Kawhi Leonard Rumors: Raptors Made Trade with 'Determination' to Re-Sign Star

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistJuly 18, 2018

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) moves the ball up court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 112-80. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

In a potential league-altering move, the San Antonio Spurs reportedly traded superstar Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.com reported Danny Green is also heading to Toronto, with the Spurs receiving shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, power forward Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round pick. The draft choice is top-20 protected and would become two second-round picks after one year.

Wojnarowski and Chris Haynes explained the Raptors' mindset about acquiring Leonard with just one year left on his contract:      

"Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri is taking a significant risk in pursuing the trade. Ujiri will make the deal with a determination that he can sell Leonard on re-signing with the Raptors next summer in free agency, sources said. Toronto would be able to offer Leonard a five-year, $190 million contract next summer. If Leonard left the Raptors, he could sign a four-year, $141 million deal with a team with the available salary-cap space."

However, David Aldridge of NBA.com reported a source told him "a long-term stay in Toronto past this year is going to be 'a very tough sell.'”

This comes after rumors regarding Leonard's future with the Spurs circulated for months and came to a head in June, when Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express News reported the playmaker wanted to be traded. Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports noted Leonard was "uncomfortable" with the team and "ready" to play elsewhere.

ESPN analyst Jalen Rose appeared on First Take in January and said Leonard wanted out of San Antonio in part because of the Spurs' inability to attract superstar talent to play alongside him.

Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com also reported the following in May:

"Over the past several months, ESPN has spoken to dozens of league sources, people close to Leonard and Spurs staffers. They describe a confounding situation, with mistakes made on both sides, and a looming showdown between one of the NBA's most prestigious franchises and one of the best players in the league who has never really flexed his muscles in this way, but just might have the power to alter the NBA landscape."

Health issues loomed over Leonard's 2017-18 season and were at the center of much of the frustration. In January, the Spurs announced he was out indefinitely in an effort to accelerate his rehabilitation for his right quadriceps tendinopathy. He played just nine games during the campaign.

According to a January report from Wojnarowski and Wright of ESPN.com, "months of discord centering on elements of treatment, rehabilitation and timetables for return" led to "a chilling impact" on the relationship between Leonard and the only NBA team he has ever known.

Wojnarowski and Wright cited sources who called Leonard's camp "distant" and "disconnected" from the organization as a whole.

Wojnarowski also reported in March that then-Spurs point guard Tony Parker spearheaded a players-only meeting in which teammates attempted to convince Leonard to return to action and help in the playoff push. 

"The conversation was described as tense and emotional at times," Wojnarowski wrote. "Several teammates spoke up, expressing frustration and confusion over a growing divide that has created significant tension between Leonard and the Spurs."

The Spurs ultimately traded him following a season's worth of headlines, and Toronto now has one of the best players in the NBA for the 2018-19 campaign.

There is little question of Leonard's talent considering he is a two-time All-NBA first-team member, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, four-time member of an All-Defensive team and a two-time All-Star. He also won the 2014 NBA Finals MVP when San Antonio prevailed against LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

The San Diego State product took another step on the offensive end in 2016-17 as well with a career-best 25.5 points per game.

Leonard is the rare two-way talent who can dominate on both ends of the floor. He can serve as a go-to offensive option who can consistently knock down three-pointers or slash to the lane when defenders press up on his shot while also guarding the opponent's best perimeter and wing players on the other end, especially in the most important moments.

There are only a select few players the Raptors could have added who would have arguably made a bigger difference to their roster.

Toronto is attempting to take the next step after finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season before getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs, and Leonard gives it a playoff-tested superstar who can help fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry elevate his own game.

DeRozan and Lowry were a productive combination that yielded five consecutive playoff appearances, but they struggled to get over the hump in the Eastern Conference with just one Eastern Conference Finals appearance and no trips to the NBA Finals during that run.

Leonard and DeRozan may be fairly equal from an offensive perspective, but Leonard should make a significant difference on the defensive end.

Meanwhile, the Spurs land a player in DeRozan who is under contract for at least two more years and can combine with All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge to keep San Antonio firmly in the Western Conference playoff hunt.

Although the fit makes immediate sense for both teams and players, Wojnarowski and Haynes reported that neither Leonard nor DeRozan expressed "enthusiasm" when they heard about the trade.

The deal is also a risk from Toronto's perspective since Leonard can become a free agent next offseason, and Leonard "has been clear" that he wants to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, per Wojnarowski and Haynes.

While the trade could be a net loss for the Raptors in the long run if they don't win a championship next season and Leonard signs elsewhere, it is difficult to argue against the notion that it makes them a more complete and dangerous team capable of winning the Eastern Conference in 2018-19.

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