Winners, Losers and Takeaways from Raptors-Spurs Trade for Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan are trading places.
The San Antonio Spurs have ended a monthslong standoff with their disgruntled star by agreeing to deal him and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in an exchange for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 top-20 protected first-round pick, according to ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski. And now, in the aftermath, we will be unpacking everything and anything.
Will Leonard warm up to a future in Toronto, or are the Raptors acquiring him as a one-year rental?
Did the Spurs get enough in return, or have they perpetuated their streak of questionable decisions (sup, Marco Belinelli)?
Who are the winners of this deal? How about the losers? Which teams not directly involved in this blockbuster are most impacted by it?
This trade may have just taken place Wednesday morning, but the fallout has only begun.
Agonize over the Raptors' decision-making here if you must. They gave up a lot for a player who, as ESPN.com's Chris Haynes noted, doesn't want to be in Toronto.
But that player also happens to be a top-five megastar when healthy. The Raptors weren't getting anyone of Leonard's caliber another way. They entered this summer without cap space. Next year will be no different. They don't have the wiggle room necessary to sign a star until 2020 at the earliest, by which time DeRozan will be entering his age-31 season (player option) and Kyle Lowry will be a 34-year-old free agent.
Starting over would make more sense by that point. Leonard helps elevate the Raptors closer to championship-contender status without bilking them of that option. And by getting off the $83.2 million DeRozan is owed through 2020-21, their worst-case scenario of losing Leonard leaves them much leaner than before.
Adding Green as part of the blockbuster is a low-key steal, and the Raptors mortgage only so much of their future by forking over Poeltl and a protected first-rounder. They win this trade.
Los Angeles Clippers
Leonard is not a member of the Lakers. That in itself is a win for the Clippers.
Forcing his way into a purple-and-gold jersey, alongside LeBron James, remained Leonard's primary objective, according to Wojnarowski and his colleague Ramona Shelburne. For him to end up anywhere else gives the Clippers a better crack at turning his Hollywood infatuation into an affinity for Staples Center's other team.
"Well, contrary to, and I don't know if it's changed. I think that's what happened. Things have changed. But the Lakers are not Kawhi's preferred destination anymore. He wants to go to the Clippers. He doesn't want to go and be second fiddle to LeBron. That's what I was told. And [it] was by somebody that would know. And so right now, the Clippers are where he wants to go. But I'm also told, like you know, I talked to people within the Spurs organization and they're like, 'well yeah he wants to go to the Clippers, but their assets are s--t at this point.' That’s what I was told."
Landing Leonard outright would have clearly been better for the Clippers. But, as Wright pointed out, they never had the assets to make this deal. They always needed to recruit him from scratch.
And with a clear path to north of $60 million in cap space next summer, they'll welcome that undertaking—now more so than ever knowing the Lakers aren't getting a one year head start.
Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets, Memphis Grizzlies, Phoenix Suns, Clippers
Re-entering the Western Conference's postseason bloodbath is now a little bit easier.
Don't get this twisted: It remains ridiculously, unfairly, unfathomably, irreversibly, can-the-NBA-just-get-rid-of-conferences-already hard. San Antonio won 47 games without Leonard for most of last season and are hardly left barren without him. Roughly 13 of the 15 teams in the West can talk themselves into chasing playoff bids.
Still, the Spurs are no longer the Spurs, for real this time, and that bodes well for the Mavericks, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Suns and Clippers—fringe-lottery teams angling for returns to late-April basketball.
DeRozan is not happy about the trade. Sources told Haynes that members of the Raptors brass informed him during the Las Vegas Summer League that he would not be moved, and his Instagram story is dripping in feelings of betrayal (via SB Nation):
"Be told one thing & the outcome another," he wrote. "Can't 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."
The comedic-relief practitioner in us will note that "Little Bit of Nothing" should be Leonard's official nickname. Every other part of us cannot help but feel for DeRozan.
No one else has owned being a Raptor quite like him. His departure is a win for Toronto's basketball product but a gut punch to its heart. His struggle with depression—and admirable discussion of it—makes this harder to reconcile.
