The Kawhi Leonard-DeMar DeRozan blockbuster, as expected, has brought mixed reactions. The Raptors acquisition of a consensus superstar has most fans excited, but, of course, losing your franchise’s best player ever for a likely one year rental is guaranteed to rub many the wrong way, especially when it upsets the player himself.
While the critiques of the deal are justified, the bottom line is when you can get a superstar, you do whatever it takes to get him. The NBA is, and always will be, a superstar league, and Kawhi alone can shift the course of the Raptors franchise. As the team knows better than anyone, it is very difficult to make the NBA Finals without a superstar, and almost impossible to win it all. It can be seen as unfortunate, because the need for a top-five player is certainly one culprit of the league’s supposed parity problem, but it’s true. Without a truly elite player, the Raptors seemed to have reached a breaking point when it came to team success.
It’s been said many times. The DeMar DeRozan Raptors had a ceiling. The Kawhi Leonard Raptors may have one as well, but it’s the NBA Finals.
While DeRozan is a great player, the upside of the trade is simply too much to pass up. We’ve been spoiled with many wild transactions over the past few years, but the reality is, it’s not often that truly elite players become available at all, much less in a trade where any of the 29 other teams have a chance to place a bid. Opportunities like this simply do not come around very often. When you have the opportunity to bring in a franchise-altering talent, you do it.
The biggest misconception of the entire situation is what the trade does to the Raptors timeline. A month ago, before Kawhi Leonard had even been reported as wanting out of San Antonio, the Raptors were running things with a two-year timeline. After two years, 34 year old Kyle Lowry’s contract is set to expire and DeMar DeRozan has an opt-out. At that point, the team would have had two more (likely unsuccessful) runs at winning the Eastern Conference, and would finally see a boatload of money come off of the books in an effort to rebuild and retool during the 2020 offseason and beyond. Should Kawhi leave after a year, all the deal does is kickstart this process by a year. In year one, the team gets a substantial upgrade in Kawhi- substantial being an understatement. If all goes well, the Raptors have a spot in the NBA Finals and have achieved heights unparalleled in franchise history. If anything else happens, the Raptors can say they took a swing for the fences and simply execute the inevitable a year early. Plus, don’t forget the best part. The young core remains for a long time to come.
Of course, it’s never that simple. The trade does provide many complications, including Kawhi Leonard’s willingness to give the Raptors his best shot and the unfortunate optics of dealing a franchise player. At this point, however, it would be a longshot to expect Kawhi Leonard to not report to the team, risking up to a full $20.1 million in salary losses for missed practices and missed games this year. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has even reported that Kawhi has “started to warm up” to the idea of being a Raptor. It’s hard to imagine Masai Ujiri being completely in the dark when it comes to Kawhi’s motives for the 2018-19 season, and it would be both detrimental to himself and quite surprising to see the superstar miss even more time. As for the black mark trading DeMar will leave on the Raptors front office, yes, it’s not to be disregarded. Still, teams are always looking to improve, and constant playoff disappointment should not make players untouchable. While it was difficult, the Raptors made a big step as a franchise, and it was a decision worth making.
After all, with Kawhi Leonard, anything is possible.