Lowe: What the Kawhi Leonard trade means for Raptors, Spurs and NBA

At the end of a mid-December practice last season, the five highest-ranking members of Toronto’s brain trust called DeMar DeRozan into the office of Masai Ujiri, Toronto’s president of basketball operations, for something of an intervention.

“I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” DeRozan told ESPN a few months later. “I thought, ‘S—, I know I can’t be traded.’ It was like I was being called into the principal’s office.”

Ujiri told DeRozan he could be Toronto’s Kobe Bryant — a lifetime superstar carrying his team toward title contention — if he cleared the last hurdle in his game: shooting more 3s. DeRozan started chucking over Toronto’s next few games, and the Raptors hummed to 59 wins. The story appeared to have ended happily.

But the team never reached title contention. LeBron humiliated them again. DeRozan was decent in Games 1 and 2 of their second-round series before vanishing in Cleveland. He finished the series 0-of-9 from deep. He spent the fourth quarter of Game 3, his last meaningful game playing for a team and city he grew to love and that loved him back, on the bench as the Raptors rallied (but still lost) without him.

Now DeRozan is a Spur, a centerpiece of the Kawhi Leonard anticlimax — a deal that can work for Toronto both as a means to that elusive Finals berth and the first step toward a complete teardown.

The price was low: DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected first-round pick that converts into two 2020 second-round picks if it somehow lands in the top 20 this season.

The Spurs lost some leverage when LeBron James opted out of his deal with Cleveland, and lost more when he joined the Lakers without issuing any immediate mandates about superstar partners. They were going to lose a little more every day until training camp.

They didn’t start with much, either. Nobody knows if Leonard is healthy enough to regain status as a top-five player and MVP candidate. (He still has to pass a physical.) Suitors feared his impending free agency, and his reported preference for one of the L.A. teams.

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His camp made it very clear over the past week, to the Raptors and other teams, that Leonard wanted no part of Toronto, sources say.

The Raptors didn’t care. They know any threat of failing to report is probably empty, since they can fine Leonard for each practice and game he misses — up to his full $ 20.1 million salary.

Ujiri will certainly try to sway Leonard on the trappings of a diverse city a little outside the limelight, with an insane (in the very best way) fan base. He will have to do the heavy lifting, because that is too much to ask of a first-year head coach in Nick Nurse. Ujiri has a charisma, and a way with players. A Finals run might help. Toronto has a chance at that. With this deal, the Raptors enter next season just behind Boston — ahead of Philly — in the Eastern Conference pecking order. (The Celtics could be 60-plus-wins special next season.)

If Toronto gets the sense by Thanksgiving that Leonard is leaving regardless, it can try to flip him to the Lakers or Clippers. The Raptors won’t make themselves whole in such a deal, but they could recoup enough of what they traded as to make today’s move almost risk-free.

If Leonard walks for nothing, the full rebuild is on. Toronto is clearly fine shedding the final two guaranteed years of DeRozan’s contract, at $ 27.7 million a pop, and bailing out before it faces the dilemma of signing DeRozan to another megadeal into his 30s.

Leonard at his apex is good enough to transition the Raptors as Kyle Lowry ages — good enough that you can justify avoiding a rebuild. DeRozan isn’t.

We have waited a half-decade for Ujiri to put his imprint on this team — to do more than draft interesting guys in the 20s, retain Bryan Colangelo’s players, and undo mistakes (Rudy Gay from the Colangelo era, and then DeMarre Carroll). One way or another, Ujiri has done it now.

Toronto retains its two most interesting prospects in OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam, plus both Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet. Danny Green is more than a throw-in, even if the Spurs dangled him for very little in return over the past year, sources say. With Leonard, Anunoby, and Green, the Raptors can play lineups featuring three switchable wings who shoot 3s. There is more than a little irony in Toronto nabbing two players who can at least jostle with LeBron — including the very best option to defend him in the entire league — just as LeBron abandons the East. (To be clear, the Spurs took some calls on Leonard at the trade deadline, including from Boston, but they hadn’t reached the precipice with him yet, sources say.)

Poeltl is solid — a nimble center who thinks and feels the game at a high level. Losing him makes the prospect of someday trading Jonas Valanciunas — a Nurse favorite, by the way — more fraught. But he also might top out as a nice backup, or fifth starter who struggles defending lineups with five 3-point shooters. The first-round pick is about as low-value as one can get.

This is an unsatisfying end to a bitter saga for the Spurs — one that still flummoxes people within the team. It remains unclear exactly when they lost Leonard, or why the relationship grew so toxic. Leonard certainly has not verbalized his reasoning.

It annoyed some in Leonard’s camp that the Spurs had him wait for a max contract after the 2014 Finals to keep cap space free for the following summer, but Leonard understood the logic and appeared to accept it, sources familiar with the matter say.

Team and player disagreed on the nature of Leonard’s leg injury, and the best course of treatment. That happens. It should not fracture an essential relationship. Some combination of things did, and now Leonard is in the North.

DeRozan as a centerpiece is a disappointing return, but also one that reflects market realities. Gregg Popovich does not want to finish his career in a rebuild. The Spurs never showed interest in packages — including Boston’s — heavy on picks and unproven players, sources have said. The Celtics would not swap any of their core guys, including Jaylen Brown, perhaps the most interesting Leonard trade chip in the league, without some assurances about Leonard’s health and future plans, sources have said.

