Expecting loyalty in the NBA is a naive notion. Players are promised so much, but the league is a business, and ultimately everybody is expendable. It’s why Toronto Raptors fans were stunned to see DeMar DeRozan (who was stunned himself) traded to the San Antonio Spurs in a package for Kawhi Leonard. General manager Masai Ujiri took a considerable risk, potentially alienating fans and trading the most beloved player in franchise history for a guy who doesn’t want to be there. But, the risk is unquestionably one worth taking.
Leonard’s 2017-18 season was over almost as soon as it began. After sitting nearly the entire season with a quad injury despite Spurs medical staff clearing him to play, Leonard’s image took a dive. In a usual rock-solid San Antonio, Leonard’s disappearing act made things unusually tense. Upon completion of the season, Leonard requested a trade and reports made it clear he wanted to play in L.A. Hellbent on keeping him out of the West, Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford sent him packing to Canada.
So, how is trading a franchise icon for a very disgruntled player on the last year of his deal a good move? Because it reveals the Raptors window, gives them a chance in the wide-open East and shows risk-taking from a team that rarely does so. According to the NBA betting guide, the Raptors championship odds for next season have increased due to this trade.
Acquiring an NBA Champion, 2x All-Star and 2x Defensive Player of the Year for the low cost of DeRozan, center Jakob Poetl and a top-2o protected pick is a no-brainer. To get him without dealing a ton of assets is a coup. With his head on straight, Leonard is a top-five NBA talent. No free agent of Leonard’s caliber considers Toronto a feasible destination. Even with one year left on his deal, Toronto’s chances of making the NBA Final increase dramatically with Leonard around. It’s a move you have to make if you’re Ujiri.
Toronto’s starting five (at the moment) is Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakim and Jonas Valanciunas. The bench, meanwhile, is even better than it was as NBA-best last year. After multiple seasons of turtling in the playoffs, the lineup is different and better. It’s the last shot at a championship.
Best case scenario, a happy Leonard plays all 82 games, the Raptors make the NBA Finals, and he signs a long-term extension. Worst case scenario, Leonard’s health keeps him mostly on the bench, Toronto qualifies for the playoffs, gets knocked out early, and he leaves. The latter scenario meaning the Raptors can rebuild and start anew without Kawhi – and DeRozan’s cap hit.
Ujiri’s put a timer on the Raptors future. Acquiring Leonard might be a massive risk on his part, but whether it fails or succeeds, Toronto will know how to handle things going forward. I’m sure Ujiri’s not pleased to deal DeRozan but winning beats loyalty every time. With Leonard, Toronto’s got a real shot to win an NBA title – something they never had or would have had with DeRozan. It just comes at the cost of not appearing loyal – a trade Ujiri was willing to gamble on. It’ll be fascinating to see if it works.