Thoughts on the Kawhi-DeRozan Trade

Raptors get:
SF Kawhi Leonard (2x All-Star, 2x DPOY, 1x Finals MVP, 1x NBA steals leader)
SG Danny Green (2015 All-Defensive 2nd Team, 40% 3-point shooter)

Spurs get:
SG DeMar DeRozan (4x All-Star, career 20 PPG scorer, 27.3 PPG in 2016–17)
C Jakob Poeltl (9th overall pick in the 2016 draft)
2019 1st round draft pick (Protected 1–20, becomes 2 2nd rounders if it doesn’t convey)

The Spurs kept Kawhi from his preferred destination, the Lakers. They moved him to the other conference. They got a bonafide All-Star back in DeRozan. DeMar gets better every year and it’ll be interesting to see how his game develops under Coach Popovich. Poeltl was a lottery pick stuck playing behind another lottery pick in Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto, and should get to start in San Antonio as Pau Gasol just turned 38. The first-round draft pick is likely to convey in 2019 unless Toronto implodes. DeRozan and Poeltl are both under contract for at least 2 more seasons, while Leonard and Green are up after the 2018–19 season.

Spurs Depth Chart

That’s a big, talented starting lineup that lacks outside shooting. Bertans, Mills and Ginobili bring some shooting off the bench. The starters are highly skilled inside the arc, but congestion will be an issue. Murray and DeRozan both shoot around 30% from 3. Kawhi wasn’t much of a shooter when the Spurs drafted him either so they will certainly have those guys work with shooting guru Chip Engelland to try and improve. The Raptors had DeRozan and Gay together in 2013, and pulled the plug largely due to the combo’s poor outside shooting. Expect this Achilles’ heel to doom the Spurs in the playoffs after another 50-ish win regular season.

For the Raptors, making this move is bittersweet. DeRozan was the first player the franchise drafted that stayed past his 7th season. He often expressed his loyalty to the team and desire to bring a championship to Toronto. When he signed his contract 2 years ago, I wrote this:

DeRozan’s jersey will be retired one day. He helped lift this team out of the post-Bosh rubble to the conference contenders they are today.

However, after getting swept out of the playoffs for the 3rd time in 4 years, President Masai Ujiri was ready to make some big changes. With the window for this iteration of the team set to close in 2 years with the aging Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka’s contract expiring, Ujiri is basically pushing all-in for one year with Leonard.

Kawhi is unquestionably the best player in this deal. He’s a far better defender and 3-point shooter than DeRozan, if not quite as crafty an iso scorer. The only issue — and the reason the Raptors were able to get him without giving up significantly more — is that he wants to be in Los Angeles. Most pundits have him leaving to L.A. in free agency after the one-year rental. Is that worth trading DeRozan? If it gets the Raptors to the Finals, yes! Paul George was supposed to leave the Thunder to sign in L.A. this summer but ended up re-upping there. That could potentially happen with Kawhi in Toronto as well. But even if it doesn’t, the Raptors can pivot to a rebuild pretty quickly if he leaves. Green’s contract is also up after this coming season.

In the off-season, the Raptors can offer Kawhi a 5-year, $190 million contract. That’s $38 million a year. If he leaves, the most he can get is $141 million over 4 years. That’s $35.25 million a year.

Keeping all 3 of Delon Wright, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam out of the trade was a victory for Toronto. Poeltl was a lottery pick, but Valanciunas and Ibaka can eat up the minutes at his position more than capably. The draft pick is well-protected, and the Raptors have enough young promising players to soften the blow of losing it.

Raptors Depth Chart

Center Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira is still out there as a free agent. The Raptors could bring him back as big man insurance. Leonard and Anunoby can also play PF in smaller lineups, and Ibaka can slide to C. Miles can be used more situationally as a shooter surrounded by defenders. The Raptors ran into serious defensive problems trying to play Miles and DeRozan together in the playoffs.

The Raptors will now start 5 proven veteran players. For the last couple of years, there was always one young player in the starting lineup that limited the team (OG last year, Siakam the year before). Now those guys can come off the bench and wreak havoc against opposing reserves.

On paper, the Raptors are a stronger Finals contender now. In reality, how Kawhi approaches his year in Toronto will determine a lot. Is he going to be a distraction and poison the locker room, or refuse to even report to the team? Or will he seize this season as a chance to re-establish his position as an MVP candidate and turn the Raptors into a juggernaut?

Even if it’s just for one season, the latter sounds like a lot of fun.