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Report: Raptors reach agreement for Kawhi Leonard trade

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The Toronto Raptors are finalizing a deal to acquire Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs, according to a report from Adrian Wojnaroski and Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Shams Charania reported early Wednesday that the sides were in serious talks, saying that a framework built around DeMar DeRozan had been agreed to and that “only a snag in final discussions could prevent completion.” Wojnarowski reports that the sides have been discussing the deal for week, though the specifics of a trade aren’t outlined in any report. DeRozan, one of the team’s young players, and at least one pick would seem to be the return necessary to get a deal done and prevent Boston, Philadelphia, or the Lakers from stepping in and poaching Leonard with a better offer. Zach Lowe further reports that the quality of offers has varied a great deal, so it’s hard to know exactly how much Toronto is giving up here.

UPDATE: Wojnarowski reports that an agreement has been made in principle and a trade call is expected later today. The parts are still unknown, but it’s bigger than Leonard-for-DeRozan. He also adds that the trade has been close for days.

Multiple reporters, including Charania and Haynes, have said that Leonard has “no desire” to play in Toronto, which could complicate the final stages of a deal.

It seems likely that the Raptors would at least want the chance to speak with Leonard and his camp, even if they will not give assurances as to any commitment beyond 2018-19, when he can be an unrestricted free agent and is believed to be a certainty to head to one of the Los Angeles teams. If Leonard is as cold on the idea as it sounds, it makes it more likely that this is strictly a rental. Wojnarowski adds that Masai Ujiri will not be getting any assurances, and that this is a bit on his ability to sell Leonard on Toronto. It’s a big risk – Leonard is already walking away from the super max that only the Spurs can offer by asking for a trade, and so while the Raptors will acquire his full Bird rights in a deal and will be able to exceed the cap to re-sign him next summer, there’s little indication he’ll do anything but head west. The Raptors will be able to offer a five-year deal worth about $190 million based on current estimates, while another team could only offer an estimated $141 million over four years.

That risk should, in theory, limit Toronto’s willingness to pay here in terms of picks and prospects. Including one of the young core and the team’s 2019 first-round pick is reasonable, and while the Spurs will likely have pushed for OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam, Toronto is probably pushing for Delon Wright or Jakob Poeltl. Including a 2021 pick – in what could be a double-cohort draft year as the age rule is possibly eliminated – without heavy protections would seem a big risk. So, too, would be adding a third asset to go along with DeRozan and whatever else is in play here. Every additional piece surrendered now is worth it if Leonard ultimately stays. If he doesn’t, it’s one additional piece the team doesn’t have when they pivot to the next core, something that would almost have to happen in the summer of 2019 if Leonard walked and DeRozan was no longer around.

These are the gambles Ujiri and company have to weigh, and they’re not easy. Leonard, though, was a top-five player when he was last playing, and the reason this all gets considered is because players of that ilk almost never become available. Toronto is not landing a top-five player in free agency, and drafting one requires a full-scale rebuild or good fortune or both. At his 2016-17 peak, Leonard is worth almost any package. He was a Most Valuable Player candidate, perhaps the best perimeter defender in the NBA (finally, a LeBron Stopper as James heads out of the conference), and a player who heavily tilted playoff games against the Golden State Warriors. The 2016-17 version of Leonard would be the best player to ever play for the Raptors, and pairing him with Kyle Lowry and the remainder of the core would make Toronto if not a favorite then a co-favorite to make the NBA Finals out of the Eastern Conference, a conference in which Leonard would be the best player.

Whether Leonard is still that player is a major question mark. A mysterious quad injury limited him to just nine games last year. That’s an unfair sample, but he did not look like quite the same Leonard in that stretch. He’s now 27 and coming off of a year in which he barely played and wasn’t even around an NBA facility for large portions of it. If Leonard is only 80 percent of his old self, that’s a big difference – Toronto can sell off major pieces for a top-five player and justify it, something that becomes dicier if Leonard is going to return as “just” an All-Star in the top-25 range. That the Raptors probably aren’t going to know until training camp (assuming Leonard reports, which he has about 20 million reasons to do) clouds this further. (For what it’s worth, Leonard’s projections even after the down year still have him in nearly the 100th percentile for impact, worth about eight more wins than DeRozan if healthy by Player Impact Plus-Minus.)

These are not the assurances you get when a player of this caliber hits the market and has his trade value depressed by uncertainty. The Raptors could basically only get into the Leonard discussion with the same confluence of factors that make it difficult to evaluate. Were he healthy or open to re-signing somewhere other than L.A., the asking price would be bid much higher, and Toronto would be out of the running. They exist in a thin gap between not having enough and being the only team willing to pay.

