As the Brigadier General of NBA Twitter, World Wide Wob, likes to put it; loyalty is just a seven-letter word in the dictionary. It was never more evident than on Wednesday morning when the Raptors traded the greatest player in franchise history for a star who had strung his team along all season long and demanded a trade out of town.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The Spurs did pretty well for themselves in the trade. They managed to ship out their disgruntled star that would rather hide in a bunker in New York for six months than pick up a basketball for them again and received another All-Star player in return. It’s a move that keeps San Antonio’s window of contention open until Popovich’s probable retirement in 2020.
Despite Leonard only playing nine games last season, the Spurs finished just two games out of the third spot in the Western Conference. With Trevor Ariza in Phoenix, Clint Capela still unsigned and Carmelo Anthony’s -1.1 VORP looming on the horizon like an active volcano, Houston doesn’t look as scary as they did a year ago.
With LeBron’s super team in Los Angeles yet to be assembled and no other team in the West looking ready to take the next step, it wouldn’t be shocking for San Antonio to be the ones standing in Golden State’s way of a fifth straight finals berth.
When assessing the trade from Toronto’s side, I guess it depends on your thoughts on their team was as it was assembled before the trade. If you think that the Raptors core was fine as it was, you’re going to hate that they blew it up for what might be a one-year rental of Leonard.
Personally, I had seen enough of the Raptors entering the playoffs every year with some minor tweak saying “No, THIS is the year we’ve figured it out” after adding one new bell or whistle. Last season, they actually added two. Entering the 2018 playoffs, the latest model of the Raptors came with the league’s best bench unit and a brand new discovery of the three-point line. It didn’t matter. They were still swept out of the playoffs by LeBron James for the second straight year.
Even with LeBron out of the Eastern Conference, the competition was only going to grow stiffer for the Raptors with Boston and Philadelphia poised to pass them in the fast line. With DeRozan and Lowry under contract through 2020, and the Raptors pressed to the Cap because of it, the Raptors were staring at a future of NBA purgatory. Two or three years of making the playoffs but no chance of becoming a true contender.
The Raptors had to do something. They either had to swing for the fences or start rebuilding very soon. They did the one move that puts them in position to do both.
We had seen the best that the DeRozan-Lowry Toronto Raptors had to offer. In the last five seasons, the Raptors had only made it past the second round of the playoffs once. The team that won a franchise-record 59 games last season fell back into old habits of hero ball and long contested twos in insolation when put on their heels against Cleveland. DeRozan was particularly horrendous down the stretch, scoring eight and 13 points in Game 3 and Game 4 respectively and never finished with a positive plus/minus in any of the four games of the sweep.
The addition of Kawhi not only immediately gives Toronto the best player in the conference but also gives them what they’ve desperately lacked. A proven playoff performer. Ever since winning NBA Finals MVP at age 22, Leonard had taken the torch from Tim Duncan as being the Spurs unquestionable leader in the clutch. In his last playoff appearance in 2017, Leonard had the Spurs up 20 on the eventual champion-Warriors with 26 points and eight rebounds before leaving with an ankle injury midway through the third quarter.
Kawhi is already an upgrade over DeRozan in the regular season. In the postseason, it might as well be like trading in your horse and buggy for a Lamborghini. The Raptors still might not be as good as the Celtics with Irving and Hayward healthy, but it’s certainly a lot closer than it was yesterday.
Of course, it’s still possible that the Raptors are right back to square one a year from now if Kawhi runs to Los Angeles in free agency. However, it’s no guarantee that it happens. The Thunder took the risk of trading for Paul George to put on a season-long audition for him to stay long-term. Everyone had been painting George in purple and gold right up until the second he announced he was staying in Oklahoma City.
The Raptors actually already have experience with this situation. When Lowry was traded from the Rockets to the Raptors in 2012, he initially kept teammates at an arm’s length because he thought Toronto would just be a pit stop for him. He’s re-signed twice since then. It’s not insane to think history could repeat itself in Toronto.
Even if Kawhi leaves, the Raptors made the right move. If Kawhi skips town, Toronto gets to jump right into full rebuild mode. A luxury they wouldn’t have had with DeRozan likely under contract through 2021. If Leonard leaves, the Raptors have a pool of young talent featuring Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby to take the reigns. Not to mention the ability to add to it with lottery picks. If the Raptors had stayed the course with DeRozan they likely commit themselves to three more years of playoff appearances, early round exits and absolutely no lottery picks.
The Raptors now have both a road to contention and a fast track to a rebuild before them. Before the trade, I’m not sure they had either.
That counts as a major win in my book.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.