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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Leonard-DeRozan Trade Raises More Questions Than it Answers

The long, bizarre Kawhi Leonard saga has come to a quick, bizarre end (or new beginning): the San Antonio Spurs have traded the disgruntled 2014 Finals MVP/two-time Defensive Player of the Year/two-time All-NBA First Team member to the Toronto Raptors (along with Danny Green) for four-time All-Star/2018 All-NBA Second Team member DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl and a protected 2019 first round draft pick.

There is often a rush to judgment about trades, when the reality is that it may not be possible to fairly evaluate the outcome of a trade for quite some time. If there is a "winner" in an NBA trade then it is usually the team that acquired the best individual player. Here, though, the won/loss calculation is affected by many variables/questions, including but not limited to (1) Leonard's health, (2) Leonard's attitude, (3) the role that the Spurs expect DeRozan to play and how willingly he accepts that role and (4) how one perceives the options that both teams had compared to the decisions that they made.

Leonard is generally considered to be a top five player and it is rare for such players to be traded during their primes but the Leonard situation is unusual, if not unique; a once beloved player who starred for perhaps the best organization in the NBA has been engaged in an extended feud with the franchise. Neither side has said much to clarify the situation but it appears that the main issues are (1) Leonard does not trust and/or disagrees with how the team's medical staff diagnosed/treated his leg injury and (2) Leonard is upset that the organization as a whole and/or individual players within the organization have publicly suggested that he could have returned from the injury faster than he did.

Neither Leonard individually nor the Spurs collectively are inclined to give lengthy, public statements, so we may never know exactly what happened. All that we know for sure is that Leonard no longer wanted to play for the Spurs. It has been reported that his preferred destination is the L.A. Lakers but the Spurs understandably did not want to trade their best player to their historic rival, particularly after that rival just acquired LeBron James.

Once Leonard made it clear that he did not want to stay in San Antonio, the Spurs did not have much leverage. They could not get equal value for Leonard, as the few players who are on par with him are not available. The Spurs could either have sought to bring back young players and/or several draft picks or they could do what they did: acquire an All-Star and attempt to maintain contender status, hopefully while adding/developing other players along the way.

The Spurs have been perennial contenders for the better part of the past two decades, so rebuilding is not in the franchise's DNA. However, it is far from certain that a team led by DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge can realistically expect to win a championship. That being said, the Spurs are almost certainly better off with DeRozan in the fold for the next three seasons as opposed to keeping Leonard for one year, only to likely have him depart without getting anything in return.

How you feel about this trade as a Toronto fan depends on how you perceive Toronto's recent playoff runs. If you believe that the Raptors would have made it to the NBA Finals multiple times if not for LeBron James, then you probably believe that the Raptors should have stood pat in the wake of James' departure to the Western Conference. If you believe that the Raptors were asking too much of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and/or if you believe that DeRozan and Lowry have already peaked, then you probably believe that bringing Leonard in--even as a one year rental--is worth the risk. It is safe to assume that Masai Ujiri has already decided that the DeRozan-Lowry tandem is not a championship-winning duo, which is why Ujiri is willing to roll the dice with Leonard and then possibly rebuild if that does not work.

Spurs' fans are no doubt disappointed that the franchise could not salvage the relationship with Leonard but DeRozan is not a bad consolation prize. While DeRozan has yet to prove that he can lead a team to a championship, the Spurs are structured differently than most teams; DeRozan will not be expected to carry all or most of the load but rather to--as Bill Belichick would put it to his New England Patriots--do his job. If DeRozan scores 20-25 ppg efficiently and puts forth good effort defensively then he could be a key cog on a 50-55 win San Antonio team that would be in the mix for Western Conference supremacy.

This deal looks like a win-win, at least based on the realistic options both teams faced: the Spurs transformed a disgruntled (and possibly not fully healthy) top five player who was on his way out the door into a perennial All-Star, while the Raptors acquired a top five player who could possibly lead the franchise to its first NBA Finals appearance. 

The two obvious X factors for this deal are (1) Leonard's health and (2) Leonard's attitude. It is far from clear how serious Leonard's injury was and where he is in the rehabilitation process. It is also not clear if/when Leonard will report to Toronto and how committed he will be to leading the Raptors. If Leonard is still injured or if he has a bad attitude about the deal then the Raptors are much worse off in the short run--but that is a risk that Ujiri is willing to take based, presumably, on his belief that the Raptors had already gone as far as they could as previously constructed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:20 PM

3 comments

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3 Comments:

At Friday, July 20, 2018 10:20:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

Imho:
- Spurs made the best they could, the only value they would get from Kawhi was trade. He most likely wasn't going to play for Spurs anyway.
- considering above and the fact they didn't want to trade him to West team, Spurs had few options, as they would likely want to trade him to team having interesting assets and if possible a team hard to be baited into trade with top West team, the latter rather impossible to control.
- still nothing prevents mid-season trade to Lakers, unless there's some kind of gentleman's agreement here, but I don't really know how the business works there.

It seems to me Spurs made the best out of it, while Raptors took a risk, with some later trade (or sign and trade?) as an option.

 
At Friday, July 20, 2018 4:31:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Beep:

I agree with your take about the Spurs. Regarding the Raptors, how big a risk one perceives this to be depends on how likely you think it is that the Raptors as previously constructed were going to win a title. If you believe that the Raptors could have won the way that they were previously constructed then you believe that this trade is a huge risk, because Leonard may not be healthy and/or he may leave. If you think that the Raptors had maximized their potential, then it makes sense to bring in Leonard and either win now or start rebuilding if he leaves. Masai Ujiri has a pretty good track record as an executive thus far.

 
At Saturday, July 28, 2018 3:10:00 PM, Blogger wavenstein said...

I know it's off topic but the Kobe hating in the sports talk media has gotten out of control and I'm starting to think race is playing a part of it. Just wanted to vent that out. I'm done here

 

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