How business decisions triumph loyalty in the modern-day NBA.
Assuming full cooperation from Toronto’s newly acquired superstar, Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors’ versatility on both ends of the floor will allow them to run the table next season. Following a profusion of rumors surrounding 2014 NBA Champion and Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, being dealt, it finally happened Wednesday morning.
The Toronto Raptors acquired Leonard and the ever so consummate 3-and-D option in Danny Green from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Austrian forward Jakob Poeltl, and a protected top-20 selection in the 2019 NBA Draft that will become two second-round selections in 2020 if the Raptors finish in the top 10 at the end of next season.
Ten hours after the trade, when the NBA’s trade memo on the Leonard/DeRozan swap was sent to all 30 teams, it was announced that the Spurs are paying the Raptors $5 Million in the deal.
The NBA has changed from a league that featured superstars spending the vast majority of their careers in one destination, to one that has very little continuity. DeRozan’s departure likely marks the end of the Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Dwyane Wade era. It is safe to say that owners and General Managers aren’t very trustworthy anymore, and the NBA is not what it used to be. Only 10 out of 26 of the 2016 All-Star Game participants still play for the team they played for at the time.
Lack of “loyalty” is a term that has been thrown around frequently in recent years following Kevin Durant’s decision to take his talents to the Warriors, Kyrie Irving's nagging trade requests before departing Cleveland, and now most recently, Leonard’s demand to leave San Antonio. As unfortunate as it may seem, these players are viewed as traitors, while those who attempt to stay loyal to their teams and end up being traded are dealt because “the league is a business”. From Isaiah Thomas’ situation in Boston, Blake Griffin’s in Los Angeles, and DeRozan’s in Toronto, lack of “loyalty” has become arguably the most prominent concept the league has come to know in recent memory.
Two weeks ago, while attending meetings with the Raptors during the 2018 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, DeRozan believed to have been told that he was in no way, shape, or form being traded any time soon. Two weeks later, he was traded. Star players, especially the loyal ones, should be able to either control their destiny or at least be informed ahead of time before being shipped away.
DeRozan, who most were convinced was going to be a Raptor through at least the 2021 season, is no longer owed $100+ million from the Raptors. His contract will now be assumed by the Spurs. When looking in-between the lines, there is a reason to believe that when Masai Ujiri made this decision, he cared equally about getting DeRozan’s max deal off the books as much as just renting Leonard for one season. This league is a business, and all of the details aren’t yet revealed but don’t be surprised if Leonard leaves and the Raptors are still content. It was abundantly clear that a jury knew that the Raptors couldn’t win with the team they had on July 17th.
Following the trade announcement, Thomas, who was backstabbed by the Celtics’ front office after giving them everything he had, voiced his disapproval of the word “Loyalty”:
While Durant, DeMarcus Cousins, and countless other stars have decided to put themselves in more favorable situations for their careers in recent years, they’ll forever be labeled as traitors. At least they had the opportunity to have a say, and make a decision for themselves rather than let their front office, in many cases, put their future success in the league in jeopardy.
Lucky for DeRozan, who will soon be coached by Gregg Popovich, this won’t be the case. But this was definitely an undeserved punishment for one of the league’s most loyal players, who originally thought he had invested the prime of his career into his future in Toronto when inking a five-year deal two summers ago.
The 28-year-old from Compton, CA, who took more than 10,000 shots for a team that would for a large portion of his time there, run through him, averaged 20 points, more than five assists, and four rebounds on 45% shooting over the course of eight unforgettable seasons north of the border.
Many of DeRozan’s former teammates throughout the NBA community have quickly come to the 4x All-Star’s defense, and praised him after seeing his unwavering loyalty to a Toronto system that never quite reached their goal of winning a championship while he was there:
Regardless of what you think of him, the guy invested the majority of his career in Toronto, and his name will forever be etched in Raptors lore.
