The final piece of the off-season puzzle fell into place yesterday afternoon, as San Antonio Spurs star forward Kawhi Leonard was dealt to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for guard DeMar DeRozan and future draft picks. After many weeks of the summer spent speculating on where Leonard would be playing basketball this upcoming season, we finally have our answer- and it’s just about as far away from the sunny beaches of Los Angeles as possible. Kawhi is certainly one of the best players in the league if he reaches his full potential, his defensive prowess and athleticism drawing comparisons to former greats of the game. Several teams across the landscape of the league will face significant changes as a result of his departure from the Spurs, with some preparing to court him upon his free agency next summer and others hoping to keep him around in their system. Spurs fans should be relieved, Raptors fans excited (yet also nervous) and Lakers fans… well, you most likely know where this is going. While we should most likely wait a few more months before ordering our new LA jersey, here are the winners and losers of the blockbuster deal – one that shows us old faces in new places.
- Toronto Raptors
A swing… and a gigantic miss? Oh boy, after years of getting blown out by LeBron in the playoffs and keeping a firm grasp on the “overrated regular season squad” trophy, management in Toronto seems to think now is the time to shake things up and go for the home run. They fired their coach just two months prior (and just a few days before winning Coach of the Year) and just shipped out one of the league’s best scorers in the prime of his career in exchange for a one-year rental out of Kawhi. Multiple people from within Leonard’s have come forward and expressed that he has no interest playing for the Raptors and giving up a future first-round pick on the brink of All-Star guard Kyle Lowry also on his way out is a recipe for disaster for first-year head coach Nick Nurse. This is a huge gamble for a Raptors team that is already facing an uphill battle in the fight for Eastern Conference supremacy alongside Boston and Philadelphia and may or may not materialize into a similar situation that Oklahoma City was lucky enough to fall into with Paul George just a few weeks ago. It may have worked out for the Thunder, but in the end, it seems as though George merely signed due to the fact that he (somehow) enjoys sharing the basketball with someone like Russell Westbrook. I can’t see those same feelings surfacing in Toronto this season and worry that a full rebuild may be in the works for the team of the north.
2. Philadelphia Sixers
The team that was (this) close to landing Kawhai in a trade a few weeks prior (despite most likely having to give up Fultz) now end up losing out on just about everything this offseason. They gave away an accomplished and pro-ready player in Mikhail Bridges for the athletic but questionable talents of Zhaire Smith on draft night, seemingly still in processing mode despite having two of the most talented young stars in the league ready to make a deep push. They took a meeting with LeBron’s…team, costing themselves a legitimate shot at gaining the most transcendent basketball talent the league has ever seen; and now leave this year’s off-season with the expiring contract of former Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler. Had they just accepted a deal a few weeks ago for Leonard, the Sixers would be positioned as (in my personal opinion) legitimate front-runners to represent the East in the finals next season- and potentially would have gotten rid of the dysfunction that has plagued their franchise this decade. Now, it will truly be up to the combination of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to take this team to the next level. They’re still talented, but man would I have loved to see Leonard on the floor with them. He’d fit their scheme perfectly, draw some of the offensive pressure away from Simmons, and been a better version of Paul George had he decided to make Philadelphia his next home. Oh well, looks like it’s time for more “trusting the process” within the Sixers organization.
- San Antonio Spurs
Things may have looked bleak just a few weeks prior when the trade talks began to heat up significantly, but now Spurs fans should be much more excited about the future than they have for a few seasons prior. All of the dysfunction that existed between Kawhi, Gregg Popovich and the rest of the organization was bound to end in ugly divorce, so San Antonio finally decided to pull the trigger on a deal they believed in and ended up winning the trade in my opinion. DeRozan, despite not being the guy Leonard is, is still a proven top fifteen player in the league, and should fit nicely alongside the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge within the final two seasons of Pop’s system. With a three year, 28-million-dollar contract falling into their lap- the Spurs know that they have a few seasons to experiment with their new nucleus of talent, as well as begin to employ the athleticism of emerging guys like Lonnie Walker and Dejounte Murray. Add in talented pieces including Rudy Gay, an aging (maybe the wrong word, more like elderly) Pau Gasol and the guaranteed glue piece of Manu Ginobili; and you may end up with a team that could challenge Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and potentially even Houston for a solid playoff position at the end of next season. Gregg Popovich, despite being a bit dull in a press conference, is not a dumb man. He’s one of the most ingenious basketball minds that has ever been around the game, and seemingly wants to contend for more success in the conference before he takes his five championship rings and rides off into the sunset in 2020. This deal gives him the best chance to do such in a time where stars, not systems, now control the league.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Everyone saw it coming, but yes- the Lakers are truly the winners of this epic deal. Not only do they stand the best chance of signing Leonard to a maximum contract next summer, pairing him with LeBron and posing a true threat (sorry Celtics fans) to the Warriors supremacy over basketball; but they now also retain all of their talented young players that can grow alongside LeBron for the next four seasons. Brandon Ingram is one of the most intriguing young players in the league right now, often drawing comparisons to Kevin Durant and on his way to success after a drastic climb this past season. Lonzo Ball, despite whatever his father continues to say, is a truly gifted passer and will hopefully continue to grow upon his relative success from his rookie season. Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and multiple other prospects will no longer have to be given up prematurely in order to gain Kawhi’s services; and will allow the organization to focus on grooming their talent and biding their time before they land another huge free agent next July. A combination of LeBron and Kawhai would be one of (if not the best) combinations of talent the league has ever seen and seems a foregone conclusion after a quick yearlong layover in Toronto first. If I were Magic Johnson, I’d be sitting at the calendar and counting the days.