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Five thoughts on the DeMar DeRozan-Kawhi Leonard trade

Excited, heartbroken, or both? Today, the Raptors are better on paper than they’ve ever been. But was it worth the cost?

Houston Rockets v San Antonio Spurs - Game Two Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The trade is official. DeMar DeRozan is now a member of the San Antonio Spurs, and Kawhi Leonard is a member of the Toronto Raptors. Like many Raptors fans (and Spurs fans, and NBA fans) I had a lot of thoughts about this deal and how it went down! I’ve tried to distill them into a coherent five:

This Trade is Very Risky, but 100% Worth It

Trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, on paper, is a move you have to make. Leonard is a better player overall; better shooter, much better defender, bigger, stronger. Historically, a better playoff performer. DeRozan might be faster end-to-end. His footwork might be a bit better. Leonard is also almost two years younger, and he’s finished top-3 in MVP voting twice; DeRozan finished 8th, once.

So just in those terms the deal has to be done.

But looking at the larger parameters of the deal: Giving up DeRozan hurts, a lot, and losing Jakob Poeltl also hurts. (I can’t believe the Bench Mob is broken up!) But to make this deal, without giving up OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam or Delon Wright, and only giving up a top-20 protected pick (or two second rounders) that makes it an absolute no-brainer. And you know what? Danny Green is a welcome addition, too!

It’s true that Leonard might walk after the season. It’s also true that DeRozan could walk in two years. Do you trade two years of DeMar DeRozan for one year of Kawhi Leonard? Yes, 100% yes, every time.

The two-year window is now a one-year window. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Of course, in this particular deal, there’s a little more risk involved than just swapping players.

Will Kawhi Leonard Play Here? Will He Play Hard?

Leonard has barely played for a year, and his representatives have indicated he wants to play in Los Angeles. Reports also indicate he’s unhappy about the trade.

But it seems unlikely he’ll just sit out without cause; the CBA apparently has provisions to prevent that.

As for Leonard’s health, we don’t really know, but I have to believe Masai Ujiri wouldn’t do the deal if Leonard was physically unable to play.

Will he try to sit out anyway? Or perhaps just mail in the season? The argument against that goes that Leonard needs to play well to prove that he’s healthy and that he’s worthy of a max deal next summer.

I don’t actually think that’s true. The Lakers will offer him a max deal if he doesn’t play a single game this season. LA has been clear about being a star-driven team. They gave a broken-down Kobe Bryant almost $50 million at age 36, coming off an achilles injury, if you’ll recall. They need a star to play with LeBron James. They’re in the star business, Kawhi’s a star, if LeBron says to Magic Johnson, “go sign Kawhi, I don’t care that he hasn’t played” then you can bet Magic will go and sign Kawhi. (And actually, if Leonard plays and doesn’t give 100 percent, that might hurt his value more than just sitting out the entire year.)

Still it’s hard to imagine a player, especially a top-5 player, sitting an entire season out of spite. That would be unprecedented. And if he does, surely the league will step in. And as for him not giving 100 percent, I know I’m biased, but I think he’s gonna love playing with Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright and C.J. Miles. He can take OG Anunoby as a protege! How can he not want to win with those guys?!

Seriously, his reported lack of interest in playing here does have me a little uneasy about the deal. Ujiri has roughly two months to convince Leonard to play here and play hard and to give the city of Toronto a chance.

I have faith that Masai’s the right guy to do it.

It’s OK to Be Both Heartbroken and Excited

I love DeMar DeRozan and I don’t think I’ve ever been more upset to see a Raptor go. I do think he’s the greatest Raptor; not the best, when we’re talking about on the court, but if you factor in how much he wanted to be here and what he’s meant to the city and how hard he works, I do think he’s earned that title.

Our hot-take-driven industry likes to put it out in this very black-and-white way, that it’s either horrible that they traded DeMar or amazing that they landed Kawhi.

But there can be a middle ground. Both of these things can be true!