As for the new-look Raptors, a team that now features Green and Leonard, things will only look upwards if the 27-year-old cooperates, and plays like his old self in his new city.
Despite rumors that Leonard’s injury may impact him during the 2018-19 season, recent reports from credible sources indicate that Popovich was not at all concerned about the health of his star during the past two weeks.
Losing DeRozan cost the Raptors around 25 points, four rebounds, and five assists on 45% shooting night in and night out. When assessing Leonard’s last full season, he scored 25 points per game, averaged five rebounds, two blocks, and shot a ridiculous 50% from the floor and 40% from three. Leonard’s ability to score at such a high-level while in San Antonio’s pass-first system suggests that he will have no issue being the go-to guy in Toronto when playing aside Lowry and VanVleet, two guards that excel in the passing department.
Aside from matching DeRozan’s offensive production on fewer shot attempts, Leonard’s defense is what separates him from the rest of the league. The 2x All-Star led the league in steals during the 2014-15 season, has two Defensive Player of the Year Awards, and has made the All-Defensive team four times. Leonard accomplished all of that while playing in a much more difficult Western Conference. Naturally, it is fair to suggest that he will continue to contain and often shut down whoever his defensive assignment is on a nightly basis.
Assuming Leonard both buys into the system, and is fully healthy, this Raptors team is instantly qualified to not defeat, but rather meet whichever team makes it out of the Western Conference.
Before even analyzing potential lineups, it is remarkable to know that the Raptors acquired Leonard without letting go of O.G. Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and Pascal Siakam. These young talents that will most likely anchor Toronto’s near-eventual rebuild.
With Leonard in the mix, the Raptors, a team that had already seen plenty of success in an ailing Eastern Conference, could soon be among the league’s most elite, steady, and well-balanced teams. The Raptors have been praised for their ability to dominate during the regular season, but the wall they kept running into during the postseason, LeBron James, is no longer in the East.
With a potential starting unit of Kyle Lowry, Green, a healthy Leonard, Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka, Toronto’s defense that was once fragile, will have no holes in it, and could very well limit the league’s best offenses during the postseason. Additionally, the four players surrounding Leonard all have been deemed proven scorers and will make running the offense through the newly acquired star second-nature early on in the season. During their last full seasons, all five players mentioned in this lineup shot incredibly from the three-point line (at least 36% or higher), and are extremely versatile players for their positions.
A big question surrounding Green is whether or not his career is on the decline, and if the Raptors’ guard depth is significantly weakened without DeRozan, 2018 Sixth Man of the Year candidate Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, and Norman Powell are all available off the bench which will only ensure stable guard defense from the second unit. Their guard depth will allow the Raptors to continue to run small-ball lineups, something they thrived at with or without DeRozan during the 2017-18 season in Nick Nurse’s offense. As a buffer, they also just re-signed reigning G-League MVP Lorenzo Brown, who’s also a guard.
If Toronto’s guard depth wasn’t impressive enough, their forwards are also noticeably versatile. Losing Poeltl didn’t hurt the Raptors’ forward depth. Jonas Valanciunas, Pascal Siakam, and C.J. Miles are all available off the bench and can compliment Leonard well when on the floor together.
While many believe that the likelihood of Leonard playing in Toronto beyond the 2018-19 season is slim, contractual reasons and a love for Toronto’s unique sports culture may change his mind.
When analyzing max contract options after his deal expires next summer, Leonard has two options. The first is that he can sign a five-year deal with the Raptors, earn a total of approximately $190 Million, and make close to $40 Million a year. If he leaves, he can sign a four-year deal elsewhere at a total value of $141 Million, and make $35 Million a year.
On paper, the Raptors are a better team with the acquisition of Leonard and Green. The concept of loyalty is all but forgotten about in today’s NBA. Alvin Robertson scored the first three points in Raptors history at the SkyDome. Vince Carter scored Toronto’s first points at the Air Canada Centre. Will Kawhi Leonard score the first points in Scotiabank Arena’s history?