Photo: Edward A. Ornelas, San Antonio Express-News. “San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard drives around Toronto Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan during first half action Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, at the AT&T Center.”
After months of tension, trade machine-like offers, and Kawhi memes, the water is finally under the bridge. With that, Kawhi (and his uncle) were (rightfully) banished to Canada when the birds began chirping at approximately 5:12 AM on July 18.
Toronto is not rebuilding, they are retooling. Masai Ujiri continues to feed the beast that is the present. No longer will they settle for mediocrity, after firing coach of the year, Dwane Casey and now shipping off their franchise centerpiece, DeMar DeRozan. In return, they get arguably the best two-way player in the game, Kawhi Leonard. In spite of that, Leonard brings luggage and, more probable than not, is a rental.
Toronto: Building for the Present and Future
Certainty and possibility carried the Raptors to 5 consecutive seasons of winning and underlying hopefulness. And for a team that is named after a Jurassic Park box office debut and a short history, that was sufficient. Until the wins started to pile on, expectations skyrocketed. Not to say DeMar DeRozan did not have an illustrious history wearing the #10 Purple (and sometimes black and gold?) jersey. Still, for a player that never led his team in win shares (second to Jonas Valanciunas once), statues should not be constructed.
For Toronto faithful, losing a loyal star is a bitter pill to swallow. They have lost stars before, but DeRozan was the first one forced out. Alonzo Mourning and Vince Carter were cautionary tales, but this time the script was flipped. DeRozan put on a show of noteworthy and memorable performances over the years. The ferocious dunk over Tristan Thompson. The tip dunk over Myles Turner. The unbelievable fadeaway against two Magic defenders. The first player to drop 50 points on New Years. A start in an All-Star game. Memories are now repressed, to be pored over later. Perhaps to be discussed as the franchise that gave up on a star that led the team to the most wins in franchise history.
59 wins is an impressive feat for any organization. Without a doubt, DeRozan was second fiddle to Lowry. Both off and on the court, the two provided laughs and plays turned highlight-reels. Even with those knee-slapping interviews and gravity-defying dunks, a specific pinnacle was reached. They climbed halfway up the mountain and realized they couldn’t make it to the peak without a little bit of help. The inconsistency of their second-star held them back.
The saying may as well go: There are four things that are certain in life: death, taxes, change, and DeMar DeRozan disappointing in the playoffs. Simply put, he became the third or fourth best player on the roster during trying times. The rhetoric of a clutch player is overplayed, but DeRozan’s failure to show up in big moments makes it nearly impossible to avoid. The best team in the East, who matched up fairly well with a shorthanded Lebron team, should have challenged Cleveland to at least 5 games. Nevertheless, the Raptors were swept and scoffed as a dud.
How Toronto Benefits
That’s what makes the Kawhi coup an intriguing fit. The Raptors, built on a foundation of a win-now mode, get player most franchises only hope to build around. Yet Masai Ujiri was not going to rest his laurels. When a franchise player is out there, Ujiri first instinct was to attack it. And who’s to blame him? The trade puts the franchise in a faultless reality.
Kyle Lowry will be 33 next season and has already shown (slight) signs of decrease. Most point guards tend to demean by that age anyway. Jonas Valanciunas is 26 and has yet to show why he was chosen 5th in a loaded 2011 draft. Serge Ibaka is not getting any younger and his numbers reflect that notion. Nonexistent are blue-chip prospects. Rather, their young players are locked in as solid rotation players who can barely crack 10 teams’ starting 5’s. Albeit, Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet will surely contend for the sixth man of the year next season.
The brightest spots on the roster can found on the bench. The rich get richer in the sense that Leonard knocks Ibaka into the second lineup. Last season, the bench’s net rating, 8.3, was leaps and bounds better than other benches. Though, the trade does not only impact the bench.
By getting Kawhi, Nurse now will be able to trot out a variety of nasty defensive lineups as well.
Take a look at these menacing lineups:
Kyle Lowry-Delon Wright-Kawhi-OG-Serge Ibaka
Kyle Lowry-C.J. Miles-Kawhi-OG-Pascal Siakam
Even their offensive lineup looks the part of a serviceable defensive 5:
Fred VanVleet-Norman Powell-Kawhi-OG Anunoby-Jonas Valanciunas
Can Toronto Compete with the Warriors?
Not only can the bench score, but they are a matchup nightmare. Knocking off the Warriors is everyone’s favorite goal. Daryl Morey popularized the narrative. Masai Ujiri hopes to carry on the legacy. Figuring out how to beat the Warriors borderlines on obsessive behavior. So far, the lone team capable of doing so was the 2015 Cavs team. That team had Lebron and Kyrie leading the charge. A two-way small forward and an offensive-minded point guard. Sound familiar? Sure, the Kawhi and Kyle Lowry pairing can best be described as the knockoff version of the latter, but the point suffices.
Let’s get this straight, no one can guard the Warriors. The Raptors have the best chance to hang with them. On paper, the Raptors have the starters and backups to (relatively) matchup with the Hampton’s 5.
Everyone is aware of each player’s role within the offense. Curry’s range is 22 feet extended. Thompson runs around hard-set screens for threes, or vultures the scraps off offensive rebounds. Durant slithers around for three’s and isolation plays. He is like the Sun, with the offense fundamentally revolving around him like planets. Draymond is the de facto point guard, dishing the ball to the three best players in any given moment. Cousins replaces Looney, who was a screen-setting specialist.