For a player as good as Leonard, you have to consider the gamble. Until we know the return, it will be hard to evaluate. If Anunoby is in the deal with multiple picks or with another prospect and a pick, it’s going to look like an awful lot of the near- and long-term future sacrificed for one shot at Leonard. Even then, Ujiri can likely justify it given Leonard’s stature and how valuable that one year with him could be. This team has a competitive window that closes, or at least shifts, in 2020 at the latest, and Ujiri would essentially be cashing in 2019-20 chips for a better chance in 2018-19. Given where Philadelphia and Boston are headed, the aging curve of Lowry, DeRozan, and Serge Ibaka, and a very clean team cap sheet in 2020 and beyond that would make a quick post-Leonard rebuild (or retool) possible, that’s not an unreasonable gamble. One season with peak Leonard is more likely to deliver a finals appearance than two seasons without him, and that’s really what this comes down to. That might be what it comes down to for you once the return is known, too, though risk aversion and comfort with Leonard’s reported ill-desire to play in Toronto will be factors as well.

One thing that is not really up for debate is that DeRozan’s inclusion in a deal is difficult. DeRozan himself has been made aware of it, and he took to Instagram late in the night, writing in a three-part post “Told one thing & the outcome another. Can’ trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing…Soon you’ll understand…Don’t disturb…” His frustration is potentially stemming from a meeting in Las Vegas where, Haynes reports, he was told he wouldn’t be traded. If that’s the case, this is a risky move on the Raptors’ part for their future reputation with star players and perhaps agents, as, while nobody around the league has any false ideas about the level of “loyalty” around the league from the team side, DeRozan is one of the few players who has been steadfast in their commitment to a single franchise, from “I got us” to “I am Toronto” to not taking free agent meetings with any other team. Trading him is understandable and justifiable, but doing wrong by him in the way being reported is an uncomfortable look for a franchise that’s been building a lot of reputational equity the last few years. Ujiri is said to have informed DeRozan himself last night, and DeRozan and Lowry have since talked as well.

There’s little denying how much DeRozan has meant to the organization. Drafted ninth overall in 2009, Toronto has watched DeRozan beat every expectation, break through every perceived ceiling, and become the most storied Raptor of all time in terms of longevity, commitment, and team success. He’s coming off of a Second-Team All-NBA season in which he continued an assault on the team’s record books, and he, Lowry, and Jonas Valanciunas share the most playoff success in team history. At every turn, DeRozan has been an excellent member of the franchise and the greater Toronto basketball community, and losing the one star who has consistently wanted to stay – who has represented the team and city well, been an advocate for mental health, fought hard through personal issues, been a strong leader, and always come back somehow bettering his game – is hard to take. DeRozan has been far more than the Raptors had any business dreaming on back in 2009, and seeing him go is difficult.

Hard things are hard, though, and the Raptors aren’t going to land Leonard without giving up something big. San Antonio apparently prefers to remain competitive right now rather than rebuild, and DeRozan is the best win-now piece that would have been available to them. He’s a four-time All-Star, and while his fit next to LaMarcus Aldridge is beyond weird in 2018, the Spurs could run a sort of counter-culture offense here and see what sticks. The Spurs could also unload another player on Toronto to help with their cap sheet, as the deal as constructed figures to save Toronto more than $7 million for 2018-19. That could be a big factor up against the luxury tax, but you don’t go all-in for Leonard and then worry about the tax; the Raptors can take on a bad salary to lessen the return they’re sending out, or alternatively use that space to land another complementary piece and make up some of the depth being lost here. That could all be a part of the “final discussions” ongoing here.

From Toronto’s perspective, two years (and a player option after) of DeRozan and sweetener is the price of a one-year upgrade in Leonard. For all the good DeRozan provides, he’s consistently been a negative in the postseason, where his defensive shortcomings are magnified and opposing defenses gameplan to abandon him on the perimeter and clog up the paint. The Raptors have been better for years in the playoffs with DeRozan on the bench than on the court, and while those samples can be noisy in isolation, there is a fairly consistent pattern (that doesn’t hold for Lowry despite occasional shooting struggles). Leonard is a far more versatile piece on offense, given his shooting ability (he’s not quite the secondary playmaker DeRozan was, but his skills in that regard are sharp) and hyper-efficiency for his scoring load, and his status as an elite defender should raise both Toronto’s floor and ceiling. Again, he’s a top-five player if he’s healthy.

That’s an if, though, and finding out – for one year, with no assurance it continues – is going to cost the Raptors the face of the franchise and more. Mileage is going to vary. Landing a legitimate superstar is not easy.

It’s probably worth pressing pause here until a return is known and this reaches the finish line. It’s impossible to evaluate until we know what’s going back. This appears to be a thing that is really happening, and it’s time to start sorting through some feelings and firing up 2016-17 Leonard mixtapes to remember just how good a player the Raptors might be getting here. Now it’s on the Raptors and Spurs, and Leonard’s camp, to push through the end-gate, and, uhh, convince Leonard this is a better situation than he seems to be thinking.

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