After LeBron James signed with the LA Lakers the spotlight has rightfully shifted back on the NBA’s biggest drama this year – the Kawhi Leonard situation. At one point it seemed like the star forward had the entire basketball media world at his feet because everybody was waiting for something to happen with him.

Yet all that was coming from his camp and the Spurs organization were rumors upon rumors. And occasionally cryptic jabs back and forwards.

Finally, on the 18th of July the drama ended. Or did it just get a new head start? In an unexpected blockbuster trade, the Toronto Raptors parted ways with their all-star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, young center Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 pick for San Antonio Spurs’ shooting guard Danny Green and small-forward Kawhi Leonard.

DeMar DeRozan

At first glance, if you do a basic evaluation of this move, it seems like the Spurs are the clear winner. They were finally able to get rid of the player who was ruining the well-oiled machine their organization is. The rumors, the ongoing reluctance to speak to anyone, the feud with Tony Parker and the medical staff – Kawhi was detrimental to the culture San Antonio has been building for two decades.

Looking back, in the entire Popovich-Duncan-Parker-Ginobili era there hasn’t been so much unnecessary attention on the team from South Texas. So after a season of turmoil the Spurs must be glad they parted ways with Leonard. Not only that but they sent him to the East making sure he won’t be a threat in the Western conference playoffs.

The Spurs also managed to bring in a 25 point per game all-star shooting guard to fill a roster spot and possibly bring them back to postseason contention. DeMar DeRozan is not the superstar player Kawhi is, but in the meantime he is coachable, silent which is a huge upside since that is exactly what San Antonio is looking for and will pair well with LaMarcus Aldridge.

demar derozan, kawhi leonard

The only evident problems with DeRozan are relatively simple but they also require quite the work. So far in his career the Compton native has been criticized for two things – hero ball and not showing up in crunch time. Also he will probably play through the next season desperately trying to show the Raptors they had made a mistake by giving up on him. Which can make him a liability in certain occasions. Thankfully, that is all manageable under the guidance of Greg Popovich.

But San Antonio’s side of the deal does not end with the acquisition of an all-star player. Jakob Poeltl is also coming to town. He isn’t the best young asset that the Spurs could have gotten out of the trade. However, he is on a rookie contract for the next two seasons which is giving the team the option to either incorporate him into the roster or trade him sometime down the line.

And last but not least a protected first round pick in 2019 is a good addition as well. Behind the Spurs’ success for such a long stretch of time lies the organization’s ability to not miss out on drafts. Even if they select in the late first round, which has been the case for years, San Antonio still ends up with young pieces. And that will never be considered a bad thing.

danny green

If there is a downside to the whole deal if you are the Spurs, is giving up Danny Green. His presence will be missed on defense and three point shooting. DeRozan can give you buckets but physical defense and consistent shooting from deep aren’t highlighted on his resume. Unfortunately, The Spurs were forced to sell Kawhi Leonard instead of picking up a good bid. Sadly, Danny Green was the player they had to part ways with so that Toronto would say “Yes”.

Now, on Toronto’s side of the trade things aren’t as straightforward as they are for the Spurs. Let’s be honest here, it looks like a horrible move for Toronto! Fans and analysts are already voicing their opinion and they are clearly evaluating the situation in the same way.

However, if you look at things from a different perspective it is starting to look less like a desperate move to win in the East and more like a well thought-out strategy about the team’s future.

Kyle Lowry

Let’s examine Toronto’s situation prior to the trade. After three years in a row of losing to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the playoffs the team was crying for a change. Previously alluded to in a ClutchPoints article, Masai Ujiri had two realistic choices for the future – replacing the coach or rearranging the roster in hopes for an upgrade but without losing too much.

Well, he did both of these things! Coach of the Year winner Dwane Casey got sacked and an assistant coach by the name of Nick Nurse took the reins. Then in midsummer Ujiri did the unthinkable – he broke up the team’s star backcourt sending DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. So when we speak of change the Raptors GM delivered!

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Nevertheless, not all changes are for the better. Many people are pointing out the obvious flaws in this trade. Why would Toronto give up its franchise player who has embraced a foreign city for a player who hasn’t played the last season and also has made everybody know he does not want to be anywhere else than Los Angeles? Why give up on having at least two 50+ wins seasons for a dodgy chance of having one good season and no clear future after that?

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan

All of this is without mentioning the ruined team chemistry and players’ trust. Oh, yeah and the liability Leonard has become. These are all reasonable doubts that the community is having and Masai Ujiri is definitely under tremendous pressure to prove the move was the right one for the franchise.

Indeed, if you put it in perspective, things are not looking so grim. Let’s begin with the fact that if healthy Leonard is truly better that DeRozan is almost all basketball aspects. Which makes his acquisition an upgrade to the team. Just imagine this trade without all the rumors about Kawhi’s desire to play in LA. Who’s the winner in that situation? Probably the Raptors.

Now reevaluate what the team led by Lowry and DeRozan achieved in the last three years. Good regular season records and miserable postseason exits. How on Earth was that supposed to change for the better without a major roster overhaul. Masai Ujiri once again delivered in that regard.

DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby

The only worrying problem left on the table is how much of a liability is Kawhi Leonard. There is no saying what will happen once he is Toronto. Will he play or not, will he stay or not? Bare in mind that even top analysts were saying he wasn’t even going to end up in the North.

Until he gives a press conference (hard to imagine he will) the Raptors have two scenarios to work with.

On one hand, the worst case scenario is one in which Kawhi stays only for one year making him a rental player. Well, you still have a formidable force in the North. Lowry, Green, Leonard, Ibaka, Valanciunas make a solid starting five capable of a good run in the East. This will be Toronto’s ultimate shot at success hence their bane LeBron James is gone and neither of the other teams acquired any new star players.

Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan

And when Leonard leaves in 2019 the Raptors will still have options – go for a rebuild around the younger players who would have gained some experience or entertain the free agent market. This wouldn’t be possible with DeRozan’s contract still in the books.

On the other hand though, you have the scenario of Kawhi staying. Yes, it is highly unlikely, but who knows. He has spent his entire career down in San Antonio which is times smaller than Toronto as a market and also as a sports city. The move is an upgrade in that sense. Also the Klaw pretty much has clearance to take over and be the team’s superstar – something he desires according to rumors. The chances of him remaining are still very slim but remember that’s what they told about Paul George and look what happened. Even after OKC lost to a team led by a rookie PG13 still resigned with the Thunder.

At the end of the day, on first glance it appears that the Spurs won by a tiny bit. They got rid of the player who was ruining their culture, based on a low media profile and unselfishness. However, they did not get in return what was best for them – young talented players like Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Joel Embiid etc.

Gregg Popovich

Instead, they got a great shooting guard who unfortunately has maxed out his potential and may alsotake time to adapt. Jakob Poeltl and a pick are okay but San Antonio wanted more than that. And even though they lost an irreplaceable superstar, the organization still had a fair compensation. They can still be contenders in the West but going past the Warriors, Rockets or even OKC – hard to imagine.

Meanwhile, Toronto will appear to be the loser in this deal but in reality they have more options than before. Masai Ujiri probably realized that complacency was not the key for the Raptors. Yes, winning regular season games is fun and all, but the GM knew that time was ticking away and the team was badly underachieving. The formula had to be changed and Ujiri did it. It was a big risk – high reward move.

At best Toronto goes to the Conference Finals, at worst they bounce early in the playoffs and start a rebuild afterwards. Whatever you put it, they have more options ahead of them than before 18th of July this year. In fact, Masai Ujiri may have saved the organization from that painful to watch decline every good teams goes through after their prime.