Why the Raptors Won the Kawhi Leonard Trade.

By CJ Mendler
Jul. 22, 2018

The Kawhi Leonard drama has finally concluded with the trade in which the San Antonio Spurs sent Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-round pick. Many have dismissed the Raptors’ acquisition of Leonard as a one-year rental, however, a deeper analysis shows that the Raptors are the clear winner of this trade.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

For the past five seasons, the Raptors have been a promising team in the regular season with their backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, but would ultimately disappoint in the playoffs. DeRozan, in particular, has had several disappointing performances that have cost his team much-needed wins. In game three of the 2017-18 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, DeRozan was benched in the fourth quarter after shooting an abysmal 25% and scoring only eight points. This was, of course, the game that the Cavaliers would go on to win after LeBron James hit a tough game-winning shot at the buzzer. When facing elimination the following game, DeRozan did have a better shooting night, making 45.5% of his shots, but would only manage to score 13 points. In the 2016-17 postseason, DeRozan only made one of his 15 three-pointers. He also only managed to score five points shooting 18.2% in a critical game two against the Cavaliers in Cleveland. In the 2015-16 postseason, in which the Raptors reached the Eastern Conference Finals, DeRozan had six games where he shot less than 30% from the floor.

Enter Kawhi Leonard, a player who has consistently put up absolutely monstrous playoff numbers. Kawhi won the Finals MVP in 2014 and his playoff resume speaks for itself. Kawhi is an excellent three-point shooter while DeRozan is subpar. Just based on his offensive abilities, Leonard is easily a top 10 player in the league and a top five player when considering his elite status on the defensive end. Kawhi Leonard is an upgrade over DeMar DeRozan in every facet.

A common criticism of this trade from the Raptors’ perspective is that Kawhi will almost definitely leave in free agency after the following season, while DeRozan is under contract until the summer of 2021. This point is null, however, when considering that the Raptors still would not be able to make it out of the East with the roster as constructed. We have seen the peak of the Toronto Raptors built around the Lowry-DeRozan backcourt. It has not been enough to win the East thus far, and that would not have changed. With Leonard instead of DeRozan, the Raptors can maximize the potential of what they had and possibly win the East this year.

The Raptors now have much more flexibility with their roster since they no longer have DeRozan’s contract. They could even trade Kawhi if they wished to start their rebuilding process earlier rather than competing this year. A likely trade would be with the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for Brandon Ingram and a first-round pick. Ingram has all-star potential and adding him along with a draft pick would jumpstart a rebuild for the Raptors. This is probably the smartest option for the Raptors, as even if they win the East it is unlikely they will be able to overcome the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. However, the Raptors’ front office may consider competing for a spot in the Finals more valuable than starting their rebuilding process early and therefore choose to keep Kawhi for the remainder of the season. In any case, the Raptors will still be in a better position moving forward and have many more options available.

From the Spurs’ perspective, this trade was not great but their options were limited. With Kawhi forcing their hand, the Spurs had to make a trade in which they would receive a star in return to remain competitive. Ideally, when a team is forced to move a superstar they would receive a package of young, promising players as well as several draft picks. In this case, the Spurs needed to keep their roster competitive right now considering their legendary head coach, Gregg Popovich, will probably be retiring within the next few seasons. This, of course, limited their options, as the Boston Celtics were adamant on keeping their core intact, and most other teams did not wish to trade for a one-year rental. While DeRozan is a star player and a great scorer from mid-range, he is not a good defender and cannot shoot threes. It is unlikely the addition of DeRozan will help the Spurs improve from their 47 win total of last season.