Trades are a part of this business. DeRozan knows this. And he's joining one of the most successful franchises in league history. He could be fine. He could thrive. That doesn't make the initial shock any easier to accept.
That stands to change if he falls in love with the Raptors. And his unhappiness will be short-lived if he doesn't. He will control his own destiny next summer by declining his player option. But forcing his way out of San Antonio has already cost him a boatload of money. Leaving Toronto will hurt his wallet even more.
The Spurs could have signed him to a five-year designated veteran extension worth $221.3 million. That deal is gone now. The Raptors, his incumbent squad, can offer him a five-year, $189.7 million pact. The most another team (aka the Lakers) can give him is four years and $140.6 million.
Use the Spurs' could-have-been offer as the baseline, and leaving for Los Angeles subtracts a grand total of one year and $80.7 million from his earning potential. Oof.
Uncle Dennis, wyd?
San Antonio Spurs
Teams never win trades in which they're selling off top-five superstars. Even with Leonard's contract situation and recovery from a right quad injury baked in, San Antonio is no different.
More takes on the Spurs are en route, but they essentially opted against a full-tilt rebuild in favor of taking on DeRozan and the $83.2 million he's owed through 2020-21 (player option). That's questionable at best—especially when they didn't get Pau Gasol or Patty Mills off the books or secure an unprotected first-rounder in the process.
Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers
LeBron's move to the Lakers after once again pummeling the Raptors silly was supposed to clear the way for the Celtics or Sixers to inherit the throne of "Western Conference's NBA Finals Cheat Meal." That hasn't necessarily changed.
Both could wind up being better than Toronto. Boston specifically will get back two top-20 players, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, after making the conference finals without them. But the Raptors are back in play, insofar as they ever left, reminding both of the Cleveland LeBron's heirs apparent that their prospective reigns over the East are not a birth right.
What It Means for San Antonio's Direction
Accepting a soon-to-be 29-year-old DeRozan as the centerpiece of this deal says a lot about the Spurs' post-Leonard intentions: They have no plans to reinvent themselves from the ground up.
Poeltl and a protected first can be peddled as potential building blocks, but they're no Jaylen Brown, Markelle Fultz or Brandon Ingram. The Spurs have assets, not cornerstones or from-scratch starting points. That pick will turn into a pair of second-rounders if it falls outside the top 20.
Spinning this as a justifiable return for Leonard is difficult. This doesn't even seem like the Spurs sold low or acted on impulse. It feels like they facilitated a Raptors salary dump.
How will the Spurs space the floor? Their starting backcourt, consisting of DeRozan and Dejounte Murray, hit 98 three-pointers last season. Over 100 players drained more than that on their own.
What will the defense look like? San Antonio finished fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions last year without Leonard but has since lost two more of its most valuable stoppers in Green and Kyle Anderson.
Can the Spurs properly build around their new core? Replacing Green and Leonard with DeRozan, Poeltl and a late first-rounder doesn't do much to improve next summer's financial outlook. Exhausting all of their cap-clearing resources, including Gasol's $6.7 million partial guarantee, affords them a fairly clear path to $15 million in room. They're not sniffing meaningful space until 2020 at the earliest.
Other teams had the juice to offer more. DeRozan's change-of-pace game could have topped the Spurs' list of preferred returns, and it would still seem like they're settling. Even if the Celtics, Lakers and Sixers never ratcheted up their best packages, another team in the Raptors' situation, like the Nuggets, Suns or New York Knicks, could've matched what they accepted.
Time must pass before San Antonio is subjected to definitive judgment. Perhaps a nucleus of DeRozan, Murray and LaMarcus can coalesce into something special. For now, the concern is real.
What It Means for Toronto's Future
The Raptors are, again, the biggest winner of this trade. They surrendered a lot relative to Leonard's contract situation, mysterious right quad injury and distaste for Toronto. In they end, though, they still landed Kawhi damn Leonard—a Finals MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and consensus top-five talent when he's not M.I.A.
