There are lopsided trades, in which one team is the clear winner and the other is left sifting through the rubble of what’s left behind. There are win-win trades, in which both sides achieve their objectives — one side gets an established star, say, and the other gets a budding young player and a couple of draft picks. There are lose-lose trades, too, when injuries and/or disappointment torpedo the trading partners’ plans.
Every once in a while, there is a nuclear trade. Those go beyond the lose-lose type. Those are the trades in which not only do both sides lose, but both sides wind up hobbled as an organization.
A swap featuring churlish Spurs star Kawhi Leonard and some financial filler for DeMar DeRozan and some selection of young Raptors (OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl) and future picks would be a nuclear trade. Such a deal featuring Kyle Lowry instead of DeRozan has much the same feel.
First off, it should be stated, the Raptors-Spurs swap remains a media fantasy. It’s been the source of some chatter among executives at Summer League, but that’s largely because of the absence of any movement on the Leonard front, and the belief that a deal between San Antonio and the Lakers remains distant.
Something’s got to fill that gap. For now, it’s the Raptors.
It’s easy to see why. Toronto has the four elements the Spurs most need in a trading partner in order to achieve what the organization sees as a fair return for Leonard: the Raptors have a tradable All-Star; they have some promising youngsters; they are not the Lakers, the Spurs’ longtime West rival; and they have just the right level of desperation.
Toronto won a franchise-high 59 games last year, then completely flamed out in the playoffs (again), swept by LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the conference semifinals. Coach Dwane Casey took the fall for that flop, and the team promoted assistant Nick Nurse to the lead coaching role.
That’s the only real change the team has made. The Raptors roster is much the same as it was last year, and the salaries of DeRozan (three years, $83 million) and Lowry (two years, $64 million) make trading one of their two All-Stars complicated. There’s also the unsightly two years and $45 million for forward Serge Ibaka, who was not much of a factor during Toronto’s postseason.
Trading for Leonard would give the impression that Toronto is doing something, at least, even if that something is inviting disaster. Because, unless the Raptors turned around and traded Leonard themselves (they’d face the same difficulties on that), Toronto would have accomplished little with Leonard other than to take on San Antonio’s headache.
If Leonard was not happy in San Antonio, there’s little to suggest he’d be thrilled with the Raptors. Leonard’s camp — mostly his agents, but we can only assume they have Leonard’s complete backing — has made it clear he wants to be in Los Angeles, and he has the leverage of impending free agency in 2019.
The only rational explanation for Raptors’ interest in Leonard is that, with him on board in place of DeRozan and with James playing for the Lakers, Toronto would have a shot at finally winning the East and reaching the Finals.
If Leonard is refusing to play for the Spurs, does anyone think he’d be more pleased to suit up for the Raptors, the team with the gall to disrupt his collision course with the Lakers? If there’s been anything we learned about Leonard that we did not already know in the past year, it is how incredibly stubborn the man can be. He stuck with that quad injury and allowed it to keep him out for 73 games, plus the entire postseason. He dumped an entire year of his career just to get out of San Antonio.
But he’s suddenly going to turn into a happy Raptor? Uh, no.
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Even if Leonard did smile through a season in Toronto, and even if he returned to his Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate form, the Raptors only would be guaranteed a top-three spot in the East, and nothing more. Boston would figure to still be the favorite. The Sixers would be in the mix with the Raps for the No. 2 seed. A ticket to the Finals and a justification for the Casey firing does not come sealed with a Leonard deal.
What does come sealed, no matter how things go in Toronto, is his exit next summer. Leonard wants to be in LA, and he is going to get there one way (Spurs trade to the Lakers this summer) or another (he slogs through this year and signs with the Lakers next summer). The Raptors would have given up DeRozan and the young players and picks they’d need for a rebuild for one year of Leonard. It’d be a long, cold three or four seasons in Toronto once he leaves.
What’s worse is that a Leonard-DeRozan deal doesn’t make a lot of sense for the Spurs, either, other than getting back a player who will keep the franchise within shouting distance of the playoffs for a couple of years. The Raptors have done well to adjust their team to DeRozan’s inability to make 3-pointers — he is a career 28.9 percent shooter from the arc.
DeRozan made a real effort to improve his perimeter shooting last year, and after a decent start, he wound up back at 31.2 percent by year’s end, and 28.6 percent in the playoffs. He turns 29 in August, and is entering his 10th season in the NBA. If he has not gotten the 3-pointer down by this point, he’s not going to suddenly find it.
The Spurs are not a volume 3-point team, but Gregg Popovich values getting players into the right spots and maximizing accuracy. The team fell off to 26th in 3-point percentage last year, but they’d ranked in the top six for seven straight years before that, and were first in the league four times.
A pairing of DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge would give San Antonio two stars who combined to shoot 30.8 percent from the 3-point line last season. Both guys operate best in the high post/midrange. There’s enough talent to get them to 45 wins or so, but it’s not a successful mix in the modern NBA playoffs, should San Antonio get that far.
But more than just perimeter shooting, the Spurs need to come out of a Leonard trade prepared to start over, prepared to rebuild, prepared to be bad for a year or two. DeRozan is counterproductive in that respect. The team needs draft picks and a player or two to develop, and the only real shot at getting that will come in a deal with the Lakers — heck with what conference they’re in or whether the Spurs brain trust finds LA historically objectionable.
It’s the middle of July, the free-agent market is nearly settled and the trade market has been Leonard-centric. This Spurs-Raptors deal is making the rounds because, well, nothing else is making the rounds at the moment. But it shouldn’t — it would be a disaster, for both sides.