Raptors nab Kawhi Leonard without damaging their long-term aspirations

Kawhi Leonard finally got his trade, though he’ll be about as far from Los Angeles as the Spurs could have possibly sent him, unless I missed a provision in the CBA that allows them to send him to a yet-to-be-named NBA team in Spain. Leonard has expressed his unhappiness at every turn, leaking his side of the story to reporters consistently over the past two months and making the situation as untenable as possible in San Antonio. Beyond essentially asking for a trade publicly, Leonard’s insistence that he’ll only re-sign in Los Angeles completely tanked his trade value, to the point that the two most likely trade partners, Boston and Philadelphia, were mostly unwilling to bring a real offer to the table. Toronto, on the other hand, just experienced yet another embarrassing playoff exit and, despite their insane depth, didn’t have the top-end talent to truly compete for the Eastern Conference crown. Even with their arch-nemesis LeBron James having taken his talents to Leonard’s preferred destination, both the Celtics and 76ers looked to be the class of the East with Toronto once again falling just short of that elite status. All that changes now; the Raptors have now cemented themselves in a three-team race to be the Eastern Conference’s representative in the NBA Finals.

The details of the two-team trade, for the record: Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green will go to Toronto, with DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-rounder going back to San Antonio. Leonard’s 15 percent trade kicker will be activated in the move, netting him roughly another $3 million for next season, and the Raptors will generate a traded player exception for Poeltl’s money, since the math works without him due to DeRozan’s inflated salary. Leonard has 1+1 remaining on his deal, but there’s very little chance he opts in to $21.3 million for next season, and Green’s contract expires at the end of the 2019 campaign. DeRozan has 2+1 left on his pact worth $27.7 million per season and Poeltl is still has two years left on his rookie contract before hitting restricted free agency in 2020. The Raptors complete the trade $15.3 million over the tax for a total team spend of $168.6 million, though that number can fluctuate based on incentives earned by Kyle Lowry this season. San Antonio are in roughly the same place as they were in terms of team salary (Leonard and Green now make about $3 million more than DeRozan and Poeltl, but that extra $3 million was only triggered by the trade bonus for Leonard). The Spurs are hard-capped with $7.2 million separating their team salary from the tax, so they should have no trouble staying under this season.

It was always going to be difficult to judge a Leonard trade because of his massive health concerns and public desire to play in Los Angeles. Trade value for superstars has dropped precipitously as teams value rookie scale contracts and other cost-controlled assets above renting superstars who have made their intentions known. Presumably, the Spurs were in talks with a host of teams offering some combination of young players and draft picks, but with Gregg Popovich likely two years away from retiring from the Spurs to coach USA Basketball, a rebuild of any length was off the table. Before the draft, I had surmised that San Antonio’s best course of action might be to deal with the Clippers, who had both players and assets to give to the Spurs and would be in a good position to re-sign Leonard next offseason.

Instead, the Spurs opted for the Toronto package, which includes an All-NBA talent in DeRozan and a young, up-and-coming center in Poeltl, in addition to a first-round pick protected for the top 20 selections that will likely convey this season, unless things go very wrong for the Raptors in 2019. With the win-now edict in full effect, I’m not sure there was a better deal on the table than this one; the Spurs, even with fit concerns surrounding DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, will be competitive among mid-tier Western Conference playoff teams. The human aspect of this move is very real for a player like DeRozan, long regarded one of the hardest-working players in the league – he was reportedly blindsided by the deal and is very unhappy with Toronto for potentially misleading him in regard to these talks. A pissed off DeRozan mixed with Popovich’s coaching and desire to prove the critics wrong on this trade will be a potent combination for the Spurs next season. DeRozan, for all his foibles, has transformed his game in recent seasons to become much more of an all-around threat than many give him credit for. The mid-range preference still exists, but he’s taken major strides as a playmaker and if anybody’s going to be able to turn him into a quality defender, it’s Popovich.

Poeltl is also a nice get for the Spurs, as they’re relatively thin in the frontcourt. He’ll immediately step into the big man rotation with Aldridge and Pau Gasol, playing mostly bench minutes next to Davis Bertans as a stretch four. With two years left on his deal before 2020, the long-term thinking in San Antonio will likely include Poeltl as a starting center option in the post-Popovich universe. On the other hand, the Raptors had so much interesting young talent that the issue of opportunity cost once again arises, though this time within the same trade framework – could the Spurs have done better by getting Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby? Both players are better than Poeltl and are on better contracts, though presumably the Raptors know this as well and were unwilling to include those players in the deal.

For Toronto, trading for a superstar puts them firmly back in the race for the Best of the East, though there might not be a superstar with more baggage than the previously-wholesome Leonard. Within minutes of the trade being reported, Leonard’s camp immediately got the word out that he doesn’t want to play for the Raptors.

A Leonard rental makes all the sense in the world if he’s actually willing and able to play for the team – he’s the superstar talent they’ve been lacking over the past few years and improves their ceiling dramatically and the trade doesn’t significantly impact their floor. DeRozan is a wonderful player, but Leonard brings to the table most of what DeRozan does in addition to outside shooting and, when fully healthy, some of the best perimeter defense in the league. There’s no question that the Raptors would be better with a fully-engaged Leonard and would contend with Boston and Philadelphia at the top of the Eastern Conference, but the cloud hanging over his health and willingness to play certainly comes into play in a major way.

 

It has to be noted that it would be objectively insane if Leonard literally sat out the 2018-19 season because he doesn’t want to play in Toronto. If he doesn’t want to be there long-term, then he can play out his contract this season and sign with the Lakers or Clippers this time next year, but the harm to his brand and reputation, not to mention the fines he’d rack up, makes it almost impossible that he’ll actually refuse to play for the Raptors. Part of Toronto’s willingness to trade for him is also that they’ll be able to offer him more money than anybody else next summer and if the Raptors are as successful as many think they could be, he may be hard-pressed to move on from them.

Green may be an overlooked aspect of the deal, but he’ll play a very pivotal role for the Raptors next season. He immediately steps into the starting shooting guard role for them and provides the type of spacing and perimeter defense Toronto has been lacking in a single player in their starting group. A potential rotation of Lowry-Green-Leonard-Ibaka-Valanciunas with VanVleet, Wright, Miles, Anunoby, Powell, and Siakam coming off the bench is a terrifyingly deep team that could feature the top-end talent to really check all the boxes of a Finals contender. The loss of Poeltl will require a replacement big man, but in this market there are plenty of guys the Raptors can grab for the minimum who will be serviceable in that role.

Even if it’s just a one-year rental for Leonard, Toronto’s front office has to be doing backflips over this trade. They’re significantly improved for next season and beyond; DeRozan’s contract no longer hangs over their 2020 cap space, when they’ll have just two players under contract in Powell and Anunoby and a potential for more than $90 million in cap space. Of course, things will change between now and then and they’re likely to want to retain the cap holds for VanVleet and Siakam at a minimum, but the long-term financial flexibility this trade awards them is another strong consideration in this deal.