Aftermath of the Kawhi-DeRozan Blockbuster

In the early morning hours of July 18th, Gregg Popovich and Masai Ujiri created a major NBA earthquake by sending Kawhi Leonard and Demar DeRozan in opposite directions. This move finally put an end to the NBA’s longest ongoing offseason question: Where will Kawhi Leonard end up?

This deal; however, leaves several question marks and unhappy campers in its wake. The most obvious being Kawhi Leonard, whose made his desires pretty clear this offseason that he wants to join LeBron in Los Angeles in hopes of capturing an NBA championship.

Let’s break down the impact that this deal has on all parties involved and evaluate what the future holds for these several teams and players going forward.

Kawhi Leonard: Neutral
First things first, we need to address the centerpiece of this deal. Small forward Kawhi Leonard heads to Toronto with just one year remaining on his contract after he made it evidently clear he had no future in San Antonio. Leonard (27) enters his 8th season hoping to recapture his form that made him an NBA finals MVP, a 2x All Star, and a 2x Defensive Player of the Year. This return is not so easy. Leonard labored through an injury marred 2017-18 campaign that saw him appear in only 9 games as he suffered from shoulder and quad problems. However, Kawhi is known more infamously for his off-the-court behavior in the past season as he failed to comply with the Spurs medical staff even after they medically cleared him to play. This created major controversy as Leonard’s “camp” didn’t want him to risk his long term health, especially for a struggling Spurs team. Despite the Spurs staff’s best efforts and a “tense and emotional” players only meeting, Kawhi refused to take the court, leaving Popovich’s Spurs to be swept aside in four games by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.

This is where we stand now, as Kawhi heads to a destination you’d bet he would’ve blocked if he had a no-trade clause. As he now faces one season of purgatory with a Toronto Raptors team currently in a transitional period following the firing of Coach of the Year Dwane Casey. However, all is not lost for Leonard in this deal… and here’s why.

With only one other All-Star on the roster in point guard Kyle Lowry, this provides an ideal situation for Leonard to resurrect his career and prove to the league he’s worth big time money come next offseason. The Raptors boast one of the deepest rosters in basketball and are coming off a record 59-win campaign before being swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. With ideal role players to surround Leonard like center Jonas Valanciunas, point guard Fred Van Vleet, and power forward Serge Ibaka, this team gives Kawhi a chance to be a number one option and potentially go deep into the NBA playoffs. Overall, Leonard obviously isn’t a fan of where he ended up. However, his opinion of this trade will change with time. Toronto will provide him a launching pad for next summer, as the 2018-19 season will give him a chance to prove his physical and mental abilities are still intact and in fact worth a maximum free agent contract. Along with this, Kawhi has no expectation to remain with Toronto after his current deal expires. While the Raptors brass may have bet they could sell Leonard on signing long-term, this is truly a one year rental. Kawhi is in the driver’s seat with this new situation.

Demar DeRozan: Loser

This one must really hurt for Demar DeRozan. A cornerstone player fresh off your best finish in franchise history and assurances from front office officials that you won’t be traded only to be sent away for an expiring contract and Danny Green. DeRozan has every right to be upset with the Raptors decision, as this is another example of the absence of loyalty in basketball. DeRozan was a rarity: a star who loved playing in Toronto and wanted to finish his career with the Raptors. A franchise that has been spurned by so many great players over the years and, has struggled to appeal to most big-name free agents, had a star that just wanted to stick around. Demar should be pissed at this one. He took to Instagram to share his take on the deal where he showed his true opinion of what went down, “Be told one thing & the outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing… Soon you’ll understand … Don’t disturb.”

Overall, Demar DeRozan was done wrong, but at the end of the day, the NBA is a business and players can’t expect loyalty from organizations in this day and age. The shooting guard now finds himself as a key contributor to a middling Western Conference team. And despite ideal compliments like forward Lamarcus Aldridge and guard Dejounte Murray, the West needs far more to be won.

