Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs, and Nobody to the Lakers
Kawhi Leonard sat out all but nine games in the 2017-18 NBA season with a leg injury that stemmed from spraining his ankle several times in the 2017 NBA playoffs, or at least that is what the original understanding was. That understanding gradually changed, it became known that he no longer wanted to be a Spur, and that officially came to a head on June 15, when the superstar made a formal trade request.
Kawhi and “his group” made it clear that his preferred destination was in Los Angeles, and it did not matter much which team he wanted to play for, he just wanted to be in that city. Kawhi Leonard, while he was under contract for another season, did have some leverage with the whole situation, as he was able to let it leak that he was going to most likely play in Los Angeles whether or not he was traded there or not. That essentially means that he would drive teams away by letting them know he will not re-sign in the offseason, essentially making him a rental player.
So, the only teams he initially leaked he would re-sign for were the Lakers and Clippers, with no preference for one over the other. It later leaked that he would consider re-signing in Philadelphia, but that was the last leak in terms of where he would consider re-signing. There were rumors about where he would end up for the next month, and perhaps none were more prominent than the rumors that he would wind up in Los Angeles alongside LeBron James, Paul George, and DeMarcus Cousins.
That dream died relatively quickly. LeBron James did end up signing with the Lakers, but Paul George re-upped for four more years in Oklahoma City and Demarcus Cousins took the mid-level exception for a year in Golden State. That left the Lakers with just LeBron James, a young core, a slew of strange 1-year free agent signings, and a dream.
That dream was Kawhi Leonard, who is a former Finals MVP and was a finalist for the MVP award in the last full season he played. The rumors swirled for the next several weeks that the deal was inevitable, and that the Spurs had lost all leverage and would end up getting the raw end of the bargain.
I believed it, at least for a little while, but the rumors started to slow down, and rumors of a second team gained traction a couple weeks later. That team was the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, who were mere stepping stones for LeBron and the Cavaliers for four years, were looking to shake things up even more and add a superstar player. They had fired the NBA’s coach of the year Dwane Casey just after getting swept in the playoffs, and already had a nice team in place to make a run at the Eastern Conference Finals now that LeBron was gone. People, including myself, shook off those rumors, it seemed too unrealistic, but often times when there’s smoke there’s fire, and in the early hours of Wednesday, July 18, Kawhi Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors.
Kawhi Leonard, who reportedly wanted nothing to do with any team outside of Los Angeles, was getting deported by Gregg Popovich and RC Buford to Canada, home of the only NBA team that doesn’t play its home games in the United States. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded to the Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-round draft pick. The Spurs were able to get rid of Kawhi while getting a star in return, and the Raptors were able to get out of the last three seasons of DeRozan’s contract. The Raptors, who clearly figured out that their ceiling was never going to be a championship with the way their team was constructed, improved and set themselves up well for contention next season.
Now, while Kawhi might just end up being a rental, that is also fine for the Raptors. They can go for it this year to try and make it to the finals, and if Kawhi decides to leave then they can go and do a full-on rebuild and offload the big contracts that become expiring contracts after next season. They could also now have a newfound confidence in being able to convince Kawhi to say in Toronto long-term. They have a good team now that can immediately compete in the East, Toronto is a major sports market, and the home of another major celebrity who has a sneaker deal with the same company.
The Spurs also did well in this trade, they got DeMar DeRozan, who is a four-time all-star and a two-time all-NBA player. He has averaged over 20 points per game every year since the 2013/14 season. The main criticism of DeRozan is that he can’t shoot threes and shrinks in the playoffs, but with the Spurs, the burden of both those criticisms could be alleviated. DeRozan is a mid-range ace, knocking down 42.6% of his shots in the mid-range. As a team, the Spurs have strayed-away from three's, only taking a combined 1977 threes over the course of 82 games, which was the 27th most in the NBA. They are a roster full or players who thrive around the basket and inside the arc, so naturally DeMar DeRozan is a perfect fit, especially alongside LaMarcus Aldridge.
The initial reaction to this trade from fans around the league was confusion, and I was among those confused, as for some reason I was convinced he was going to be a Clipper and got the news when I woke up early in the morning before work. As more details about the trade came out, specifically about the package that was going to the Spurs, the feeling of confusion disappeared for most fans, and that was replaced by annoyance. Fans felt that the Raptors betrayed DeMar DeRozan, who was the one superstar that had really embraced the city and wanted to be there for his whole career. Reports surfaced shortly after the trade that DeRozan was devastated about the move, especially after reportedly being promised that he would not be traded in a meeting in the week prior.
NBA players and fans all voiced their opinions about the trade and how they felt that DeMar was stabbed in the back, but the one player who’s thoughts really stood out was Isaiah Thomas. The former all-star tweeted: “Just learn from my story! Loyalty is just a word in this game SMH.” Thomas, who was traded in one of the most ruthless trades of all time last offseason, has a lot of credibility when it comes to this topic. His words also should serve as proof that NBA players should always do what is best for them, whether or not that means leaving a ball-hogging point guard to win a championship or joining two friends to win two championships while living on a beach, or requesting a trade to try and become the leader of your own team. There is no need for calling players “Snakes” or for calling them traitors, this game is a business, and they are doing what is best for them.
I actually like this trade on both sides. The Spurs got an all-star and a big who could both be very serviceable under Coach Popovich. The Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, shed a massive contract, and it only really cost them a young big man and a protected draft pick. Both teams are still in a prime position to compete, and the best part of all of this is now the every Laker fan’s dream of a perfect offseason is now shattered and beaten down by the reality that they might not even be really competitive at the top of the West in the upcoming season.