Raptors clear winners in Leonard-DeRozan trade with Spurs

NBA insider Michael Grange speculates whether the Toronto Raptors will be better, once the trade that sends a package including DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard is made official.

If it’s taking awhile for the news to sink in, you’re hardly alone —  there is a ton to unpack here.

The Toronto Raptors have agreed to trade DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a 2019 protected first-rounder to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

It’s instantly one of the most stunning and significant deals in Raptors franchise history — shipping off the face of the franchise for a potentially short-term lease on a superstar— and one with clear winners and losers.

WINNER: TORONTO RAPTORS

Make no mistake, this trade represents a sizeable upgrade in on-court talent for the Raptors.

DeRozan was a great Raptor — likely the greatest of all time — and we watched him blossom over the years in Toronto, but his all-star level abilities and accomplishments simply don’t match Leonard’s.

In Leonard, the Raptors are getting arguably the NBA’s top two-way talent, a multi-faceted scorer capable of leading his team in points — as he’s done every season before last since his breakout campaign in 2014 — while doubling as its best defender.

Defensively, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP is practically without comparison. He uses his massive hands, along with bullying physicality and impeccable timing to demoralize his opponents. Take a look for yourself:

And don’t overlook the significance of obtaining Green in the deal as well. In Green, the Raptors obtained a starting-quality shooting guard who made the All-Defense second team in 2017 and addresses arguably the team’s biggest need: perimeter shooting.

Green is one of the league’s most reliable three-point shooters with a career mark of 39.5 per cent from deep.

What’s more, both Green and Leonard bring a bona fide championship pedigree to the Raptors and are now the only players on the roster to have won a title.

I understand the perceived downside to the deal from a Raptors perspective, but the more I think about it, the harder it is for me to validate the concerns.

I’ve heard that the Raptors should have stayed clear from Leonard because he is a “diva” based on how his Spurs tenure ended. I don’t buy that. Prior to last season and this one incident regarding the diagnosis and treatment of the quad injury that cost him all but nine games, Leonard had carved a reputation as the consummate unassuming superstar. He was known as the ultimate soldier, a lunchpail guy if there ever was one.

Yes, Leonard only has one year remaining on his current deal should he opt out of his player option for 2019-20. He’ll be eligible to sign a five-year extension in Toronto, or can hit the free agent market, where there has been heavy speculation that he intends to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers (Leonard himself hasn’t admitted as much, for what it’s worth).

So the risk is that Leonard walks after one season in Toronto.

So what?

All signs pointed to the fact that the Raptors had reached their ceiling with the team in place prior to today. There was no big future the club was building toward, as they had been in years prior. No, they were a team in limbo.

If the Raptors had included OG Anunoby — the highest-upside young player on the roster, and the only one I see with legitamate all-star potential — in the deal, then Leonard’s possible short-term tenure in Toronto would be more problematic.

Instead, the Raptors’ chances of reaching the Finals next season increased considerably (reminder: the whole point of pro sports is to put yourself in a position to win a championship), and if it doesn’t work out the team didn’t have to mortgage its future.

The 2019 first-round pick the Raps included in the deal is top-20 protected — if it falls between 1-20 then it becomes two future second-rounders.

Both Leonard and Green’s contracts are off the books next summer, freeing up a little over $30 million in cap space for the Raptors.

So to recap: In the best-case scenario, the Raptors acquired a top-five player, became a Finals contender out of the East, and have a shot at retaining Leonard (the season-long recruiting process begins now). Worst case, Leonard plays only one year and the team gets cap space and the flexibility to pursue further trades, become buyers in 2019’s loaded free-agent class, or regroup and rebuild around its young core.

In the big picture, it’s a fairly low-risk move for Toronto — a no-brainer, I’d argue — that made the team much, much better.  

LOSER: SAN ANTONIO SPURS

It’s hard to believe that the Spurs didn’t have a better offer on the table for Leonard, and found themselves in a difficult position of having to move a superstar knowing they couldn’t get fair value in return.

On Tuesday, reports surfaced of other offers made to the team for Leonard. With his purported “rental” status, teams like Portland weren’t willing to offer either one of stars Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum. Other teams in the running like Los Angeles, Boston and Philadelphia were also unwilling to give up a present-day star, which it’s now clear is what the Spurs were set on receiving as the centrepiece of any package for Leonard.

DeRozan will thrive in San Antonio, and as much as this trade has left him upset in this moment, he’s going to one of the most respected organization in pro sports to play for the best coach around.

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But DeRozan, the weak 2019 draft pick, and Poeltl — who should also thrive with the Spurs but lacks the upside of a player like, say, Anunoby — is almost certainly less than San Antonio expected to receive when it began trade negotiations earlier this summer.

It still beats watching Leonard walk next season for nothing, but by process of elimination this was the best they could get.

LOSER: THE REST OF THE EAST

Even with LeBron James’ departure to the Lakers, the Raptors were in the process of being bypassed by the Celtics and 76ers in the Eastern Conference hierarchy before this Leonard trade.

Suddenly that may have changed.

Here is the Raptors’ projected starting lineup heading into next season:

Kyle Lowry
Danny Green
Kawhi Leonard
OG Anunoby
Jonas Valanciunas

Off the bench: Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Norm Powell.

That looks to me like a contender, a roster with a real chance to make the Finals out of the East.

At the very least, their odds are far greater today than they were yesterday.

WINNER: JAKOB POELTL

Poeltl was a lot of fun to watch during his two seasons in Toronto, and showed a ton of growth last season. He’s a hard-worker with huge upside, and is arriving in the perfect environment to maximize his abilities in San Antonio.

Under Gregg Popovich, Poeltl is poised to thrive playing under the same coach who helped turn Tiago Splitter and Rasho Nesterovic into starting centres for championship-contending teams.

WINNERS: NICK NURSE AND OG ANUNOBY

In his first year at the helm, Nurse will get to utilize a coach’s dream of a player — one capable of executing whatever Nurse dreams up offensively, and one who is set to anchor his defence like few others in the NBA can.

Meanwhile, the addition of Green brings a respected veteran voice into his locker room.

As for Anunoby, this move should solidify his move to power forward, probably his most natural position. It also gives him at least a season’s-worth of first-hand learning from a two-way force he has been compared to since he was drafted and would do well by emulating.

LOSER: DWANE CASEY

You’ve got to feel for Casey, who was fired following the Raptors’ latest playoff collapse. The starting lineup I projected above is one that Casey could have done a lot with, and more importantly, Leonard is the type of all-business, defensive-minded star that Casey was born to coach.

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WINNER: MASAI UJIRI

It didn’t look good for Ujiri, who had stayed worryingly quiet while the rest of the NBA underwent an arms race as the off-season unfolded.

Ujiri was in a tough spot this summer with a team and core that had likely reached its apex. Now he’s pulled off a blockbuster and acquired the quality of superstar Raptors fans have forever lamented not having — and at a bargain price.

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