Here we are again. A superstar small forward with a year left on his contract informs his team he no longer wants to play there, and would rather play for the league’s glitziest franchise. Said glitzy franchise, the Los Angeles Lakers, offers only a pittance to trade for the superstar, confident that he’ll join in free agency next summer anyways. So another franchise swoops in, confident in their ability to sell the superstar on their franchise in the one year they have him for.
George never made it to L.A. Despite the Thunder losing in the first round in his first year of his tenure, he never even met with the Lakers and instead signed a big multi-year contract with OKC right after the start of free agency, vindicating Thunder General Manager Sam Presti. The Raptors now hope for a similar outcome with Leonard.
That decision by the Raptors vindicates Presti too. Not to say that Toronto President Masai Ujiri wouldn’t have made this trade anyways- he’s a shrewd GM, and at this price the deal is too good to pass up (we’ll get to that). But the George outcome emboldens GMs to take risks like this by, if nothing else, giving them a successful example to point to if others within the organization are skeptical. Presti proved that a team with a strong enough culture can turn a one year rental into long term commitment. That should change the thinking about trading for players at the end of their contracts.
George’s decision certainly doesn’t guarantee Leonard makes the same one. They are different people, with different wants and desires- something we sometimes forget when thinking of these human beings as chess pieces in an intricate game played by the GMs. Players are in fact, humans, and sometimes humans change their minds. Kawhi might have his heart set on L.A. now, just as George did a year ago. It’s not insane of the Raptors to think they can change his mind over the next year, especially if that team can reach the NBA finals.
That should be the team’s goal. LeBron James has left the East, headed to the Lakers. If Kawhi returns to the way he played in 2016-17, the Raptors will have the best player in the Eastern Conference, and a team that won 59 games last year around him. The Celtics and 76ers will pose real challenges, but the Raptors have their best chance ever to reach the NBA finals now that the King is no longer a roadblock.
Reaching the finals, even if Kawhi departs after, would make this deal worth it- especially at the price the Raptors paid. Getting Kawhi AND Danny Green, a not insignificant throw-in, for the price of DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a heavily protected first round pick, is borderline highway robbery. I get it from the Spurs perspective, to a point- DeRozan is an all-NBA talent, despite his deficiencies (the downgrade from Kawhi to DeRozan on defense will lead to some excellent Gregg Popovich explosions of anger this year), and the Spurs can probably be penciled in for another 50 win season. But they won’t be at the level of championship contenders, and the other pieces in this trade- Jakob Poeltl and the Raptors 2019 first round pick that will likely fall in the 20’s- are helpful but not the assets you build a franchise around. The Spurs have some interesting young players already, but it never hurts to get more cracks at true superstars. Failing to get OG Anunoby or a farther away Raptors pick (at which point the team might actually be bad) is a big blow. It feels like they could have gotten more than this for Kawhi- even if Brandon Ingram was off the table, they probably could’ve gotten guys like Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma in a deal with Los Angeles- talented young guys with more upside than Poeltl. The Spurs instead got a current all-star and a couple assets that probably won’t amount to much. DeRozan is a great player, but he has proven inconsistent in being the best player on a true championship contender.
In going this route instead of hunting only young players and picks, the Spurs have chosen to continue being an above average team rather than risking a few years of mediocrity to come out as an elite team on the other side. They may believe they already have future superstars on roster in Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV, or they may just want to delay a full rebuild until Gregg Popovich retires. But unless they believe DeRozan, once taught the Spurs way, can be the leader of a championship team, they have prioritized getting 5 more wins next season over maximizing their title odds 5 or 10 years from now. That’s an acceptable choice to make, but we should be honest that this is the choice they’ve made. The opportunity cost of taking on DeRozan instead of more young players is real and significant.
Keeping Anunoby and only losing one first round pick makes this a very low risk move for Toronto. The Lowry-DeRozan teams would have been underdogs to the Celtics and Sixers, and had little prayer of winning the NBA finals if they made it. Kawhi, if fully healthy, makes them favorites or co-favorites for the conference and might give them a sliver of hope of winning the finals (probably not- the Warriors still are going to have five All-Stars. But it’s nice to dream). If Kawhi departs after this season, the Raptors can pivot pretty easily into a rebuild if they so choose- trade away the last years of Lowry and Ibaka’s deals, give the young guys plenty of minutes, and they’ll still own all their picks going forward in a Eastern Conference that is improving but still a long ways away from featuring multiple contenders.
Still, there is some risk- for one thing, there is no guarantee that Kawhi returns fully to form. Even if healthy, he might be only 80% of the player he was two seasons ago. In that case, Toronto will have paid to downgrade from DeRozan to Leonard. Even if he’s 100%, Kawhi could walk in a year, and the Raptors just gave up probably the most beloved player in franchise history for him. DeRozan gave everything to the team, refusing to take meetings with other organizations during his own free agency, and gave the franchise it’s longest stretch of relevance ever. And they traded him away when a better player presented himself. That’s why it’s hard to get too upset about players like Kawhi (or LeBron James, or Kevin Durant) exercising the agency and power they do have- teams have proven time and time again that loyalty only goes so far in this league.
If Kawhi does exercise that agency and go to the Lakers, they’ll be vindicated in not trading for him- and perhaps in not trading for George as well. A 2019-20 Lakers with LeBron, a healthy Kawhi, and a more developed Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball (not to mention Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma) could be very, very good. But not dealing for Kawhi and getting him in the door now is a risk- if the Raptors do win him over, and the Lakers miss on other 2019 targets, they’ll still be one superstar short of contention with just LeBron and the young guns. Other stars besides Kawhi will be available next summer too though, which effects the Lakers calculus here- it’s totally possible that a team of LeBron, Jimmy Butler and all the young guys is better than a team of LeBron, Kawhi, and whichever young guys the Spurs didn’t want in a Leonard trade. There’s more than one way to build a championship team.
Still, there’s no guarantee the Lakers get anyone next summer. Having LeBron improves their chances, but LeBron being likely to join wasn’t enough to convince Paul George to come. The Lakers are betting that the Kawhi situation turns out differently than George, while the Raptors are betting that their culture is enough to make it turn out the same way.
Only one of those teams will be right. But the Raptors are right to take this gamble. If it pays off, they’ll have added an MVP level player for a low cost. If it fails, they haven’t sacrificed a ton of future assets.
And the Thunder have showed that an organization with a great culture, even in a smaller market, can win over superstars who initially had other plans. That should give Toronto at least some hope that this move may be the one that finally brings them to the promised land.
Who wins this trade?
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