The Raptors are acquiring disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, according to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski. The Raptors will send out DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick. They’ll also receive Danny Green.
The news was first reported by Shams Charania, Adrian Wojnarowski, and Chris Haynes early Wednesday morning. We have a full reaction here, although that was prior to knowing the return.
Knowing the return now, the deal looks like a more justifiable move – the Raptors landed a former MVP candidate in Leonard and a very useful two-way rotation piece in Green, and while giving up DeRozan is all kinds of difficult, they kept their two highest-upside young players in OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam and only surrendered one draft pick. Raptors president Masai Ujiri is swinging for the fences here, and the optics are not great, but he’s maintained the most important potential pieces of the next core (Siakam, Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and the team’s 2021 first-round pick), so there isn’t quite as much future sacrifice as initially anticipated. Being able to hang on to both Anunoby and Siakam is huge, not just for the team’s future long-term potential but for how they stack up this season, when both players figure to be key rotation pieces and complementary defensive pieces alongside Leonard.
There are still a lot of complications here, namely that Leonard reportedly doesn’t want to play in Toronto. The risk here is immense, both that Leonard walks at the end of 2018-19 and heads to the Los Angeles Lakers and that Leonard doesn’t return to his previous form after almost an entire year off due to a mysterious quad injury. At his best, Leonard was perhaps the second-best player in the NBA, and these are the type of risks necessary when such a rare talent becomes available on the market at a depressed price. I went into this much more in the piece linked above, but the Raptors could basically only get into Leonard talks under a certain set of circumstances where adding him would be complicated. Ujiri is betting on his ability to sell Leonard on staying and, failing that, the benefit of maximizing one year of the team’s window versus having DeRozan for the next two, or perhaps three.
At his best, Leonard is the best player the Raptors have ever had. He is a highly efficient scorer, a solid secondary playmaker, and a strong shooter, and he is the league’s best perimeter defender when healthy. It can’t be overstated just how good he is. Even after playing just nine mediocre games last year, he projects in nearly the 100th percentile for player impact next season. Whether he can return to that level is a major if given the nebulous nature of his rehabilitation and how he looked in limited action last year. Flipping a player of DeRozan’s caliber for an MVP candidate is a lot easier a sell than flipping him for a lower-end All-Star, obviously. The Raptors are betting big that Leonard can return to full form. If he does, they’ll be right there with Boston as the class of the Eastern Conference, employing its best player. If he looks hampered or, worse, sacrifices money by deciding not to report (this seems unlikely), this will look like a shakier bet. Given how much is on the line here, the Raptors seem confident that he’ll be something close to the Leonard that had the Golden State Warriors on their heels two postseasons ago and has the most legitimate claim to being a star-stopper in the NBA.
Getting Green in the deal was necessary mostly from a financial perspective to make the trade math work, but it’s a nice addition nonetheless. Green hasn’t been quite the player he was from 2011-2013 the last few years, but he remains a solid 3-and-D wing who will be a boon to the team’s perimeter defense and add even more shooting. He probably slots in on the lower end of the team’s rotation and projects as especially useful against some postseason opponents that will require a greater emphasis on individual defense and spacing. He should fit the team’s transition game, too, either as a starter or reserve. Green’s projection for 2018-19 grades him as a solid rotation piece, and his $10-million contract expires after this season, offering the Raptors some additional flexibility. (That they’ve cleared a lot off of their books for next summer and 2020 in this deal should not be underestimated; the Raptors are set up even better now for a quick pivot to the younger core, and they figure to have loads of cap space in 2020 and 2021 if Leonard walks.)
The cost, obviously, is large. DeRozan has had the best Raptors career of any player to ever wear the uniform and is one of the most beloved athletes the city of Toronto has had the last…forever. Reports are that he’s quite hurt by the deal after being told he wouldn’t be dealt, and there’s a real risk in trading away the first star who consistently wanted to stay, represent the city and the franchise, and put them on his back. I wrote about this more in the earlier piece and will probably reflect upon it in a stand-alone piece later, but dealing DeRozan is very hard from a P.R./fan/loyalty perspective. He’s meant a ton to the franchise, and it doesn’t feel great, even if it makes sense. It feels a little dirt, to be honest, especially if the reports of him being lied to are true. He deserves better than that, even if loyalty is strictly imaginary in sports.
