Why the Kawhi Leonard Trade May Not Be Such a Huge Risk for the Toronto Raptors After All…

Kawhi Trade
Rob Carr/Getty Images; Andy Lyons/Getty Images

On Wednesday, after months of drama and speculation, the San Antonio Spurs officially finalized a deal to send 2x Defensive Player of the Year forward Kawhi Leonard, as well as Danny Green, to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 first-round pick.

Leading up to Wednesday, Kawhi had made both his intentions of wanting out of San Antonio and his desire to play in Los Angeles very public, and soon after the announcement of his trade broke, Chris Haynes of ESPN reported that Kawhi has no desire to play in Toronto either. Since Leonard can become a free agent next offseason, the Raptors will seemingly be taking a significant risk in acquiring him, especially when considering the fact that DeRozan, who is coming off arguably one of his best seasons to date, has another three years left on his contract, including a player option for the 2020-21 season.

DeMar has been named an all-star in four of the past five years and is coming off of one of his finest campaigns as a pro amid his 9th season. He missed only 2 games in route to a season in which he averaged a career-high 5.2 assists per game and was finally able to pass the elusive threshold of hitting more than one three per game (although he shot an underwhelming 31.2% from beyond the arc). Regardless though, DeRozan has an uncanny scoring ability that is extremely hard to find in guards his size throughout the league.

In trading him, the Raptors acquired a two-way monster in Kawhi Leonard who is widely considered as a top 3 player in the league and finished third in MVP voting just two seasons ago. Contrary to DeMar, Kawhi is coming off of an immensely peculiar season for someone of his stature and reputation. Leonard appeared in just nine games last season due to a quad injury, and in those nine games averaged his usual 2 steals per game and an unconventional 16.2 points per game while shooting 46.8% from the floor. Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports reported that his discomfort with the Spurs’ handling of his injury was the reason for his desire to leave.

Many are calling this trade from the Toronto Raptors a massive risk for the organization going forward, however, this trade may not be such a bad deal for them after all. Although the Raptors finished with a franchise-record 59 wins en route to earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last season, they were bounced in only the second round of the playoffs by none other than Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. This now marks the third consecutive year that the Raptors have been eliminated from the playoffs at the hands of the Cavs, and although the Raptors are in the midst of the best run in franchise history, with five consecutive playoff appearances, they have just one Eastern Conference Finals appearance to show for it.

Regardless of their regular season success, it’s fairly evident that this team with DeRozan just wasn’t working. It’s not that DeRozan necessarily needed to be moved, but it was definitely the best way to shake things up. The Raptors are getting a player similar to what DeRozan is, but one who is far more well-fitted to the modern NBA in Kawhi. While DeRozan relies heavily on his mid-range game to score, a skill that is becoming almost extinct in today’s league, Leonard is much more well-rounded in nearly every aspect of his game, especially when it comes to the three-point shot. Kawhi is also clearly the better defender of the two which undoubtedly betters Toronto as a team and gives them a much greater chance at winning the East, particularly now that Lebron has gone West.

This trade also now gives the Raptors a safety net to rebuild if Kawhi does in fact look to move to L.A. as a free agent next offseason. DeRozan’s contract is now off the books, which given his limitations in today’s NBA, as I alluded to earlier, is probably not the worst thing in the world considering that they would be paying him nearly $30 million annually. Additionally, after the 2019-2020 season, the Raptors next three highest paid players in Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Jonas Valanciunas will all have expiring deals which will only further open up cap space for the team.

With theoretically their four highest paid players off of the books by 2020, the Raptors will have still retained their top young prospects such as Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and OG Anunoby, as well as all of their future draft picks moving forward from this trade. The organization will then be able to sell the idea that they gave it all they had for that one year and will now be able to reboot the process much easier than they would have had they stuck with the status quo and rolled with the same team that they have been for the past five years.

By going through with this trade, the Toronto Raptors proved to be one of only a few teams who weren’t scared with the idea of Kawhi only staying with them for a year. Because of this, I believe that this trade will be leaving many teams, specifically in the East, wondering if they may have missed a great trade opportunity, but I suppose only time will tell whether or not this move will pay off in the long run for Toronto.

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