Philadelphia’s potential package of Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 pick didn’t move the needle. It’s unclear if the Spurs had interest in Markelle Fultz; the two sides never discussed him seriously, and the Sixers would not have parted with him, sources say. The Spurs made it clear any deal with Philly would require Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid (likely Simmons), and the Sixers weren’t going anywhere near that, league sources say.

Talks with Boston and Philly stalled weeks ago. There was no frenzied last call Monday or Tuesday. San Antonio over the past four days lowered its asking price with a few other potential Leonard teams, according to sources around the league, but it was hard to build any realistic deal.

Even if Kawhi Leonard walks next summer, the Raptors can start a full rebuild. Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

DeRozan will keep the Spurs relevant in the playoff race. They won 47 games last year without Leonard, juggling a hodgepodge roster. You know they will find a way to at least approach 50 this season, even if DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge jack 40 midrange jumpers per game between them. Those guys grind out regular-season wins. Pair them with good coaching and smart team defense, and the Spurs will be in almost every game.

But this is a blah long-term play — one of the first times having a coach installed as the top decision-maker might have hurt San Antonio. Without Leonard, a rebuild is coming. This move only delays it. DeRozan is an All-Star, but not a franchise star who alone forestalls a downslope.

It’s tempting to suggest the Spurs could eventually flip DeRozan for the sorts of assets that would trigger a proper rebuild, but he doesn’t carry that sort of trade value. (DeRozan’s role in this trade does not indicate much about his league-wide trade cachet. This is a unique set of circumstances involving a seller with zero leverage.)

It’s possible Boston, Philly, and other teams loaded with picks weren’t offering their best ones — including the juicy 2019 Kings pick the Sixers and Celtics have divided like a summer timeshare. But a franchise with different priorities could have bid those sorts of teams against each other, and come out with an interesting collection of future assets.

For the Lakers, it is a calculated risk that they can acquire someone over the next year without surrendering their best assets — especially Brandon Ingram, a budding star. That is a smart bet, even having just watched Paul George stay in the league’s anti-Los Angeles without so much as granting the Lakers a pitch meeting.

The 2019 free agency class is loaded. The Lakers have LeBron, cap space, and the league’s most desirable market. There would have been value in the certainty of acquiring Leonard now. There is value in the sustainability of young talent, too. In refusing to pay full freight, the Lakers valued those things correctly.

In Leonard, the Raptors get the true, every-game-in-the-playoffs superstar they’ve never had. Lowry was hit or miss in some playoff runs, though he has been more reliable in the last two. DeRozan’s postseason play has been all over the place, including an 0-of-8 low point in Game 3 of Toronto’s first-round series against the Bucks two postseasons ago.

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DeRozan generally underperformed. Even so, the Raptors over the past three seasons wormed by every Eastern Conference opponent save LeBron. But it was always a slog. It was wrenching. Over and over, DeRozan and Lowry fought through slumps and mental blocks. Their offense collapsed every postseason, a true NBA rite of spring, until they overhauled it. Then last season, their defense collapsed.

The best playoff rivals allow for no such margin of error. In the end, the Raptors could not take one game from a Cleveland team that went 8-10 against its other three playoff opponents.

Leonard is a Finals MVP. He has DeRozan’s midrange precision, only at higher efficiency. He can fill the same spaces DeRozan inhabited, and run some of the same actions, as Lowry spaces the floor at the top of the arc. He’s a more dangerous post-up scorer, which should make him at least as dynamic a pick-and-roll partner for Lowry.

Leonard blows DeRozan away in every other facet. He is an above-average 3-point shooter at high volume, and he can hit them off the dribble in a pinch. (That is still not his strong suit, though; Leonard hit just 31.5 percent of his 165 pull-up 3s over the 2016-17 regular season and playoffs, per NBA.com.)

At his best, DeRozan is a slightly below-average defender. At his worst, he is a sieve. Leonard may well end up the greatest perimeter defender in basketball history. There are not many perimeter trios with the collective defensive chops of Lowry, Leonard, and one of Green and Anunoby.

The Raptors are deep, and versatile. They can play three wings together, perhaps even with Siakam as a small-ball, super-switchable center against the right opponents. (Remember Siakam’s brief work as a John Wall antidote in the first round last season?) They are a real threat to make the Finals.

In every sense, this is worth a shot for the Raptors. There is enough conflicting intel about what Leonard wants — whether he is really hell-bent on going to a mega-market, or willing to play second fiddle to LeBron — to embolden teams with healthy cultures. If there is some chance he doesn’t know what he wants, maybe he might end up wanting you.

This is a cold end in Toronto for DeRozan. He embraced a frigid, often forgotten market. He vowed to help fix the team, and he did. He took no meetings in free agency. All he did was work, and get better every season.

This is the sort of harsh NBA reality neither DeRozan nor the Duncan-era Spurs have ever experienced. They might each be unhappy about today’s outcome, though the Spurs are surely relieved this is over.

They’ll move on. The Raptors will, too — along one path, or another.

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