What does the Kawhi trade mean for Toronto?

By now you’ve heard the news. Kawhi Leonard is no longer a member of the San Antonio Spurs and has been swapped (with pieces) for DeMar DeRozan. The Toronto Raptors shifted from +3300 to win the 2019 NBA Championship all the way down to +2000 which is a seismic shift. Those odds still don’t touch the expected favorites in the Eastern Conference, but the overall ripple effect is really intriguing.

Odds to win the 2019 NBA Championship
Golden State Warriors -160
Boston Celtics +500
Los Angeles Lakers +600
Houston Rockets +1000
Philadelphia 76ers +1200
Toronto Raptors +2000
Oklahoma City Thunder +5000
San Antonio Spurs +10000

One of the intriguing elements is that the Kawhi trade moved the Warriors down from -150 to -160, which isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme. The Lakers were impacted the other way, going from +500 to +600. These odds change over the course of the season – sometimes drastically – so all of these little bumps and dips are to be expected anyways.

But the meteoric landing of Kawhi in Toronto is huge for so many reasons, the most important of which is intangible – everyone seems pissed about it. The Spurs fans are disenchanted about losing a former MVP candidate, while Raptors supporters have to be disheartened to see a player they’ve fostered, nurtured and loved over nine years leave to join another franchise.

Even worse is that DeMar was furious over the decision, which is completely understandable given the loyalty he showed to a franchise that has routinely struggled to create gravity for free agents.  It does feel to some degree that Toronto has burned an expansive bridge in this regard; that future stars who become available won’t even give Toronto a meeting, let alone serious consideration.

“In many ways, Demar and Kawhi are dichotomies of each other.”

However, just like many people are drawing corollaries to the Paul George situation in Oklahoma City, there is another team in the east that distanced themselves from a former star for an even better one. That would be the Boston Celtics, who infamously dealt Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving this time last year. The point is that time heals a lot of wounds, and this will eventually smooth over.

All of that healing is contingent on a few things. There’s very little doubt that DeMar DeRozan will be great in San Antonio. He’s consistently held in high regard for his high work ethic, and inserts in to a team that already has lots of midrange threats. By most angles, DeMar has a chance to evolve even further under the guidance of Gregg Popovich. That journey could be exciting.

If it doesn’t go well, however, and DeMar has hit his ceiling like so many in Toronto had begun to fear, then it’s going to be hard to move his enormous salary even as it dwindles in to its final years. Like the dearly departed Dwane Casey, DeRozan was and is beloved by so many around the league but there remained major concerns – his lacking defence, the fact that he was so erratic in the playoffs and his uneven three point production just to name a few. DeMar arriving in San Antonio did little to improve their +10000 odds to win the title this year, and that says a lot about the quality of both players.

In many ways, DeMar and Kawhi are dichotomies of each other. On the one hand you have a player with an exceptional skill set that comes caveats underscored by his charming personality and undying loyalty. On the other, you have a person who is a borderline MVP with the potential to be the greatest defensive octopus of all time that also seems to have glaring personality flaws.

Kawhi has become less of a mystery over this past year. The fact that he refused to address any of the melodrama personally was deafening in how loud of a message it sent to fans. The fact that he speaks through a myriad of ‘sources’ only makes it worse. His agent, Mitch Frankel, has just one active client in the NBA and his uncle is attempting to build a marketing firm on the backs of his nephew. This is almost a tragically classic case of a transformational player surrounding himself with all the wrong people.

There was ultimately one stabilizing force in Kawhi’s professional life, and that was the San Antonio Spurs. With that chain broken for good, Kawhi is entering relatively new territory (and I’m not referring to Canada). Aside from Masai, the Raptors have none of the anchors that the Spurs do. There’s a new coach, a flimsy cultural identity in the NBA sphere and lacking proof of what this team is capable of.

And there’s the big elephant in the room – if Kawhi leaves Toronto next year, they can jump start their rebuild two years sooner than they would have. Alternatively, with a fully engaged Kawhi Leonard, this trade is an absolute victory for the Raptors. If they don’t get that player, then this transaction can still be considered a moderate victory. The much improved odds of Toronto to win the title is proof of Kawhi’s talent. It’s a win-win for Toronto.

By straight up comparison, Kawhi is infinitely better than DeMar. He’s a better offensive player that can post-up, drive and shoot. His three-point percentage is .386, which is better than DeMar’s season bests of .310 and .338. Kawhi is also a legendary defensive player already, which is something you can not even remotely say about DeRozan.

It’s totally fair to say that the Raptors and Spurs traded two All-Stars, but there’s a stark difference to the type of top level talent that DeMar represents and the absolute peak of what Kawhi is capable of.

What other option did Toronto have? They know their lack of appeal to the free agent market. They know that they can only get better through insanity. What drove Masai to make this move is the same that propelled the Detroit Pistons to make a weird trade for Blake Griffin. Desperate times in desperate places call for desperate measures.

As gut wrenching as this is from all sides, it’s the type of move that makes the league fun and interesting. Players and fans can mourn the “terrible thing” that happened to DeMar all they want, but the franchise had seen how the 2018-19 story was going to end after watching the same movie two years in a row. LeBron was just replaced by the Celtics and/or Sixers. In the end, Toronto paid DeMar $175 million for a whole lot of regular season wins. The Raptors and DeRozan are even as far as most people should be concerned.

Are the Raptors a championship contender? Well to answer that question you have to answer a few more: is Kawhi healthy? When will he return? Is he even going to cross the border? Does he realize that his uncle and agent are exploiting him while ruining his image? Has Magic Johnson already promised him a contract on the Lakers next summer regardless of him playing this season or not?

Right now, the oddsmakers are acting as if Kawhi is going to play and have a positive impact on the Raptors. You probably shouldn’t. One of the causal effects of the Kawhi trade for Toronto is that it’s turned them in to the league’s most intriguing team for the 2018-19 season. For a franchise that was routinely cast aside despite finishing with the best record, that’s a win.