The early-morning trade that sent Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors and DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs had NBA Twitter buzzing, but not for the reasons you might expect. Yes, there was fallout from two All-Stars in their primes swapping conferences, but their fellow players were far more focused on what they perceived as lack of loyalty shown by the Raptors to DeRozan, something Toronto’s all-time leading scorer touched on in his own Instagram Story.
After nine months of injury updates, inexplicable absences, and rampant speculation, Kawhi Leonard has finally been traded. The Raptors are sending DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-round pick (1–20) to San Antonio in exchange for Leonard and Danny Green. The deal had been rumored for nearly two weeks, but talks intensified on Tuesday, and by Wednesday morning, it was official.
There are a number of ripple effects to sort through now, so we’ll break this down by examining the biggest winners and losers from the deal.
Winner: The Raptors
There will be lots of jokes about next July, when Toronto will try to talk Kawhi into choosing frigid winters and the Canadian market over Southern California and the biggest stage in basketball. On that front, we’ve already heard sources say “Kawhi Leonard has no desire to play in Toronto.” There may also be jokes about the Raptors finally landing someone to guard LeBron, but only after LeBron leaves the East. And speaking of years-long torment, there’s also the possibility that Kawhi dominates this year, Toronto makes the Finals, and then LeBron recruits him to L.A. next summer, breaking Toronto’s heart one final time.
Jokes and worst–case scenarios aside, the Raptors are winners regardless. The team they were bringing back had a ceiling that had become clear over the past few seasons. Maybe you think that all the problems would have been solved with LeBron in the West, but they were still entering next season several steps behind the Celtics, with a nucleus that had consistently underwhelmed in the playoffs. At some point, it makes sense to gamble.
All along, the problem with trading Kyle Lowry or DeRozan was that no one around the league would offer comparable value for players who guaranteed the Raptors a baseline of 50 wins every season. Lowry and DeRozan have been great players together in the East, but there was always a limit to what other teams could imagine for them on their own in a different situation. So what’s the point in trading bonafide All-Stars if you’re getting back, say, Harrison Barnes? Or Andrew Wiggins? Or Luol Deng and B-list Lakers prospects? Or a pick in the middle of the first round? Most of the Raptors rumors we’ve heard over the years have been limited-upside solutions that would have left Toronto looking trapped in the middle of the league. Kawhi is different.
Kawhi, if he’s healthy, gives the Raptors a MVP candidate that probably ranks as the most dominant player the franchise has ever had. Healthy Kawhi makes the Raptors the second-best team in the East. Next to Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, he makes their defense monstrous. And he makes the next 12 months exponentially more interesting and exciting for Toronto than the last few years have been. There are obvious risks that we’ll mention later—free agency next July, Kawhi’s health, Kawhi’s mindset, Uncle Dennis, etc.—but this made sense in large part because inaction was its own sort of choice for Toronto, and one they’d already tried. Now the “culture change” gets real.
If Kawhi goes to Toronto and thrives and eventually stays, this gamble pays off huge. If he goes to Toronto and underwhelms before leaving next summer, this next season is a bridge to a new era in which the Raptors get to work finding solutions beyond DeRozan and Lowry. Either way, it feels like a healthy step.
Loser: The Spurs
Look, there are many things to say about everything that’s happened in San Antonio over the past 12 months. Most of this unfolded in ways that Spurs fans and even Spurs management never could have predicted or prepared for. Now that Kawhi is really gone, I’m excited to see how much weirder the anecdotes from last season can become. (Will we top “sequestered in New York City hiding from Spurs front office members in a separate part of the building”?)
One basic takeaway in the meantime: This lineup makes my head hurt.
The Spurs have made an art of zigging while the rest of the league zags, but man. I don’t know. Doubling down on a ball-stopping midrange offense with LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan is going to be quite a journey.
It’s safe to bet on San Antonio winning something close to 50 games with this lineup—always bet on that—but it may not be pretty, and it’s certainly doesn’t look as healthy as, say, rebuilding around Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart. On the other hand: San Antonio never had any leverage with the Lakers, the front office turned down offers from the Celtics during the season, and by this point in the summer, getting back any kind of star is probably the best the Spurs could have hoped for.
There will be people who claim they got fleeced by Masai Ujiri, but I can’t really blame them for bringing back 50 cents on the dollar. The Spurs lost this battle months ago, and if they made mistakes in this process, the greatest error was not admitting defeat earlier. By July, Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford were trading a player who: skipped an entire season, alienated everyone in the building, made trade demands through back channels, may not be 100% healthy (at least in the eyes of prospective trade partners), and has made it clear that he plans to leave for Los Angeles next summer. The Spurs’ leverage wasn’t just cut in half, it was cut in half about four different times over the past six months. Of course they lost this trade in the end. The more interesting question is when—and why—this all began to spiral.
