So Kawhi Leonard is headed to Toronto, and let’s start with how this is the right move for the Raptors. Scared of Kawhi’s contract? Not Raps general manager Masai Ujiri, who recognized that he had a roster that had stagnated and badly needed to roll the dice. Think LeBron James defecting to the West opened some kind of door for Toronto? Not with Boston emerging as the new bully on the block.
The Raptors needed to do something to stave off a slow decomposition. Kawhi Leonard is that.
The San Antonio Spurs are sending Leonard to Toronto and this deal feels … OK. San Antonio was never going to get dollar-for-dollar value for Leonard, not in the final year of his contract, not coming off a season-crippling injury, not with everyone in his camp whispering to reporters that Leonard was earmarked for Los Angeles. DeMar DeRozan is a 28-year-old All-Star with three pricey years left on his deal. Jakob Poetl is a solid center prospect who made a nice jump in his second season. The draft pick to San Antonio – a top-20 protected first rounder in 2019 – could yield a solid piece, especially in the hands of one of the NBA’s smartest front offices.
The Lakers are not getting Kawhi Leonard, at least not next season, and that subplot can’t be ignored. L.A. bid on Leonard but talks never rose to a serious level, a source familiar with the discussions told Yahoo Sports. The Lakers, like everyone else, believe they are the frontrunner to land Leonard next summer, and Magic Johnson and Co. weren’t willing to make a sizeable offer to secure the services of a player they believe will take the first Air Canada jet burning out of Toronto next July.
And yet … this feels familiar. It was just over a year ago that the Lakers, convinced Palmdale, California-born, Fresno State-bred Paul George – who informed the Pacers of his desire to play in Los Angeles – would sign with them outright and so declined to make a serious offer to Indiana for him. Oklahoma City swooped in, paired him with Russell Westbrook and at 12:01 ET on July 1 came to terms with George on a four-year deal. In his televised postmortem, George specifically cited the Lakers’ decision not to trade for him as a factor in his decision.
Could history repeat itself? The piping hot takes on social media suggest no. Toronto doesn’t have Russell Westbrook, and it’s true the Raps don’t have a fellow franchise player for Leonard to bond with. But Toronto has Kyle Lowry, a deep bench, a player friendly GM in Ujiri and a team now built to win the Eastern Conference.
Toronto isn’t Los Angeles, and it’s true in Canada Leonard will trade board shorts for a good parka. But George passed on even a meeting with the Lakers to re-up with Oklahoma City, swapping the Pacific Ocean for a fishing pond on a local golf course. But Toronto isn’t Siberia; it’s a cosmopolitan city regularly ranked among the most desirable in the world. Scotiabank Arena – formerly known as the Air Canada Centre – is routinely sold out and houses one of the NBA’s most rabid fan bases. Ujiri will make Leonard the face of the franchise, and will have a year to sell Leonard on a future in Toronto.
“Masai is really impressive,” a longtime NBA GM told Yahoo Sports. “In a situation like this, he’s a tremendous asset.”
And besides: What do we really know about Kawhi’s desire to be in Los Angeles? Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania reported that Leonard has “no desire” to play for the Raptors, though he will, probably well, and then likely have a five-year, max-level contract slid in front of him next summer. Leonard has L.A. roots, but had the relationship with the Spurs not disintegrated last season, would we be having an L.A.-based discussion? Or would Leonard have quietly signed a five-year, super max extension days ago?
Without question, there are people around Leonard who have no interest in seeing him in Toronto, but there were plenty of people around George who didn’t think he would be in Oklahoma City for more than a season, either.
Here’s another reason this deal makes sense for Toronto: If it doesn’t work, the Raptors will get a head start on what they kicked around doing anyway – rebuild. Toronto has eyed rebooting the roster since 2013, when they offloaded Rudy Gay for expiring contracts. Leonard and Danny Green – a sneaky nice addition in the deal, adding a near 40-percent career three-point shooter to a lineup that heavily featured the three-point shot last season – on paper improve a 59-win team. The roster was landlocked with pricey contracts, making a gamble like this the only way to get better.
The Raps can make a run at the conference crown, hope they win it and cross their fingers that a clearer path in the East is more desirable to Leonard than the heavyweight tournament in the West. If they can’t, they will clear cap space and be positioned for an overhaul that was inevitable.
The Lakers? Either they believe Leonard is a lock to come next summer, or they don’t see him as the ultimate prize anyway. The summer of 2019 will offer a buffet of free-agent options, from Kevin Durant to Jimmy Butler to Klay Thompson. And L.A. will have LeBron James locked in, something they couldn’t say when free agency opened this year.
But if they lose out on Leonard, will there be any (non) buyer’s remorse? Remember – this Raptors package is far from a haul. Would Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and a lottery protected pick have gotten the Spurs attention? Was clinging to Ingram – a sinewy young scorer who nearly doubled his scoring average in his second season – worth passing on an aggressive run at Leonard? Is Magic convinced that the lure of Los Angeles is enough to maximize the remaining prime years of LeBron’s career?
The Raptors’ brass recognized that a good team had crashed into the ceiling that stopped them from being great, so they plucked a potential top-five player with risks attached off another roster, which is exactly how you want a franchise in this position to operate. A year after Oklahoma City bet big that it could sell an L.A.-bound star on its organization, Toronto will try to do the same.
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