A report from the Washington Post surfaced Monday saying that, after weeks of rumours linking the San Antonio Spurs to a handful of other teams, the Toronto Raptors have suddenly ‘generated buzz’ as a potential trade partner in the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes.
What seemed like a flawed and far-fetched notion took off like a bullet train on Thursday after at least one popular online oddsmaker listed the Raptors as the favourites to land Leonard.
Despite the odds it still feels like a longshot to say the least. But if the Raptors are truly exploring potential trade scenarios then this one is a no-brainer.
For as long as I can remember, Raptors fans and personnel have lamented the lack of a “true superstar” — that one player who is good enough to carry a team to a shot at a title. Here is that player, a Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year just entering his prime years.
So when you have the chance to trade for a player like Kawhi Leonard, you do it. Period. End of story.
But Kawhi Leonard? Well, then it’s a little more complicated, even if, for my money, the conclusion is the same.
How did we get here?
The relationship between Leonard, who seemed like a consummate Spur — a quiet, extremely-skilled labourer with a versatile game and workmanlike quality — and the team that drafted him 15th overall seven years ago had quickly deteriorated as last season wore on.
There were disputes over the diagnosis for a nagging right quad injury that ultimately cost him all but nine games last season. Comments from long-time teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who openly questioned the severity of the injury, and Leonard’s time away from the team further divided the star from his club.
By the end of the season new trade rumours appeared daily, and several reports indicated that Leonard wanted to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, although after the team signed LeBron James there were rumblings that the paparazzi-esque environment the move created turned Leonard off of the idea of donning the purple and gold next season. More importantly, the Spurs were asking the Lakers to gut their roster of its young up-and-coming stars like Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball in potential trade offers — a price too rich for the Lakers to pay for a player who can enter free agency next season.
The Spurs, it was said, preferred to send Leonard to the East and the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers emerged as front-runners. Both teams — the Celts in particular — had the assets San Antonio covets (read: a mix of established stars, top prospects, and future draft picks), but Boston reportedly is intent on keeping its core together, one that will see it start next season as prohibitive favourites in the East.
Why the Raptors? Why now?
The Raptors entered this off-season in a state of limbo. After being swept in the second round of the playoffs for the second straight year, it’s hard to point to the current DeMar DeRozan/Kyle Lowry-led core and expect significantly better results — even if the team can now avoid James on any road to the Finals.
Already maxed-out in terms of salary cap following the re-signing of Fred VanVleet, the Raptors options going forward are limited.
As currently constructed, they won’t have cap space to land a star in free agency for at least two more years — and even then there are no guarantees one would sign in Toronto, potentially leading the team to ink a player for more money than he’s worth, like, say, Dallas did with Harrison Barnes two seasons ago.
The team has a glut of talented young players, but none, save for perhaps OG Anunoby, project to be legitimate stars. And the Raptors are certainly too good to tank, throwing away hopes of landing a franchise player (like, say, homegrown phenom RJ Barrett) via the draft.
With a new coach, Nick Nurse, at the helm and returning the same team that finished first in the East, the Raps are on track to remain a top-four team in the conference with home-court advantage in the playoffs. But that seems to be their ceiling at the moment.
The team must break from the status quo in order change its fortunes, and with at least three or four contracts on the books that are difficult to move, the opportunities to do so by acquiring a 27-year-old former Finals MVP and one of the NBA’s top-five talents will be few and far between.
This could be their only chance.
A Raptors team starring Leonard is again an instant contender to reach the Finals out of the East. Boston and Philadelphia seem poised to run the conference for the next few years, but Leonard is one of the few talents in the league that can change all of that, and certainly in a way that no current Raptor can.
Do the Raptors really have the assets to land Kawhi?
Given the question marks surrounding Leonard at the moment — more on those shortly — the Spurs would almost surely have to accept lesser value if they want to move their superstar lest risk he walks away for nothing next summer.
While Leonard’s talents would seem to warrant a Jayson Tatum or Kyrie Irving-type player in return via trade, expectations have appeared to have dwindled.
So to answer the title question: Yes, given the circumstances.
As originally reported, any deal with the Raptors would almost surely need to include one of franchise icons DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry, who may have already taken the team as far as it can go by reaching the East Finals three seasons ago.
Beyond that, the Raptors have several under-25 talents that could be appealing, including VanVleet, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl. There are also intriguing trade chips in the form of Jonas Valanciunas and Norman Powell, plus obviously future draft picks.
The inclusion of Anunoby, the Raps’ brightest young star, could be a sticking point in negotiations. But the Spurs appear to be in no rush to strike a deal, which will likely prevent the Raptors from acquiring Leonard without giving up a lot.
The bigger question here is, would the Raptors’ package be enticing enough for the Spurs to accept?
Understanding the risks
There are two clear reasons why teams aren’t lining up to empty their war chests in order to land arguably the NBA’s most potent two-way threat. Both are significant.
The first is Leonard’s contract situation. He enters the 2018-19 season in the final year of his current deal before he can opt out and test free agency. With all of the rumours about his desire to play in Los Angeles, it’s hard to ignore the very real possibility of him playing out this year before bolting to join the Lakers (or even the Clippers).
So he could very well leave, which would absolutely sting. But this time last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder took a similar risk when they traded for Paul George, who seemed a lock to sign elsewhere this summer, but was won over by a season playing in OKC. If Leonard wants a bigger market with a rabid fan base, he may like playing for an organization and city that helped turn DeRozan into a marketable star with signature sneakers and the like.
The other risk is Leonard’s health. He should be on track to return healthy next season from his quad injury, but we’ve yet to see evidence that he has been on the court this summer. Is Leonard the same player he was pre-injury? This is a bigger concern and one that would need to be vetted as carefully as possible before pulling the trigger.
They’re all risks the Raptors should be willing to take.
Look, Raptors fans have longed for a superstar. Leonard would instantly become the best player, from a talent and production standpoint, in Raptors history. That is not up for debate.
We get excited when a Raptor receives a single MVP vote. In the two seasons before last year, Leonard finished second and third in MVP voting, respectively. He’s that good.
If healthy, Leonard contributes to a team with potential Finals hopes in the East next season and brings in newfound optimism for a fan base that is in a noticeable lull. And just maybe it’ll be enough to entice him to re-sign with the Raptors.
Yes, there are major risks involved, but the current state of the Raptors dictates that you take those risks to avoid spinning your wheels in the mud. What’s the worst that can happen? You have to hit “reset” and start over?
Even that is a luxury the current Raptors don’t have right now.