The second LeBron James announced his decision to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, Kawhi “If Healthy” Leonard instantly became the NBA’s most seminal figure. Early Wednesday morning, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year/Finals MVP/all-around enigma was traded with Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected first-round pick in 2019.
It's a deal that gave one team clarity and another hope. Let’s take a closer look at what it means for both sides.
The Raptors are a formidable regular season team and a habitual postseason punchline. Before this trade, it was fair to look at the Eastern Conference’s foreseeable landscape and slot them below the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, with the Milwaukee Bucks, Indiana Pacers, and maybe one other team built to pass them by sooner than later, as current basement dwellers stock up with lottery picks and cap space.
Coming off an embarrassing sweep against the Cleveland Cavaliers, this organization was stagnant at the worst possible time, firing Coach of the Year Dwane Casey without adding any first-round pick or notable free agent signing to the rotation. Their young guard is filled with complementary pieces who’re competent and useful, but the only one with pseudo-star potential (OG Anunoby) won’t get there until Kyle Lowry joins DeRozan as an ex-Raptor, if ever.
Their best options were to remain still and hope LeBron James takes their playoff demons to the Western Conference with him, package some younger assets in a deal to win now, or swing for the deepest fence by shipping out their best player for a better player and going all in on a championship in 2019—with a slim chance to extend that window if said “better player” re-signs long-term next summer.
The upside of this trade should be obvious, even with Leonard reportedly already having one foot out the door. The excitement in obtaining someone that special overshadows how bittersweet it must feel for the culmination of the Lowry/DeRozan era to be one of those players getting traded, but Toronto is now not only positioned to contend for a title, but can also spend the 2018-19 season selling the sport’s most elusive attraction on its culture, city, and vision.
The Raptors were desperate for someone exactly like this. They were also in need of change. DeRozan is soon to be a 29-year-old All-NBA player who improves a different area of his game every summer. He finally embraced the three-point line last season (with troubling results) and functioned as more of a playmaker/ball-mover than ever before. Over the past three seasons, only LeBron, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and Steph Curry have scored more points. Buckets matter.
But as the face of a franchise that’s mid-fizzle, DeRozan also epitomized its annual fragility in a way that makes his presence feel exhausting. Compared to the regular season, his points per shot attempt plummeted in the playoffs. Every single year. When opponents have seven games to strategize against him, DeRozan tends to shrink. That doesn’t mean he’s bad, but it’s fair for his team to look at what’s taken place over the past few years and want to distance themselves from his hefty contract. Exchanging it for a potential megastar without yielding any of their very best prospects is an indisputable coup.
Moving back to Leonard, let’s quickly glance at the financial fallout before we get into his on-court fit in Toronto. The 27-year-old is officially no longer eligible for the five-year, $221 million supermax contract only San Antonio could ink him to. The most Toronto can offer is about $190 million over five years (a $31 million pay cut), and the most any other team—aka the Los Angeles Lakers—can give is $141 million over four years. This dude really didn’t want to play for the Spurs.
What we don’t know is how reliable Leonard will be post-quadriceps injury, or if he’ll pout his way through a second-straight season. But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume that a change of scenery going into free agency will have Leonard on his best behavior, at the peak of his powers—the best-case scenario is the only one that's relevant. In how he affects both ends of the floor, this is the type of player who can do what DeRozan can’t. He’s a knockdown three-point shooter—off the dribble and spotting up—who can create for himself and others while locking down the opponent’s very best player. In a playoff series, few humans (like, LeBron, Kevin Durant, Curry, and maybe Harden?) are more valuable.
This doesn’t make Toronto the favorite to emerge from the Eastern Conference, but it does vault them well past every team except the Boston Celtics. Putting Leonard on the wing, they can throw out some of the most physically intimidating lineups in the league, with Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, Anunoby, and Lowry/Fred VanVleet/Delon Wright at the point. They can also get extremely modern and throw Leonard deeper into the frontcourt (next to Pascal Siakam) with three guards scampering around, wreaking havoc. Norm Powell, Green, and C.J. Miles allow the Raptors to play five legitimately like-sized players at the same time and not get crushed. It's all very devastating. Leonard is a franchise-altering presence who will alleviate an aging Lowry while up-and-comers bloom by his side. How it all fits with Nick Nurse's vision is unknown, and time isn't on Toronto's side; there's still a better chance than not that Leonard leaves as a free agent next summer. But even if that happens, the thought of building around a young core, whatever they can get for Lowry on the trade market, and the cap space (though not max room next summer) afforded by DeRozan's departure is not atrocious. They were headed for a rebuild sooner or later, and this is one of the sweetest ways to get there.