Trading a guy who’s been unquestionably loyal and who has led our favourite franchise to its highest heights, who loves the city and its fans and wanted to play his whole career here, that sucks. It sucks.

Getting an MVP candidate, that’s great. Really great.

Looking at the 2018-19 Raptors roster and feeling an emptiness when DeMar DeRozan’s name isn’t there, and looking at that same roster and being excited about its potential with Kawhi Leonard, are both things that I am feeling. Even if Leonard comes in and plays great and the team gets off to a great start, it’s going to be weird, and DeRozan won’t be forgotten for a long time.

(On the other hand, if the team struggles out of the gate, I may have to quit Twitter, lest the “Raptors better with DeMar than Kawhi!!11! lOL” hot takes burn my eyeballs out.)

Right now? I’m 51% sad and 47% excited, and 2% worried that it’s all a dream.

Where’s Toronto’s Reputation at Right Now?

Trading DeRozan—literally the only valuable NBA player who has ever wanted to re-sign for a second contract—is a really tough thing to swallow. Dude never even met with other teams! (Yes, Lowry re-signed twice here, but let’s not pretend Toronto was his first choice.)

Still, players move all the time and we all know loyalty doesn’t exist in sports. But this:

This is a really, really bad look.

It seems very un-Masai like to make such a promise, and I don’t know if Ujiri was even in Vegas, which makes me think it was Nick Nurse or Bobby Webster who made such a promise. And if they did, it was a really dumb thing to say—not because of this deal necessarily, but because it was clear when Dwane Casey was fired that Ujiri wasn’t settling for the same results anymore. Which meant no one’s job was safe.

But now there’s a perception among NBA circles (and check the tweets from NBA stars over the last 24 hours) that the Raptors (and Ujiri) are back-stabbers. And that could hurt their reputation. It’s a star-driven league, and stars have shown that how they’re treated matters. It’s why LeBron went to LA, even though their cupboard is bare. It’s part of why Paul George stayed in Oklahoma City, even though he could’ve gone elsewhere (including his own hometown Lakers).

It should also be noted that Ujiri’s firing of Dwane Casey met with a lot of raised eyebrows outside of Toronto as well. I think a lot of people around the league were a bit put off by Ujiri firing Casey—best coach in franchise history, coming off the best season in franchise history, and a coach of the year candidate at the time (and eventual winner).

Ujiri has done an amazing job building up this franchise and turning around the culture the past five years. And it’s his job to make these tough decisions. (Decisions that I ultimately think are the right ones.) But if he gets a rep for being too cold-blooded, it could come back to hurt the franchise.

Yeah, but... Props to Masai for Going for It, Right?

I’m reminded of the copy store guy in Jerry Maguire:

Masai legit just hung it all out there, man. He pushed his chips into the table and said “all in.” He made a deal for an MVP candidate. That player says he doesn’t wanna he here, Ujiri believes he can make it work anyway. LeBron is gone. The East is up for grabs and the Raps have added the best two-way player in the league, a guy who can guard the other team’s best player (and help neutralize all those Celtics wings) and take big shots from anywhere on the floor. Ujiri has delivered a team to the new-look NBA that could have five 40% 3-point shooters on it next year (Leonard, Green, Lowry, VanVleet, C.J.) and three guys that can guard four or five positions (Anunoby, Siakam, Leonard).

Masai Ujiri is going for it.

Players might be looking at Toronto and saying they’re cold for not treating DeMar right. But they might also be looking and saying that’s a team that wants to win and is willing to do what it takes to get to the top of the mountain.

Isn’t that worth something, reputation-wise? Don’t players want to play for titles? Heck, if I’m Kawhi Leonard, don’t I look at this like “I can come here for one season and compete for a title and do something no one else has ever done—lead a team from another country to the NBA Finals—and then I can go to LA or do whatever I want?” Sounds like a good deal to me!

Ujiri had to be cold to get here. But I think getting here is pretty good.