Toronto Raptors: Loser

Following an Eastern Conference semi finals sweep and a head coach firing, you had a feeling the Raptors weren’t gonna run it back with their same core. A trade like this though… I didn’t see coming. For the 2018-19 season, the Raptors have positioned themselves to compete with both the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics for an NBA Finals berth. And for the first time in almost a decade, LeBron James won’t be a block in their path. That being said, the Raptors are banking on Kawhi being both healthy and motivated coming into the season. Something I believe will happen, and touched on previously, but still am far from certain. Along with Kyle Lowry, the Raptors certainly have the pieces and the ceiling to retake the regular season crown. However, this really depends on how well the Sixers young core improves, or if the Celtics’ All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving are able to make healthy returns. The potential long-term threat of both the Sixers and Celtics have left many to wonder if dealing a foundational piece like DeMar DeRozan and young center, Jakob Poeltl, was worth one year of contention.

Beyond next season though, this deal really is a head scratcher. Why not deal DeRozan to an upcoming contender with young players and draft assets? Several teams around the league like Philly, Denver, or the Knicks would’ve given up significant pieces and draft capital to acquire DeRozan. Keep in mind this is a 28 year-old superstar, entering his prime, who’s also under contract until 2021. This could’ve kickstarted a full rebuild for Toronto around the young talent that’s already in place, setting up a better long term future around new head coach Nick Nurse. This is a mistake the Raptors will come to regret post-2019, when Kawhi leaves them for a max free agent contract. The Raptors will then be left to rebuild anyways, without DeRozan in tow. Overall, this deal was a short term gamble that’s result is yet to be seen. Maybe Kawhi loves it in Toronto and resigns (similar to what Paul George did this summer), but something tells me Leonard won’t want to stick around with a middling Raptors franchise that can never get over the hump.

San Antonio Spurs: Winner

The Spurs had to do something with Kawhi Leonard after the past few months, and in terms of acquiring immediate impact talent, DeRozan is a home run. Let’s not forget this team won 47 games last season without Kawhi, which was enough to finish 7th in a loaded Western Conference. Now they add a 4x All-Star entering his prime to Gregg Popovich’s squad in a move that could help them both now and down the road if, and when, coach Pop retires. Firstly, this move propels the Spurs into the upper echelon of the West. Although not on the same level as Houston or Golden State, San Antonio now has the talent to distance itself from Portland, OKC, and the rest of the Western Conference. With DeRozan joining fellow guard Dejounte Murray and forwards Rudy Gay, Lamarcus Aldridge, and Pau Gasol, this will give Popovich a solid chance at finding some success in 2018 and 2019-20, which will most likely be the 69 year-old coach’s last.

Secondly, this trade gives the Spurs long-term flexibility to rebuild going forward. This is due to the length of DeRozan’s max contract as he’s under team control till 2021 and gives the Spurs a piece to deal if, and when, a rebuild is in the cards. DeRozan’s value was previously discussed, as he continues to enter his prime he could help the Spurs add draft capital and young players from a team looking to add an All-Star and veteran piece in a couple years. These new assets could help the Spurs build around Dejounte Murray and new center Jakob Poeltl in the post-Popovich era as they look to add high end lottery talent to this existing young core in hopes of returning to contention in a post-GSW NBA. Along with this flexibility, this trade provides San Antonio a long term answer to the Kawhi Leonard problem. Going into the summer, the Spurs’ relationship with Kawhi was described as “Broken beyond repair” by NBA insiders. Despite their best attempts, the Spurs couldn’t get Leonard to play or commit to the franchise that traded for him on draft night in 2011, leaving Popovich and GM R.C. Buford in limbo. Now with DeRozan in the fold, the Spurs have added a controllable All-Star for the long-term and removed the cloud of Kawhi Leonard that was hanging over their great franchise.

Overall, this trade leaves a lot of questions left to be answered, and a lot of pieces in new locations. While I’ve given winners and losers, we really won’t know the answers till at least 2019. By this time, Kawhi’s will have signed a new contract either with Toronto or elsewhere, and DeRozan will have had a chance to settle into San Antonio. The real impact of this trade won’t be seen until then. For now, this trade only leaves question marks and disgruntled superstars.