It’s been a quiet summer for Masai Ujiri and the Raptors thus far, with teams unwilling to trade out of the draft, and no cap space to speak of, bringing back Fred VanVleet, while important, was the only move they made in free agency to this point. Fans hoping for larger scale change with the organization have been left wondering what magic can be worked in the trade market, and the league as a whole has been quiet on that front, with most moves seemingly waiting for an ending to the Kawhi Leonard saga, one that the Raptors seemed to not be involved in. Other teams simply have too many trade assets to send out in bringing back the former Finals MVP, and with his apparent desire to join the Lakers and free agency just a year away, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would eventually end up there.
In the last week though, there have been several reports that the Raptors are a team to watch in the Kawhi sweepstakes. First, Zach Lowe brought them up in his weekly column, then Brian Windhorst made an appearance on Sportsnet590 with JD Bunkis and also said that the Raptors were a team to watch, although it wasn’t nearly a done deal. It’s hard to say how much all of this means, as the Raptors front office typically likes to keep things close to their chest until they have an announcement to make, and the rumors have abounded with the Leonard situation, so it could simply be trying to keep the story moving. Also, none of these reports have called it anything near a done deal, and those talks could simply never develop close to that point.
However, the reported stories say that the Lakers have been unwilling to attach any of their best young players in a trade for Kawhi, and the Celtics’ and Sixers’ offers have been similar, which opens the door slightly for another team to enter. With impending free agency for Leonard, teams are unwilling to give up too much in an offer, for fear he might not stick around and overpaying for a rental could damage the long-term prospects for a young team. The Raptors seem to be on the verge of a rebuild just two to three years out, and may not be as concerned about that as other organizations, perhaps making them willing to take the risk of overpaying for a rental in order to try to convince him to stick around.
What would such a trade look like? It would most likely begin with DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors wing who fits best to fill out the salary of the trade, and at 28, the All-NBA wing could be seen as a player who can help the Spurs remain relevant. The Raptors would then add one or two of their younger players, and at least one draft pick, to fill out the offer and take back another salary from the Spurs in the process to match. Something like DeRozan, Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and a future first round pick for Kawhi and with the Raptors taking back Pau Gasol’s salary as well works under the cap, and might make sense for both sides.
This allows the Spurs to have some younger assets in the trade to develop as well as remaining more competitive in the immediate future, and the Raptors would become immediately one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference, with Kawhi sliding into DeRozan’s offensive role as a primary creator, but with his shooting and defensive presence as well, he’d bolster the Raptors offense with the ball in the hands of other players as well as helping maintain their defensive consistency next to OG Anunoby, who the Raptors would surely prefer to retain in such a trade. Leonard is the type of franchise-changing talent who can propel the Raptors forward, with him looking like one of the best in the league prior to his injury. With a successful season around the new core, it’s possible the Raptors could convince Kawhi to stick around past the first season.
That said, this is still all more smoke than anything real, although there is a lot of it. There’s enough out there to be reasonably sure that the Raptors have spoken to the Spurs about a trade, but the status of those talks is completely unclear, and it’s impossible to know whether things will ever progress past this point. It probably wouldn’t be advisable to go out and buy yourself a Leonard jersey yet, but it’s worth, as Windhorst and Lowe have said, keeping an eye on. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have both said that the Raptors’ goal is nothing short of a championship and Kawhi is the type of talent who can put that into play.