Theoretically, Toronto has 5 players that could rotate onto the Hampton’s 5. While competition may be too fraught a word, it is adequate in this scenario. Even Daryl Morey grins at the thought of the makeup of Ujiri’s team.
Can anyone guard Curry on this roster? Like Dellavedova, a point guard that devotes his energy to defense is Curry’s kryptonite. Recently, Lowry has morphed into that figure. His defensive rating and defense have both ameliorated over the past year. He allowed opponents to shoot 36.2% from 20-24 feet, a slight improvement from the 37.1% from 2016-17. Vanvleet’s defensive rating was 4th in the league for point guards who appeared in 50 or more games.
On any given night, Leonard will stifle Durant. If Leonard tires out, OG can sub in. The team would barely suffer from the substitution. OG’s defensive rating last season ranked 6th in the league for qualified small forwards.
Kawhi is a Rental
Even if the Raptors made the right move by trading for Kawhi, he could be out of the Six by this time next year. Leonard made it clear that he wanted to reside in Los Angeles this year. It’s his hometown, there is nothing that ties Kawhi to Toronto. Perhaps the only attraction is that an A-list rapper is the team ambassador. There are not young players that Kawhi could grow with, minus OG, who plays the same position as him.
Just like Paul George, this season is a rehearsal for next year’s free agency. How the team performs is essential to whether he even considers staying. Still, Kawhi is widely perceived as more stubborn. He sat out an entire year playing for a team he won a championship for. He even played under arguably the best basketball coach of all-time. If he was not happy there, how will he feel about playing in another country? One he isn’t familiar with. Kawhi thought he was coming home, but instead, he will have to learn the metric system in freezing weather. All signs point to Kawhi jettisoning to LA after a year.
Although it would be basically unbelievable if Kawhi sat out the year. Chris Broussard reported that there is a possibility of this, but Kawhi is amidst a career-defining year. First and foremost, the former Spur will he have to prove his hamstring does not restrict his all-around game. Not to mention, he is also playing for his next contract. Now is not the time for Kawhi to quit on his team.
How will the Spurs fare with DeMar DeRozan?
Surmising, Lowry and DeRozan played in four series together as Raptors. In those four playoff series, they DeRozan played a total of 185 minutes with Lowry on the pine. In said minutes, the Raptors were -142, or an average of -35.725 points per 46.25 minutes. The relationship is best defined as parasitism. The opponent gained traction with Lowry on the bench and DeRozan in.
DeMar DeRozan will pair with LaMarcus Aldridge to form an intriguing duo in the Alamo. Aldridge is used to playing with a ball-dominant guard, so the transition should be smooth. He played with C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard prior to this cohesion.
The Spurs are going to have the daunting task of finding the three-point line. Last season, they had a 29.4% three-point shooting frequency, which was 26th in the league. Popovich has stuck with his old philosophy and that is definitely unvarying. DeRozan will fit right in. 89.5% of his career field goal attempts have been 2-pointers. With DeRozan and Aldridge shooting a majority of the time, mid-range shots are going to be the name of the game.
As for the rest of the roster, getting rid of Kawhi is helpful for endeavors on and off the court. Young players will not be exposed to a disgruntled player. Derrick White and Lonnie Walker will be given more minutes at the 2 and 3. Dejounte Murray and DeMar combine to make for the most explosive backcourt the league has seen in years. Jakob Poetl will certainly play a Tiago Splitter role. Getting 20 minutes, he will play against bigger lineups and defend the rim.
What are the Cap Space Implications?
Before the trade, the Raptors were stuck between a rock and a hard place. In terms of salary cap, they were on the books for $138 million for the roster. Over the next three years, they were on pace to surpass the salary cap and thus would pay a hefty tax bill ($27.7 million). The team would defiantly remain average.
In a different light, getting rid of Demar DeRozan is a salary dump. His contract, worth $27.7 million per year, was weighing heavy on a team struggling to escape the conference semifinals. Not to mention, he had a player option for the third year that he would probably opt in to (DeRozan will be 31 by then).
In today’s NBA either tanking or contending is emphasized. Remaining mediocre is frowned upon, which is the driving reason Casey was fired. Look, I understand the anger towards a team that got rid of a franchise star. Howbeit, the NBA is not a loyal league, on the team and player side, and the Raptors knew that. They made a move that frees cap space for future offseasons. There are discernible stars they have their eyes on. Ultimately, they stared at mediocrity at the face and decided to make a jump forward.
If they decide to let Delon Wright and Danny Green walk next off-season, the Raptors still go over the luxury tax. They would plausibly pay out a $37.9 million tax bill.
The Spurs, on the other hand, made a typical Spurs move. Incessantly, the Gregg Popovich-led team is trying to contend, in any way shape or form. Despite letting Tony Parker and Kyle Anderson walk, $134.066 million remains on the books. That means they stand $11 million over the luxury tax. A detrimental tax bill will be handed to R.C. Buford. That’s a steep price to pay for a middling team in a deep Western Conference.
In the end, Kawhi got his wish. He is off the Spurs, away from Gregg Popovich’s grasp, and from Manu Ginobili’s ridicule. This trade symbolizes what superstars are doing today. Kyrie Irving. Paul George. Jimmy Butler. Trying to control their destiny, they succeed in some ways and fail in others.
Needless to say, I don’t think Kawhi and his uncle are too happy about their next destination.
All stats are pulled from Basketballreference.com, NBA Math, NBA.com/Stats, unless otherwise noted.