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The Kawhi Leonard Trade Was Odd And Inevitable

Wednesday brought something you don’t see everyday in the topsy-turvy NBA: the trade of a top-five player in the world — and perhaps the league’s most balanced superstar.

It obviously didn’t come out of left field, as Kawhi Leonard made it known to the Spurs organization that he badly wanted to be dealt. And it puts a definitive punctuation mark on what had been an enchanted two-decade run of success in San Antonio. But the swap between the Spurs and the Raptors is fascinating for a handful of other reasons too.

For starters, it’s not often that a player of Leonard’s age and caliber joins a team that’s coming off a near-60-win season. (We’ve seen crazier things, of course. But still.) A healthy Leonard would be an obvious upgrade over Toronto All-Star DeMar DeRozan, largely because of how otherworldly Leonard is on the defensive end. For a while, it looked as if Toronto’s window might be closing — Kyle Lowry is 32, the Celtics and Sixers are young and loaded, and no matter what the Raptors did, they couldn’t find a way to beat LeBron in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But this move (and LeBron’s relocation to the West) figures to fully maximize whatever time Toronto has left to contend.

A few noteworthy points in Toronto’s favor: Danny Green — whom the Raptors also picked up in the trade — may still be useful even if he’s not a great role player anymore. His “three and D” characteristics could come in handy during a playoff series, and you know you’ll always get maximum effort out of him in situations where transition defense is required. (Over the past five seasons, no NBA player has defended more shots in transition per 100 possessions than Green, according to data from Second Spectrum.) It’s also surprising that the Raptors didn’t have to part with another young, promising player like wing OG Anunoby or forward Pascal Siakam in order to get this done.

Perhaps most importantly, regardless of how this gamble plays out — even if the 27-year-old Leonard decides he absolutely wants to leave Canada after this season — getting out from under the last couple years of DeRozan’s five-year, $139 million contract is a good thing, since his presence on the roster probably wouldn’t have been enough to keep Toronto in the conversation for a title in the long term.

Despite most elements of the trade being to the Raptors’ benefit,1 Toronto won’t necessarily win more as a result of the deal. Our CARMELO projection model has the Raps winning 56 games with Leonard and Green on the team, three fewer wins than Toronto had last year. Some of that is the uncertainty that the system has about Leonard’s health, after he missed the vast majority of this past season. But it also speaks to the belief that Toronto’s players might be due for a regression to the mean after wildly overperforming expectations in 2017-2018. (Even if Leonard is fully healthy, our model has the Raptors winning about 60 games, just one more than their total from last season.)

What the Raptors look like with Kawhi

Projected depth chart for the hypothetical 2018-19 Toronto Raptors, with CARMELO player projected plus/minus

Projected Plus/Minus
Pos Player Age MPG Offensive Defensive Total
PG Kyle Lowry 32 30 +4.3 -0.2 +4.1
Fred VanVleet 24 20 +1.5 -0.2 +1.3
SG Danny Green 31 21 -1.4 +1.4 +0.0
Delon Wright 26 20 +0.7 +0.5 +1.3
C.J. Miles 31 14 +0.2 -1.4 -1.2
SF Kawhi Leonard 27 26 +2.5 +1.8 +4.2
OG Anunoby 21 25 +0.4 +0.5 +0.9
Norman Powell 25 8 -1.2 -1.0 -2.2
PF Serge Ibaka 29 24 -1.1 +0.7 -0.3
C Jonas Valanciunas 26 24 -0.4 +1.0 +0.7
Pascal Siakam 24 22 -0.8 +1.2 +0.5
Replacement-level players -1.7 +1.1 -0.5
Team total 240 +3.1 +2.9 +6.0

Age as of Feb. 1, 2019.


As for the Spurs, this summer of discontent can’t end quickly enough. In DeRozan, they’ll get a bona fide scorer, but one who only partially fits their sets and schemes on either side of the ball. (Mostly the midrange shooting part.) They’ll get Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick out of the deal, but in losing Green, they lose another piece of the culture that coach Gregg Popovich spent years building. San Antonio has some young talent on its roster, but without their longest-standing veterans — leaving Manu Ginobili’s decision about whether to retire aside for the time being — the Spurs as we knew them are no more. And that will be interesting since Popovich figures to be in his last few years as the team’s coach — an odd time to basically be starting over.

The strange elements surrounding this deal make it hard to decipher how well either team made out. The Spurs didn’t net nearly as much as you’d assume they could have for a player like Leonard. Aside from his injury, they were also likely hurt by his well-known desire to join the Lakers — which would stop teams from offering their best assets since he could leave them high and dry in 2019, when he’s eligible to become a free agent.

Meanwhile, Toronto would be wise to replicate what Oklahoma City just did with Paul George and use this entire year as an opportunity to recruit Leonard to stay with the team once he can opt out. Chris Haynes of ESPN is already reporting that Leonard isn’t looking forward to the move north. But he joins a club that has a legitimate chance to make the NBA Finals — one in the East, with a far simpler path than the Lakers will have this season.

The Raptors were already taking a pretty sizable swing heading into this season, having fired the coach of the year, all because they knew something had to change to get the team over the hump in the playoffs. So, no — they don’t know exactly what the chances are of Leonard staying beyond this year. But as a team that’s in the luxury tax already, with a star point guard who isn’t getting any younger, the gamble makes sense — even if there’s a fair amount of risk associated with it. This might be their best, last shot to reach the Finals, and Leonard could certainly help them get there.


  1. Admittedly, losing Jakob Poeltl — who was wise beyond his years — hurts what was a great, cohesive bench.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.