So That’s A Surprise
Though Toronto had been mentioned in the mix of teams vying for Leonard, it didn’t tickle many folks fancy. His strong desire to play for LA and the general rumblings that he didn’t care too much to be playing elsewhere, it never seemed like a place he would end up.
From Toronto’s end, it makes a lot of sense, theoretically. Finishing first place in the Eastern Conference last year, they entered the playoffs with high expectations. These hopes were dashed by LeBron James once again, as all Eastern Conference playoff dreams for teams outside the Cavs and Heat have been for nearly a decade (though the Raptors have faced a particular brand of mercilessness from him).
Was It Only a Matter of Time for Toronto?
It was the way the Raptors lost that makes this move on Toronto’s end sensible (again, theoretically, as we will see). This series came following the Cavs hard-fought seven-game victory in the first round over the Indiana Pacers. It was conceivable that Toronto would have the energy edge and a leg up going into the series.
Instead, they were swept in ugly fashion. They never once demonstrated the fire and intensity for a long enough period of time to win just one game. DeMar DeRozan, who averaged 23/4/5 (points, rebounds, assists) in the regular season, averaged just 17/4/3 in the series and was benched for the final 14 minutes of game three…one of the onlystretches that the Raptors displayed a will to battle the Cavs in the series. That will was smashed in devastating fashion:
So now the Raptors have made their move, and boy is it interesting. They ship out their star that never quite was in DeRozan, a player that Toronto may not be sad to see go but one that will also be a welcomed pickup for the Spurs in a Kawhi trade market that seemed to be depreciating rapidly. They also will send out a young and improving big-man in Jakob Poeltl, as well as future draft picks (the stipulations of which are noted in Adrian Wojnarowski’s tweet above).
In return, the Raptors, of course, get Leonard, as well as veteran three-and-D guy in Danny Green. And in terms of the teams construction, the Raptors are improved from a year ago. DeRozan has proven himself a very good player over the past nine seasons in Toronto. The past few years, Raptors fans were optimistic he could take the reigns and lead them to the NBA Finals.
He did come up short, but even disregarding that, there is no debate: swapping Derozan for Leonard is an upgrade on any team, at any time, in any circumstance. DeRozan is a solid centerpiece, but Leonard (when healthy) is a bonafide superstar.
Leonard’s Bottomless Bucket of Skills
Beginning his career mostly as a specialist on offense, Leonard has developed a well-rounded game on that end of the floor. Now adept at slithering off screens and working from a variety of positions on the floor, he has become a player that can absolutely be a go-to option, a role he would likely be asked to play in Toronto.
Still, his best asset is what he brings on the other end of the floor. Though a defensive wizard in all facets, Leonard is an absolute nightmare for ball handlers, combining silky smoothness and arms the length of an anaconda with a rather high concentration of fast twitch muscle fibers and superb instincts that make for a particular brand of intimidation:
About That Whole “Theoretical” Aspect…
So Toronto, as it stands today, looks to have improved their team. With Kawhi, they would absolutely be a threat to remain atop the East. They would battle for the top spot with the Celtics. The Sixers, Pacers, and Bucks could also be in the mix with a little luck and improvement from last season.
One teeny tiny little problem though:
This is not necessarily a surprise from Leonard, as he has been reported as making it very clear that he only wants to go to Los Angeles.
And for the Raptors part, it’s not crazy to think that they were completely aware this was a possibility. With all the reports of his desires to play for the Lakers, I cannot imagine a scenario where Raptors management was optimistic they could get Leonard to resign north of the border next season. And if that is the case, they are likely hoping they can get a one-year rental on Kawhi to challenge in the East this year. The following season, they would begin their rebuild.
Worst case scenario, Leonard refuses to play in Toronto and the Raptors can trade him (albeit for diminishing returns). This would start their rebuilding process this year.***
And we have yet to mention the last wrinkle:
The Kawhi Leonard saga is not over yet.
For now, a tentative Raptor.
In six months? Who knows. If they call me, I will recommend him being shipped back out West. Let Victor Oladipo live a little bit.
Assuming Kawhi stays in Toronto, my take-it-to-the-bank Eastern Conference playoff seeding next year:
- Boston Celtics
- Toronto Raptors
- Indiana Pacers
- Philadelphia 76ers
- Milwaukee Bucks
- Miami Heat
- Washington Wizards
- Miami Heat
***If they can convince a team that Kawhi may resign there next season, or could be enough to push for a championship in 2019, trading him could warrant a haul that keeps Toronto in contention in the East.
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