They never could have made this move independent of comparative risk. A perfect storm of circumstances needed to tilt in their favor, from Leonard's disenchantment with the Spurs to San Antonio prioritizing a package built around someone who can help them win now.
Look at the next year alone, and the Raptors' thought process is beyond reproach. They poached Leonard without forfeiting their best player. Because, no, DeRozan is not their best player. That honor belongs to Lowry. He remains the better shooter, playmaker and defender.
Leonard is as plug-and-play as superstars come. His uptick in pull-up jumpers while on the Spurs was borne from necessity. The progression of time vaulted him up their pecking order by default. By 2016-17, he had no choice other than to carry their offense, with 45.8 percent of his looks coming as off-the-dribble jumpers.
But he cut his teeth in San Antonio as an accessory scorer. He retains that complementary capacity now. Almost one-fifth of his attempts came as spot-up triples and nearly 50 percent of his made baskets came off assists in 2016-17.
Toronto's transition away from DeRozan is made even easier by Leonard's on-ball evolution. He offsets some of the pick-and-roll orchestration the offense is losing, in addition to beefing up the spacing. Plopping Leonard beside Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Fred VanVleet will make for a devastating attack.
The defensive gains the Raptors will enjoy are a given. They've traded out a liability who sometimes couldn't close games in the playoffs for one of the NBA's two or three best all-around defenders. The entire East may be looking up at Toronto after this deal. Both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets will have taken notice.
These good vibes will last through only next season if Leonard leaves. That adds a to-be-determined footnote to the Raptors' early verdict. They'll take it.
Paul George is their inspiration. He probably wasn't too thrilled about being shipped to the Oklahoma City Thunder instead of the Lakers. And then he stayed. The Raptors have an entire year to turn Leonard's onset objection into long-term affirmation.
If they fail, then at least they won't go down gently. They were approaching a natural crossroads in 2020 anyway. Losing Leonard would merely expedite that inevitable transition while leaving them with squeaky-clean books in one year's time.
What It Means for LeBron and the Lakers
Oh, you better believe we're making this about the Lakers. Everything that's anything is about the Lakers. Just ask Lakers fans.
Real talk: The Lakers are more than loosely connected to this move. Leonard wanted to play for them, just like George. He was then traded elsewhere, just like George. And now, with an entire season to get cozy in Toronto, he could spurn Los Angeles next summer for his new team—just like George.
The similarities are impossible to ignore. They're even harder to write off knowing the Lakers, in theory, could have beaten the Raptors' offer. Their best chips are the rare assets who increased in value once they turned from draft picks into actual players.
Offering a majority combination of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and future first-rounders would've swayed the Spurs. The Lakers clearly never reached Defcon All-In. That, or San Antonio is ultra-petty and never intended to grant Leonard's wish.
This outcome points more toward the Lakers lowballing the Spurs. They were "playing the longer game in trade talks, confident in the belief that Leonard wants to play with them and plans to sign in free agency in July 2019," per Shelburne and Woj. Translation: Their best offer wasn't actually their best offer.
Criticizing the Lakers for this strategy is fine in a nutshell. Their underbidding reeks of exceptionalism—the same brand that may have prevented them from acquiring George, who didn't give them a meeting in free agency, per Tania Ganguli and Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. But this is where the Leonard situation diverges from last summer's soap opera.
The Lakers are not waiting for that first star to join their cause. They have LeBron James under lock and key for at least the next three seasons. Accelerating their ascent through the West no longer hinges upon one player. They have their superstar bait in place along with open-ended access to another max slot next summer if they stretch Luol Deng.
Maybe Leonard signs with the Lakers. Maybe they're "forced" to zero in on Jimmy Butler (player option), Kevin Durant (player option), Klay Thompson or Kemba Walker instead. Maybe they come up empty in 2019 free agency.
Either way, the Lakers still have LeBron and one of the NBA's most promising youthful bases to boot. They lose this trade by way of not getting Leonard, but their outlook is barely, if even, much worse off for it.