Yesterday’s deal between the Toronto Raptors and the San Antonio Spurs epitomizes the old cliché of the NBA being just a business. Kawhi Leonard is the league’s biggest malcontent, while Demar DeRozan has been a true example of class and loyalty. As CBS reported, NBA players and former Raptors attacked the Raptors, with Terrence Ross declaring that the Raptors needed to build a statue for DeRozan.
But as loyal as DeRozan was, the fact that he can be described as the greatest player in Toronto’s history is not a good sign. Toronto one week ago was in a fairly weak position as they looked back at running the Kyle Lowry-DeRozan duo for another season. Now things have changed with this trade, and there is practically no way the Raptors can lose no matter how the Kawhi in Toronto era ends. That is why they had to make this trade.
Finals or a Rebuild?
Toronto’s precarious position can be summed up with a single fact: according to Spotrac, the Raptors had the highest team salary in the Eastern Conference and the third most in the league behind Oklahoma City and Golden State. And yet no one thinks they can win a title and few think they can make it to the NBA Finals.
Yes, LeBron is in the West now. But Boston looks as scary as any non-Warriors team with the return of Irving and Hayward as well as the continued development of Brown and Tatum. The Sixers are dangerous, and there are other teams like Milwaukee which could take another step forward.
Toronto has some prospects like OG Anunoby or the just-traded Jakob Poetl. But this team is paying high salaries to players like Lowry, Ibaka, and Valanciunas, bought after conducting a free background check, who are either declining or will not grow much further. And everyone knows the weaknesses of the Lowry-DeRozan combo. Even if LeBron was the one who dealt them the finishing blow over the past three seasons, the Raptors never made things look easy and struggled to put away inferior teams in the playoffs.
Leonard will not fix the fact that Serge Ibaka is no longer a defensive force nor that Valanciunas is too slow to keep up with the modern NBA playstyle. But there are two things he will do. First is the obvious fact that Leonard should be a much better player than DeRozan (though it is possible that he will not be the same, whether due to injury or his mood). Leonard should be able to play alongside Lowry well as a three-point shooter and shot creator, will improve Toronto defensively, and generally brings star power that the Raptors have never had recently.
The second thing is that Leonard improves Toronto’s finances. By trading DeRozan for Leonard, the Raptors have shaved one year off a major contract, as DeRozan will be a free agent in 2020 instead of 2019 for Leonard. If Leonard and Valanciunas, both of whom have player options in 2019, leave, the Raptors would have cap space for a major player.
A more likely scenario in that scenario is that if Leonard leaves, Toronto would be in a solid position to begin a rebuild in 2019. They could trade Lowry for young prospects to a team looking for that one missing piece and look to start over. Would they have been willing to bite that bullet with DeRozan still on the team? Even if they had, blowing things up would have been harder.
In summation, the Raptors before this summer had found themselves in the tough position of paying a lot of money for a team which had little chance of reaching the Finals let alone winning it all. By trading for Leonard, they have increased their variance. Either Leonard clicks (Bleacher Report reports that he is already warming to the idea of being a Raptor) which helps Toronto take another step forward. Or he fails and the Raptors are in a better position for a rebuild. Raptors fans should be depressed about losing a tough, great person like DeRozan, but can know that their team is much better off. At the end of the day, the NBA is a business.