Raptors acquire Leonard from Spurs in blockbuster trade

San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (in suit) watches from the bench against the Golden State Warriors during the first half in game three of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY SportsKawhi Leonard wanted to join the Los Angeles Lakers, but the San Antonio Spurs shipped him to Toronto. Leonard is a member of the Raptors after Wednesday’s blockbuster trade, which saw San Antonio send him and Danny Green to Toronto in exchange for a package of DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a heavily protected 2019 first-round pick. The deal marks an end to the bitter saga between Leonard and the Spurs, even if neither Leonard nor DeRozan is very happy about it.

Leonard’s refusal to play for San Antonio last season meant his days with the Spurs were numbered, and his name has been included in various trade discussions for months. His desire to play for the Lakers is clear, and he has repeatedly stated he intends to sign there as a free agent next offseason, making any potential deal for him very risky for any other NBA team. Toronto didn’t mind the risk, and appears to have offered the most enticing package for what could be a one-year rental of Leonard’s services.

Aside from a 39-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon, the Raptors have never had an NBA Finals MVP on the team before. Leonard is far and away the most talented player associated with the franchise, and his arrival - assuming he doesn’t continue his holdout - signals a shift in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James departing for the West left a two-team top tier of the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers, with Toronto in third, but the presence of Leonard immediately elevates the Raptors into the conversation for the conference title - somewhere they could never reach with DeRozan as their top player.

DeRozan laid his feelings of betrayal bare on Instagram as the trade unfolded, as he was apparently assured by Raptors GM Masai Ujiri that he would not be dealt in the offseason. DeRozan leaves Toronto as the franchise’s all-time leader in points, and also as the first internally developed All-Star player who wanted to stay with the Raptors for his entire career. In the end, DeRozan’s loyalty wasn’t reciprocated, and the public reactions of various other NBA players suggests the move tainted Toronto’s reputation as an honourable organization. However, Toronto hasn’t ever been considered a destination for big-name NBA free agents, so it’s unclear how much that reputation really matters for the Raptors.

For San Antonio, the trade was as much of a success as it could have been. The Spurs received quality players instead of future prospects, which was something Spurs coach Gregg Popovich insisted on, and DeRozan will go a long way to filling Leonard’s void on the offensive end. However, DeRozan is nowhere near the defensive wizard that Leonard is, and while Poeltl’s size and reach can produce highlight reel blocks, his ability to defend the perimeter is at best a work in progress. Popovich is no stranger to working strategic miracles and it’s entirely possible he finds a way to make DeRozan effective at both ends of the court, but right now it appears he just wants to move on from the Leonard saga.