So if you haven’t seen by now, the San Antonio Spurs traded disgruntled and vaguely hobbled star swingman Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors this morning, in exchange for not-previously-disgruntled-but-now-extremely-upset star swingman DeMar DeRozan. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the trade, which is weird in a few different ways, because it’s hard to know exactly what each party hoped to get out of it. Here, in extremely annoying Peter King fashion, are some things I think I think about it:
1. This is an own.
Leonard, a two-time All-Star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and one-time Finals MVP, sat out virtually all of last season—and pretty much disappeared himself from the Spurs organization. His coaches and teammates all sort of begrudgingly went along with the pretense that this was because of some combination of shoulder and leg injuries, but as the season went along, it became more and more clear, via anonymously sourced reports and in the negative space of ever-crankier quotes from San Antonio coaches and players, that there was more to the story.
The picture that seems to have emerged, eventually, is that even if Leonard did have some sore parts here and there—and maybe some dissatisfaction with how the organization handled those booboos—the main thing was that he had no intention of remaining with the Spurs beyond the 2019 expiration of his present contract, and didn’t want to risk an injury that might complicate his pursuit of a big free-agency deal (probably with the Los Angeles Lakers) next summer. Which is fine, really! Especially if he no longer trusted the Spurs to handle his injuries responsibly.
But in any case, this sure looks like an own: Instead of trading Leonard to Los Angeles, where he (reportedly) wants to be, the Spurs sent him to Toronto, where he (reportedly) “has no desire to play.” Now, barring another trade (more on this in a second), he’s in more-or-less the same boat he was in last autumn, or maybe even a worse one: If he doesn’t want to risk an injury that would jeopardize his chances of getting to L.A. on a max contract, he’ll have to sit out another entire season. In Canada! Where it’s cold as hell! Meanwhile, for all that his abandonment of the team supposedly torched their leverage in trade discussions, the Spurs still get to replace him with another genuine star. That’s an own.
2. But also, just on its face, this seems like a fine trade for both sides.
Let’s just imagine that Leonard returns to health and decides he’s willing to play a season in Toronto, and that the Raptors made this trade because they want Kawhi Leonard on their team this coming season. That seems kind of far-fetched! But let’s imagine it anyway. You suspended your disbelief for Avengers: Infinity War, you can suspend it for this.
This is an okay trade for the Raptors, in that case. It’s defensible. A healthy and engaged Leonard gives them a much better shot than DeRozan does at making the 2019 Finals, and it’s probably worth throwing in Jakob Poeltl and a heavily protected draft pick to make that exchange. (The Raptors also will receive very robotic swingman Danny Green in the trade.) The Boston Celtics will be extremely fucking good next season, certainly the overwhelming favorites in the East in any case, but still: LeBron’s out of the way, and somebody else will represent that conference in the Finals for the first time in, holy shit, nine years. If the Raptors figured this was their best shot, and decided to goddamn shoot the fucker, good for them.
For the Spurs it’s a no-brainer: In exchange for a player who had already shown his willingness to sit out whole seasons rather than play basketball for them, they get a 28-year-old All-Star (DeRozan), an athletic and very promising 22-year-old seven-footer (Poeltl), and a pick. It won’t be a lottery pick even if Leonard sits out another season in Toronto, but that’s okay: The Spurs have dug gold out of the late draft plenty of times.
3. But also also, this could be just the first move in a sequence, right?
Like, yeah, okay, a healthy and engaged Leonard makes this an okay trade for Toronto if he decides he’s willing to be a Raptor for one season. But it’s a much more obviously understandable—if also much more cynical—move if Toronto personnel honcho Masai Ujiri just forwards Leonard along to the Lakers for something slightly less than the (reported) king’s ransom the spiteful Spurs (reportedly) were demanding in (reported) trade talks earlier this summer (according to reports).
Like if he figured, with the Celtics ascendant and the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers roaring up behind them, his team’s gone as far as it can with DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and that it’d be smart to get out from under their albatross-ass contracts sooner rather than later, he could route Leonard through Toronto on his way to Los Angeles and get some number of the Lakers’ promising youths—Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, probably not the reportedly untouchable Brandon Ingram—in return. Then, with their own fun young dudes like Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Delon Wright still in town, the Raptors would have rebooted themselves pretty much overnight into a young team with a lot less pressure on it to find a way past the Celtics this coming season. That would be... actually kind of cool?
4. This is the latest in a string of summer humiliations for the 76ers.
Pretty much the first thing Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said, after the Celtics eliminated his team from the second round of this spring’s playoffs, was that the Sixers’ first offseason priority would be going out and getting an established star player to turn them into a legitimate championship contender.
Pretty much everything since then has been, well, bad. In June their general manager, Bryan Colangelo, was forced to resign after he and/or his wife were found to be using some number of pseudonymous Twitter accounts to defend his job performance and trash other members of the organization, including its star players. Then Paul George, targeted by the Sixers in free agency, opted to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then, LeBron James, targeted by the Sixers in free agency, opted to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers without so much as ever even giving Philadelphia’s braintrust a face-to-face meeting. Then stretch big Nemanja Bjelica, the closest thing to a key addition Philadelphia has made this offseason, decided he’d rather leave the NBA altogether than fulfill the agreement he’d made to sign a contract with the Sixers.
And now today’s news. The Sixers, with all their assets, their pair of sparkly young stars, their buoyancy in the weak East, and their open and much-publicized pursuit of a big-time addition who could push them into championship contention, got snaked past in the Kawhi Leonard Trade Sweepstakes by a rival in the conference. Barring something unforeseen and truly shocking, the Sixers now appear as though they’ll enter the upcoming season having struck out on all the available players of consequence—and more or less in the same spot they were in a year ago, hoping Markelle Fultz amounts to the third star their own coach thinks they need.
This is all very fun. I can’t wait to see how Danny Ainge congratulates himself for not being a part of it.