Winner: Masai Ujiri
On the one hand, Ujiri has overseen the most successful stretch in Raptors franchise history, and he’s built a culture of sustained excellence that roughly 20 teams around the NBA would trade places with in a heartbeat. So Masai is bulletproof. He’s got a job for life. But even so, the end of last season left everyone looking bad, and Masai was no exception. His roster was locked into mediocrity, the Serge Ibaka deal was a disaster, firing Dwane Casey was obviously not a meaningful solution, and the next steps were unclear.
Now he’s found a path forward. The Raptors should be very good next season, and if they’re not, the story will be about Kawhi, not the general manager. From there, either keeping Kawhi or losing him next summer, this team will have a lot more clarity about what they’re building in 2019 and into the 2020s. Masai was able to keep Toronto’s favorite long-term projects, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, and the Raptors will enter next year with more buzz than they’ve had in years. No one is talking about the Ibaka deal, and no one is asking what the plan is.
Siakam and Anunoby may never be better than the fourth– or fifth–best players on a good team, but in the abstract, keeping them is a big win. And while this gamble can go many different directions, right now, the Masai mystique is back.
Winner: Gregg Popovich
The Popovich side of this deal is much harder to read. In some ways, I’m sure the breakdown with Kawhi will bother Popovich for years to come, and it’s a bittersweet coda to one of the most successful careers the NBA has ever seen. But aside from that grim reality, it’s also fair to say that Pop is retiring in the next few years, and Wednesday’s trade adds a silver lining to the twilight.
There’s a version of this story where the next year’s Spurs would have tanked and Pop would spend his final season watching Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans get drilled by 30 every night. Instead, there’s a chance we’ll watch Pop use DeRozan and Aldridge to stubbornly invert every lesson of the modern NBA, exceed league-wide expectations, thrive without the superstar who betrayed his team, and find a way to succeed all over again. For someone as competitive as Popovich, that’s a lot more fun than punting the final few years of his career and playing for 2023. And for a small market team like San Antonio, rebuilding comes with a world of questions that don’t have clear answers. There’s nothing wrong with waiting a few years to head down that road.
Loser: DeMar DeRozan
The DeRozan side of this deal wasn’t quite “Celtics and Isaiah” levels of cold-hearted, but it’s close. DeRozan bought into everything Toronto was trying to do over the past several seasons. He improved his game year after year. He openly loved it in Toronto after a decade that saw both Chris Bosh and Vince Carter leave. He had all the intangibles any team would want in a franchise player.
In the end, none of it mattered. DeRozan wasn’t quite good enough to be the best player on a title contender, his offense repeatedly broke down in key moments over the past few postseason runs, and at some point in the next two years, he’ll be due for a significant raise that the Raptors (clearly) weren’t thrilled about offering.
It makes sense that he was the one to be traded, but it’s also quite obviously a bummer. If there’s any solace DeRozan can take, it’s that he is joining an organization that has consistently made good players look great while also finding ways to hide their flaws. Spurs DeRozan could be even better than Raptors DeRozan. Likewise, DeMar is basically joining Team Spite—see the above section—and it will be fun to watch Pop and LaMarcus and DeMar doing everything in their power to win 50 games just to piss off everyone who expects them to disappear post-Kawhi.
Winner: Dejounte Murray Believers
Spurs fans need to put away the championship DVDs and start watching these highlights from Seattle summer league. If you believe in Dejounte Murray’s upside—I do!—the long-term future in San Antonio isn’t completely hopeless. In any case, Murray will have more chances than ever to prove himself next season and give Spurs fans a reason to think about the 2020s without having a meltdown.
TBD: The Sixers
The Sixers’ offseason won’t be defined by mistakes, so that’s something. In the wake of the Colangelo disaster, Philly has been very careful to maintain its flexibility over the next few years, refusing to overpay for any kind of underwhelming solutions. The Sixers missed on LeBron and Paul George, so instead, they’ll run it back with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and another year of short-term solutions, preserving cap space for next summer’s class of stars. That might be the right call. But as Toronto proved over the past few seasons, inaction comes with its own set of downsides.
Of the players potentially on next year’s market—Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Al Horford, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker, Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, and Kevin Love—there are only a few who count as realistic Sixers targets. Beyond next summer, extensions will be due to Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, and money will get tight. Given the tight window to add pieces and how quickly Embiid and Simmons have turned into All-NBA-level talents who might have a realistic Finals shot with a little more help, gambling on Kawhi would have made a lot of sense. There’s no guarantee there will ever be a path to a better Sixers addition than the one San Antonio just traded. Maybe the Spurs weren’t interested in Fultz, Covington, and Dario. Maybe Kawhi’s medical history scared Philly away. Maybe Brett Brown’s connections to San Antonio gave him added insight into just how crazy things were last season.
Whatever the case, there was no Sixers Kawhi decision that didn’t come with tremendous risks. Trading for him meant betting on a one-year rental who may not be healthy. On the other hand, if Kawhi shows up in Toronto and looks 100% healthy, we’re going to look back on this summer and wonder why Philly wasn’t pushing harder to make this work.
