Kawhi Leonard is the all-in risk that the Raptors and Masai Ujiri had to take
We’ll start here: the Toronto Raptors are losing something in this deal. DeMar DeRozan is a damn good player, a legitimate No. 1 scorer on perennial 50-win teams, an All-NBA-caliber two-guard who has gotten better every year and who, at age 28, might not be done doing that yet.
DeRozan’s a talisman, a cornerstone: a guy who, in an NBA world where star players haven’t always wanted to go to Canada or stick around after touching down, embraced Toronto and its fans, committing and recommitting to life in the north. He’s a player who mattered and matters, one of the faces of the greatest era of sustained success in franchise history; shipping him off to Texas in the middle of night, reportedly only a few breaths after telling him he wasn’t going anywhere, is icy, and could leave no small number of Raptors fans feeling raw.
Moving DeRozan, third-year center Jakob Poeltl and a top-20-protected 2019 first-round pick, especially for a player who seems to be making it crystal clear he wants no parts of playing in Toronto, is no small thing, and one hell of a risk. It’s also a risk that Raptors president Masai Ujiri should have taken, and should’ve taken 10 times out of 10, because if the goal’s to win the whole thing, you’ve got to land a superstar.
Talent trumps all in the championship rounds. No matter how many tweaks they made or how much depth they fostered, the best Raptors teams ever ran aground again and again because they never had a top-five player to throw at the one who was always standing in their way. Kawhi Leonard, when he’s healthy and suiting up, is absolutely that kind of player. Ujiri just got him for a fringe All-NBA player with a history of playoff woes owed $83.2 million over the next three years, a nice backup center who profiles more as “useful rotation piece” than “future star,” and what’ll either be a bottom-third of the first round pick or two second-rounders.
The Raptors got Leonard without giving up their best young players: athletic forwards O.G. Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, and guards Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright. They got him without encumbering their flexibility beyond next year, taking on no guaranteed money past the 2018-19 season — Leonard’s all but certain to opt out of his ’19-’20 salary to hit unrestricted free agency next summer, and fellow ex-Spur Danny Green will join him there — and committing no first-rounders past the ’19 draft. This is a win-now move that, if things go south, still leaves the Raptors in position to reboot in a hurry, something that would’ve been immeasurably more difficult to do with DeRozan’s $27.7 million annual salary on the books through 2021.
There’s an out-of-sight, out-of-mind aspect to this, which is understandable, given the fact that we’ve barely seen Kawhi play since he landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals. So let’s make it plain: If Leonard is, in fact, healthy after missing all but nine games of the 2017-18 season with a lingering right quadriceps injury — before Wednesday morning’s blockbuster, he was reportedly considering turning up for next week’s Team USA minicamp to “showcase his revitalized health” — then he is, without question, an immediate and significant upgrade over DeRozan as Toronto’s top gun.
After some muttering about how he wasn’t really a No. 1 option because he was just working in the Spurs’ system, during the 2016-17 season, Leonard became the Spurs’ system. He posted a top-10 usage rate while pulverizing opponents in the post, off the bounce from the perimeter and on hiccup-quick launches from beyond the arc. He averaged 25.5 points per game on 48/38/88 shooting splits, a level of point-producing and shot-making efficiency that puts him in the company of prime Larry Bird, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki.
Leonard’s not an elite playmaker, having never averaged more than 3.5 assists per game or an assist rate higher than 19 percent. (LeBron, for example, assisted on 44.4 percent of his Cavs teammates’ buckets during his floor time last year.) But he’s improved over time, dishing dimes on a career-high share of fellow Spurs’ baskets in his last healthy season, and seeing that rate spike even further in the playoffs, where he was an absolute terror against Memphis, Houston and Golden State before going down for good.
And, lest we forget, he is also a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, the single best perimeter defender in the sport, a strong-arm bully who, like a shutdown corner, convinces offenses to just go the other way. Leonard is one of few players on the planet who could credibly make a case for being the best in the world. And now he’s a Raptor.
New head coach Nick Nurse will be able to run out lineups featuring some combination of Leonard, Anunoby, Siakam, Green and Lowry on the perimeter, a collection of length, smarts, athleticism and tenacity that’s going to give opposing ball-handlers and coaches nightmares. Leonard (38.6 percent from 3-point range in his career) and Green (39.5 percent, though that’s dipped over the past three seasons) add two more bankable shooters to an offense that reoriented more toward motion and long-distance bombing last season.
They’ll be smaller, with Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka currently the only five men on the roster, which could be a problem against certain opponents. (Looking at you, JoJo.) But they’ll be more versatile, more potent and better equipped for postseason success, with a tougher defense, better wing depth, and a proven late-game isolation scorer. If Leonard shows up healthy and buys in — two massive ifs — they’ll be better. Maybe much better.
Even after swapping out Dwane Casey for Nurse, the Raptors needed something big, bold and bombastic to rekindle belief that what Ujiri and company had built — a 59-win team whose blood ran cold in April and May — really did have a chance, even with LeBron moving west, to topple the likes of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. This is it. This is the swing for the fences, the Presti-in-OKC bet that what the Raptors have built, what Toronto has to offer, and the opportunity to win big will be enough to convince an all-world talent to warm up to a destination he’d never previously considered, propelling an organization knocking at the door to a level of NBA relevance it’s never known. This is the Raptors trying to make the NBA Finals this season, and trying to show Kawhi that doing so in Toronto would be unlike anything he or any other NBA luminary has ever seen.
“There is something about this city, about this place, this team, that a star hasn’t figured out yet,” Ujiri told Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star back in September. This is Toronto taking a shot at showing that to the world.
If it doesn’t go that way — if things fall apart, if Leonard’s not what he was before the quad injury, or if he differs from Paul George by holding fast on his widely reported desire to go back to L.A., no matter what — then they can try to flip him again before February’s trade deadline. And if they can’t … well, with only Norman Powell’s $10.9 million and rookie-scale options for Anunoby, Siakam and Malachi Richardson on the books for 2020, they’ll remain in position to rebuild quickly. That’d give Ujiri the chance to wholly construct a roster his own way for the first time since he arrived in 2013, inheriting DeRozan, Lowry, Valanciunas and Casey from the Bryan Colangelo regime.
That core wound up winning more in Toronto than anyone could have imagined, transforming the Raptors from an also-ran into a postseason mainstay. But by the end of this season, it felt broken and stuck in the mud, a very good team without a defined path to being something more. With this move, Ujiri has cleared two: one that leads straight to the top, and one that’d take a lower, longer road. Now we wait to see which one they’ll take, and whether Kawhi Leonard’s ready to show up in Ontario and start being Kawhi Freaking Leonard again.
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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter!
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