The NBA saw a major shakeup Wednesday with the San Antonio Spurs sending disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard and guard Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for guard DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick — a move that could change the dynamic of the Eastern Conference.
This is a swing-for-the-fences type of deal for the Raptors.
By acquiring Leonard, the Raptors landed a former NBA Finals MVP who is regarded as a top-five player when healthy. But Leonard is coming off a season in which he appeared in only nine games because of a quad injury. His relationship with the Spurs soured and he demanded a trade to the Los Angeles Lakers.
According to multiple reports, Leonard has no desire to play in Toronto and the 27-year-old, entering a contract year, can bolt for Los Angeles next summer in free agency.
The deal appears to be worth the risk. Though the Raptors finished with a 59-23 record last season, Toronto was swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round — another devastating playoff exit at the hands of LeBron James.
DeRozan, finishing second-team All-NBA last season, underperformed in the playoffs. While he was a star against the Washington Wizards in Round 1, he failed to make a 3-pointer against the Cavaliers and his production suffered.
With Leonard, the Raptors’ ceiling becomes higher.
If the experiment goes well, making the NBA Finals isn’t out of the question, even with the emergence of the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. The trade could be a setback for the Wizards, who added Dwight Howard and Austin Rivers to make a leap in the East.
But if it fails — if Leonard is so unhappy that the Raptors are forced to trade him midseason or let him walk for nothing — the Raptors still stand to be in good position. Toronto cleared DeRozan’s remaining salary (three years, $83 million with an early termination option for 2020-21 ) from its books, which would help a rebuild.
After years of playoff disappointment, general manager Masai Ujiri is willing to gamble on this boom-or-bust approach.
For the Spurs, DeRozan allows San Antonio, who have made the playoffs every year since 1998, to remain competitive. San Antonio won 47 games last season in large part without Leonard, but the West is stacked with talent. The Spurs wanted to keep pace in the conference, especially with James joining the Lakers.