Winner: The East’s dignity
Hey, now! Move Kawhi from San Antonio to Toronto, and suddenly the Eastern Conference doesn’t look quite as hopeless as it did 24 hours ago. The East talent pool is still laughably inferior compared to everything out West, but after losing LeBron and staring at an All-Star game that could include like eight different members of the Celtics, Kawhi helps the East reclaim a little bit of dignity.
Loser: The West’s dreamers
The Western Conference playoff race is murderous year after year, and next season will be no exception. With LeBron in L.A., the Lakers can safely be slotted somewhere into the top eight. Then there are the Nuggets, Grizzlies, Mavericks, and Clippers looming as lottery participants last season who plan on making a playoff run next year. That’s already an incredibly tight crunch, and at the very least, these prospective playoff teams could take solace this summer knowing the Spurs would probably get royally screwed in any Kawhi trade and fall out of the playoff race.
Now it’s not so clear. Team Spite in San Antonio may not enter next season with any shot at a title, but bringing in DeRozan should give them enough firepower to remain every bit as competitive as anyone else in the middle of the conference. That development is good news for the Spurs and entertaining news for basketball fans. And while teams like the Bulls or Hornets entertain not-entirely-crazy playoff dreams, all of this is another reminder that life in the West is deeply unfair.
TBD: The Lakers
There a few different ways to read this for the Lakers. On the one hand, Pelinka and Magic never blinked in the days before free agency when the Spurs were moving heaven and earth to create a bidding war for Kawhi. That was smart. They will keep Brandon Ingram, a potential All-Star who’s still 21 years old, and they still have a chance to sign Kawhi next summer. Also: rather than gutting their team for a player who just missed almost the entire season, Magic, Pelinka and LeBron will have a year to watch him in Toronto to gauge exactly how healthy Leonard really is, and whether he makes sense as the long-term sidekick in L.A. All of this was smart and easy to defend.
On the other hand, even if the Lakers are in better shape than the Sixers (because they are already the favorites to sign Kawhi next summer), their inaction still comes with a lot of the same questions. If Kawhi is 100%, he could have helped LeBron contend at the top of the West this season. If Kawhi thrives in Toronto and decides to stay next summer, that removes a potential MVP candidate from the team in 2019, and suddenly the Lakers could be left talking themselves into B+ options around LeBron. Likewise, there’s always the chance that a team like the Clippers could enter the mix with either a monster offer at the trade deadline or an offer next summer. Any one of these scenarios are frustrating for L.A., with the latter being particularly unnerving.
The Lakers accepted those downsides and chose to bet on the upside of their young players and the potential to steal Kawhi anyway. The “Anything can happen now that Paul George stayed in OKC” angle is probably overstated at this point—most players who promise to leave will, in fact, leave—but there are still some serious risks that come with doing nothing.
Winner and Loser: Spurs culture
The mystique surrounding the Spurs was always a little bit misleading. It’s true that San Antonio has been a franchise that thrives by playing smarter, using innovative scouting, developing its players in ways that other teams can’t, and fostering a culture among its coaches and players that just doesn’t exist anywhere else in pro sports. That culture was always real and it helped them compete in tangible ways. But at the center of everything the Spurs did well, there were always superstars. In that way, the Spurs were never quite as distinct as they seemed.
Like any other great team, San Antonio’s success depended on Hall of Fame players and their willingness to buy into what the franchise was selling. The past year of Kawhi underscored that point. The minute he went off the grid, the Spurs became mortal again. No amount of scouting wizardry or ball movement could fill the vacuum he left behind. This past season was the first time in 20 years that San Antonio fell short of 50 wins.
Of course, if Kawhi unwittingly highlighted the limits of Spurs culture, the way this run ended also underscores just how remarkable it was all along. It’s not normal for superstars to take paycuts year after year, stay loyal to a tiny market in Texas, play for each other, evolve stylistically from year to year, and play for a coach with as domineering a personality as Popovich. It worked in San Antonio because the people at the center of the story were once-in-a-generation players, but also personalities that the NBA had never seen before and hasn’t really seen since. Kawhi looked like he fit that mold until he didn’t. As he moves on, it’s one more reason to be amazed by the careers of guys like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and everything they built over the past 20 years.
And as for Kawhi…
TBD: Kawhi Leonard
The last time he played a full season healthy, he had a strong case for MVP and he was unquestionably one of the five best players alive. Go back and watch him disembowel the Grizzlies in the playoffs. He was amazing. If he’s 100%, he’s probably the most talented player to be traded since Kevin Garnett. But he might not be healthy, he might not want to play in Toronto, and while everyone will spend the next 12 months penciling him onto the Lakers, we’re not even sure if he’s interested in that option, either. So, how great can Kawhi be? How real were the injury issues? Where is this story going from here? How excited should the Raptors be?
We will all find out together.