And it’s not as if DeRozan has fallen off. He was Second-Team All-NBA last year after once again improving against all odds, and he was probably the best piece available to the Spurs if they were committed to remaining competitive, even if the fit is incredibly awkward. He is a high-volume, moderate-efficiency scorer who’s improved dramatically as a playmaker, and the Spurs have shown they can get more out of minus-defenders than other teams. He’s a four-time All-Star and holds every meaningful record in Raptors franchise history. Those things do not happen by accident. Leonard at his best is a meaningful upgrade – he’s a more efficient scorer, an elite defender, and has an outsized positive impact on team-level performance where DeRozan has never really moved that particular needle in a positive direction – but DeRozan is a great piece for San Antonio to get back in a bad situation, and if Leonard walks after a year, the loss of DeRozan will hurt.
Poeltl and the 2019 pick are a fair sweetener to get the deal done. The No. 9 pick in 2016 – and yes, the Andrea Bargnani trade tree now connects to Leonard – Poeltl has already established himself as a high-end backup center and could project as a solid starter. It’s unclear if there’s much upside beyond that, though with two years left on his rookie-scale deal and with a ton to like from an awareness, IQ, and fundamentals perspective, that’s still a really valuable piece to have. Solid is the perfect word for Poeltl, who has improved as a finisher around the rim, contests well on the other end of the floor, and has good mobility on both sides of the ball, either as a defender in space or as a roll-man (he has great screen-setting mechanics, as well). The Raptors are surely happy that Poeltl is the young piece they gave up – he was the most tradeable outside of maybe Delon Wright given the accessibility to replacements at center (hi again, Lucas Nogueira) and Serge Ibaka’s ability to play some center – and the Spurs are probably likewise happy to have a very Spurs-feeling center in the fold. He’ll be missed in Toronto, as he was extremely well-liked within the organization and within the team’s young core. Two great friendships have died today.
The 2019 pick, protected for the top 20 or it becomes a pair of second-rounders, makes sense as a throw-in. It would be nice to have the asset and the inexpensive player that comes with it, but it figures to be in the late 20s and the Raptors were able to hang on to more valuable assets by including it. Not surrendering a 2021 pick, even a protected one, is big, as that draft class figures to possibly be a double-cohort with immense depth if the age restriction is removed from the draft. Even if it’s not, the Raptors maintaining their primary asset base for beyond 2019 is a big deal; they’ll enter 2019-20 with VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam, and all of their picks moving forward, plus either Lowry and Leonard, Lowry and a ton of future cap flexibility, or that same cap flexibility and a return for Lowry. This deal is primarily about 2018-19, and the return allows Toronto to keep a strong focus on what happens after this window if things don’t work out, which is a nice down-side assurance.
All told, this is a win for the Raptors if you can get past the DeRozan discomfort and believe Leonard can rebound. Jacob Goldstein’s projections give the Raptors eight additional wins from the deal, and they’re now projected to win 62 games by his model. On paper, they’re either better or even with the Boston Celtics and a step ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers until we see how those teams grow with health and more experience. The Raptors are betting they can make a run to the finals for 2018-19, and the quantitative analysis here suggests they very well can. There are just some very large assumptions – and some very bad optics – to get around in feeling comfortable with that.
How you feel about the trade probably comes down to your risk preference and your feelings on DeRozan, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone feeling that the DeRozan aspect isn’t worth the risk. In pure basketball terms, the deal is a good one, but this is not going to be taken as a pure basketball trade given all the ancillary factors. If nothing else, the greatest fear – that the Raptors would mortgage the future to make this move – should be assuaged. There are surely more moves to come from here, too. This is a big risk, and the aggressive move that will define Ujiri’s tenure after years of more conservative management. If it hits, the Raptors could be finals-bound, something that’s more likely today than it was yesterday.