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Devil’s Advocate: Why Kawhi Leonard is worth it

Alright, as Anthony outlined last week, the Raptors are (supposedly) involved in talks for Kawhi Leonard, so whether we want to be or not, we’re in this room now. Get used to it.

Obviously, there’s no denying that the risk is enormous. There’s a very distinct possibility that the Raptors could say goodbye to the face of the most successful era in franchise history and their top young assets only to have “Kawhi’s camp” not even grant them a meeting next summer. Additionally, from an on-court perspective, it’s quite possible Leonard comes back from his mysterious quad injury closer to this season’s nine-game iteration than his prior robot-sent-from-the-future self. Still, with all that said it’s a risk they might have to take.

In reading discourse on Twitter about a potential deal, it seems recency bias has taken hold of many. Raptors fans have attempted to argue that a Demar DeRozan-centred Leonard swap is a loss for Toronto based upon the certainty of Derozan’s situation, while plenty of pundits have compared the Raptors situation to that of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Paul George last summer. Though both DeRozan and George are stars in their own right, it seems the NBA community has forgotten something: Leonard is on another level.

As a refresher, before this injury-riddled season, Leonard was the unquestioned alpha dog on both ends for 67 and 61 win teams in the loaded west, he was back-to-back undisputed first team all-NBA, he finished top three in MVP voting in consecutive years, and he owned the crown of the top perimeter defender in the league with nary a challenger in sight. And that was all before the age of 26.

That kind of two-way impact makes Leonard a consummate advanced stats darling—and from an all-time perspective. Per Andy Bailey, Leonard is top eight in the three-point-era in career win shares per 48 minutes. For those who don’t quite understand all that, just know the entire top 10 is riddled with the James’s, Jordan’s, and Johnson’s of NBA lore. In fact, when considering only the playoffs Leonard jumps all the way up to third, trailing only Jordan and James, right in front of Johnson. Safe to say he’s in rare company.

If Leonard can recapture his previous magic he’d instantly become the top player in the eastern conference (sorry Giannis) and put the Raptors on par with the Celtics to win the east. So with all due respect to the DeRozans and Georges of the NBA world, there are all-stars and there are superstars— Leonard is the latter. That is the kind of talent the Raptors haven’t in their history come close to fielding, and the chance may never come again.

As much as the NBA at-large has woken up to Toronto as an upper-echelon playing situation, perception still maintains that it isn’t a destination. That is why the possibility of acquiring a player of Leonard’s caliber shouldn’t be discussed so flippantly. Generally, the only means to acquire someone of that talent is through the draft– which is a crapshoot at times– or free agency (and they ain’t coming). So, I am not speaking in hyperboles when I say this is a once-in-a-franchise opportunity. As frightening as the question marks are, they are the only reason the Raptors are even in the picture.

Under normal circumstances, a franchise would need to sell the farm to acquire such a player, but Leonard’s unique chemistry/injury situation depresses his value just enough to turn off the teams with a farm to sell (Philly, Boston, etc.). Additionally, wanting to stay competitive backs the Spurs into a strange corner as they don’t want the usual “get all the young assets we can for him” rebuilding package that can take years of asset hoarding to acquire. San Antonio’s desire to remain competitive puts the Raptors at an advantage as the Spurs value the much-maligned 2nd team All-NBA DeRozan far more than 75% of the NBA (don’t forget just last month there was talk of DeRozan being moved for essentially the #4 or #5 pick and an albatross contract).

In a similar tune, the young assets the Raptors would have to part ways with in such a deal may be at an all-time high in value. For better or for worse, one of the NBA scouting department’s Ten Commandments, it seems, is that the unknown is always better. Regardless of the difficulty in projecting the probability of a player hitting their theoretical ceiling, teams will always place value in the slim possibility of a prospect “popping” as they can sell potential to their ownership and fans.

As great as OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, or Pascal Siakam are, none are blue-chippers. If they were to ever be moved, it would be wise to do it in the near future before scouts begin seeing them as the player they are instead of the player they could become. Treating any as “untouchable” before showing anything of undeniable star substance in the league would run the risk of repeating the Cavaliers-JJ Hickson situation of 2010. Moving off of one or two of the young guns, no matter how likeable they are, shouldn’t be a deal breaker by any means.

Lastly, in response to those who think it’s too risky to jeopardize what the Raptors have built for a possible rental, consider that management has intentionally put an escape hatch two years away as essentially the entire core comes off the books after the 2019-20 season. If Leonard were to leave after a year the Raptors would essentially just start their scheduled rebuild a year early and could sell off their other key players on expiring deals for younger assets. Admittedly, they would be starting that rebuild with less assets than initially planned, but as I said before, none are blue-chippers, and at least they can say they really went for it.

As Raptors’ General Manager Bobby Webster declared during summer league, the Raptors goal is nothing short of a championship. While this era has thrilled, it has yet to produce anything more than a fake contender. Acquiring Leonard this summer, hoping that his chemistry issues are endemic to San Antonio, and betting on the Raptors organizational culture (and the extremely weak eastern conference) convincing him to stay, while risky, is the only means to start on a path towards that goal. Otherwise, they’re stuck treading water with their slim chance of winning the east getting slimmer each year. Plus, if Leonard did stay, his presence could be enough to finally convince a star to come north in 2020 and create an eastern counter to Golden State’s then aging core.

It’s all quite hypothetical, and there’s a great deal of risk involved, but a healthy Leonard is worth it. If the price is right, I say take the shot. It may never come again.

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