on the court, is a hard-working player who will accept coaching. He will fit right into the locker room in San Antonio, and the Spurs have some interesting young players to fit around him and LaMarcus Aldridge. They aren’t a title contender, but they aren’t going to fall off the map, either.

Concepcion: Is “bubble team” a cheat? I gotta pick a lane right now? I’m going to say playoff team, but barely.

Verrier: C. We have two decades of evidence that Pop can build a playoff team with an All-Star and a couple of HEB products stacked in the shape of basketball players, but this might be his biggest challenge yet. The Spurs indeed won 47 games last season without Leonard and by leaning into a Mesozoic brand of offense based around LaMarcus Aldridge’s fallaway jumpers. But by exporting two of its better shooters, San Antonio’s zig may now be too extreme to make up the mathematical disadvantage of fighting 3s with 2s. And by adding DeRozan, Marco Belinelli, and a 19-year-old in Lonnie Walker IV into the rotation, the Spurs will likely diminish the defensive advantage that was a large source of their success last season. LeBron is going to push out one of the West’s top eight next season, and the Nuggets probably will, too. For now, the Spurs look like the most likely candidate to be displaced.

O’Shaughnessy: Playoff team. Even without Kawhi, they went 47-35 and took a game from the Warriors in the first round. Sure, the roster isn’t identical after Tony Parker and Kyle Anderson also departed this summer. But Dejounte Murray had already unseated Parker as starting point guard, making that loss less significant. I’m not sold that Aldridge and DeRozan are enough to contend, but San Antonio should be in the playoff mix.

Chau: B. That team won 47 games without Kawhi and just added a replacement wing, however maligned, who earned MVP votes last season. They didn’t get worse.

4. Which West team benefits the most from the Kawhi trade?

Chau: The Lakers. Two years have been added to LeBron’s NBA lifespan after hearing that DeMar DeRozan is reentering his orbit. The King is feeding off DeMar’s emanating despair right this moment.

Concepcion: The Lakers. Leonard can be a free agent next summer and he clearly wants to go to Los Angeles. Every day, the price for a theoretical Kawhi trade gets cheaper and cheaper.

O’Shaughnessy: This has to be the Lakers. Not only did the front office hold on to the assets it would’ve been forced to give up in a trade for Kawhi, but the team is now competing with Toronto. After one winter there, Leonard will be sprinting to defrost in L.A.

Verrier: The Rockets’ Best of the Rest status took a hit with the departures of two crunch-time staples in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, but it would’ve been conceded outright had the Lakers or another conference foe willing to pay the rental fee landed Leonard. (Imagine if New Orleans had sat out the Boogie sweepstakes and saved its asset pile to pair Kawhi with Anthony Davis.) Instead, Houston can work the fringes or wait for the trade deadline to shore up its depleted wing rotation and still have a shot at home-court advantage against the Warriors again.

Tjarks: None of them? DeRozan going to San Antonio probably eliminates a potential playoff spot for one of the many teams trying to sneak into the top eight. I’ll say the Warriors because none of their rivals got Kawhi, but I don’t think they were sweating that move anyway.

5. Who is the second-best team in the NBA?

Concepcion: If, IF, IFFFFFFF Kawhi is (knocks on every piece of wood within easy reach) healthy AND not the petulant dude he’s shockingly seemed to be at times, I’m going to shock myself and get roped into believing in the Toronto Raptors ONE LAST TIME.

O’Shaughnessy: I’m still in on Houston, assuming that Clint Capela’s restricted-free-agency situation gets resolved. The Rockets were a Chris Paul injury away from interrupting the Warriors’ dynasty. Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute hurts, but they still execute a play style that makes them competitive with anyone in the league (unless Carmelo Anthony joins the team and jacks a million midrange jumpers).

Chau: The Celtics.

Verrier: Houston. For all the hand-wringing over the losses of Ariza and Mbah a Moute—both of whom, by the way, will be 32 or older when this season starts—the Rockets will still roll over the core of a 65-win team once Capela’s restricted free agency is resolved. There’s enough of a defensive backbone in place with Paul and PJ Tucker, and even Carmelo Anthony at the veteran’s minimum would be a low-risk/high-reward signing that could raise their ceiling ever so slightly. (For all of Melo’s maddening qualities, he’s no worse on defense than Ryan Anderson yet has the isolation skills to shine in Houston’s offense … as long as he waits for James Harden to leave the floor to show them off.)

Tjarks: I swear I’m not sucking up to Simmons, but it’s the Celtics. They have as much star power as any team in the league, and they are way deeper than the Rockets. They would give the Warriors a much better push in a potential Finals than the Cavs the past two seasons, although that is admittedly a low bar to clear.