If the Raptors struggle to fit Leonard in, and for whatever reason take a step back from what they were the past couple seasons, watching Masai Ujiri dangle Leonard before the trade deadline will be fascinating. (The haul on that sort of deal won’t be anything special, but if it’s clear Toronto won’t make a deep playoff run or retain Leonard's service, something is better than nothing.) Either way, this is a trade that Toronto will make 101 times out of 100, and Ujiri should be commended for being so bold without cutting the strings on his safety net.
San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich will celebrate his 70th birthday in January. He understandably wants no part of a rebuild, and San Antonio’s entire offseason up until and including this trade reflects that. They re-signed Rudy Gay, Bryn Forbes, and Davis Bertans, folded old friend Marco Belinelli back into the mix, let Tony Parker walk, and valued DeRozan over any future-asset-heavy packages that were offered for Leonard by a third of the league's teams.
The Spurs did not get Siakam, Anunoby, Powell, or Wright, and instead took the 22-year-old Poeltl—a smart, talented, productive seven footer—along with a protected pick. That’s not enough, on paper, and reveals how little leverage San Antonio had, given what their goals are over the next few seasons.
DeRozan can opt out of his deal in 2020, which is the same offseason LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract is only guaranteed for $7 million. That summer Popovich will coach Team USA at the Summer Olympics. Afterwards, there’s a decent chance he leaves the Spurs for good. That gives San Antonio a two-year window to compete in a loaded Western Conference—by dealing Leonard to Toronto they’ve ensured he won’t be in their way for at least one of them.
The questions now surround San Antonio’s ceiling with their new dynamic duo. DeRozan’s flaws are well known, particularly in the playoffs, but how will he look under Popovich, beside Aldridge, in a tried and true system that will demand far fewer dribbles than he ever has before? The Spurs had one of the lowest effective field goal percentages in the league last season, and spacing the floor could once again be an issue. Patty Mills, Belinelli, Bertans, and Forbes can all be above average three-point shooters, but not every one can provide two-way contribution in the playoffs. (Add Manu Ginobili to that list if he plays one more year.) Dejounte Murray is one of the worst outside shooters at his position, DeRozan made 31.6 percent of his threes last season, and Poeltl is a rim-rolling big man. Green, always the dependable spot-up threat, is gone.
Pessimism is easy, but this team also won 47 games last season, and a hobbled Leonard only appeared in nine of them. They will defend, rebound, take care of the ball (Poeltl should start beside Aldridge), and find ways for DeRozan to open up the offense, be it out of the post, as a primary pick-and-roll ball-handler, or isolating in the middle of the floor. He’ll have an opportunity to operate off the ball more than he ever has, particularly in ways that will punish defenses that hard double Aldridge on the left block. San Antonio also ranked second and first in three-point percentage in 2016 and 2017. Last year they sunk to 26th, but some regression mixed with DeRozan’s ability to create better looks should give them a much needed boost. He brings essential needs to the table as an assassin with unguardable footwork, ambidextrous flair around the basket, and a recent willingness to stretch himself out beyond the arc.
With DeRozan onboard there’s no rational reason to expect San Antonio to slide out of the playoffs—bad news for the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers (?), and any other team that wants to pencil itself into one of eight available slots. He's established and, in many ways, taken for granted, with best days that may still be to come. Wondering if San Antonio can now defeat the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets in a playoff series opens up a darker set of questions, particularly without enough cap space to frolic through next summer’s star-popping bonanza. With a healthy Leonard they had a puncher's chance. With a healthy DeRozan they're bringing a knife to a gun fight. But crazier things have happened.
Internal improvement from Murray spliced with DeRozan’s drive-and-kick game should reassert the Spurs as a team nobody wants to play. If he continues to push himself on the defensive end, San Antonio’s upside, flexibility, and consistency can be that of a legitimate championship contender.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.