In the NBA, if you’re stuck in the middle, you might as well be in purgatory.
Before pulling the trigger on the trade for Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors weren’t exactly a mediocre, middling team. What they were, however, was a team that had hit their ceiling with their core group.
Winning a franchise-record 59 games this past season – and doing it by overhauling their style of play to become more modern – was a commendable achievement, but another sweep at the hands of LeBron James in the playoffs, especially when the two other East team took him to seven games, was the last straw.
As fresh as the Raptors felt all season long, the way they finished instantly made them stale again. They needed at least one major change to the roster this summer to push them in one of two directions: towards contention by significantly improving, or into a rebuild mode by deconstructing the core.
The beauty of the Leonard trade for Toronto is it allows them to pursue both avenues at the same time next season, before knowing their definitive road in a year’s time.
If Leonard enjoys his new surroundings and decides to stay – and, health permitting, returns to his old self as a player – the Raptors will have the best player in the conference and a team that is built to be a constant challenger for the Finals.
If he bolts after a lone season, Toronto will have cleared essential cap space, essentially giving them a cleaner canvas to work with.
Raptors know the risks involved with potential Kawhi Leonard acquisition, given his preference for playing in L.A. But they have great faith in their young players going forward regardless of what Leonard decides to do in 2019.— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) July 18, 2018
It’s not as if there’s no risk involved. If Leonard is only a one-year rental, then Raptors are postponing an inevitable rebuild instead of ripping the band aid off immediately. That’s hardly a sacrifice though when you can potentially compete for a championship in that year window.
If Leonard is fully healthy and engaged, Toronto have the potential to field one of the best and most versatile defences, while once again wielding enviable depth off the bench. They have all the tools to finish near the top of the conference again in the regular season before clashing with Boston or Philadelphia in the playoffs. And if they reach the Finals to meet Golden State, they’ll now have one of the very best weapons in the league against the Warriors.
What the Raptors are truly risking with this trade is learning a hard truth about themselves, the organisation as a whole and the market they play in. Like Oklahoma City attempted with Paul George and ultimately succeeded in, Toronto will try to appeal to Leonard and convince him to stay.
Leonard appears to be entering the situation not nearly as open-minded than George was, but there has been enough noise surrounding his desires that he may not definitely know what he wants, which means the door is ajar for the Raptors.
And general manager Masai Ujiri seems confident the franchise and the city can win him over – or at least come close. And what’s not to like? Toronto doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, but it’s both a metropolitan and cosmopolitan city, situated in one of the biggest markets in the NBA. The team itself is good enough to compete for a title and the fan base is rabid.
If the Raptors can’t, at the bare minimum, make Leonard think long and hard about leaving next summer, that will be more disappointing than the ramifications of actually losing him.
That doesn’t mean other stars will feel the same way about Toronto – they just traded one away who was committed to the city and actually made it his home, despite hailing from the Los Angeles area. But they are gambling on themselves as much as Leonard, and no team wants to be made to feel they’re undesirable.
Still, it was time for the Raptors to raise the stakes and introduce more variance to the equation. It may not work out exactly how they hope, but in this case, even failure gets you further.
It’s not often a trade goes down in the NBA in which two stars are being exchanged for one another. Usually, the team surrendering the star receives a package headlined by young players, draft picks or a combination of both.
Leonard only played in nine games this past season, but is a Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. While not on Leonard’s level, DeRozan isn’t too shabby himself as a four-time All-Star and All-NBA Second Team member this past season. There’s a chance the trade works out for both teams immediately.
That got us thinking of other memorable star-for-star trades in NBA history. The list isn’t very long, but here are some of the more notable ones.
Okay, so the real crown jewel in this trade for the Cavaliers was Brooklyn’s unprotected first-round draft pick, but they still got a player in Thomas who – albeit somewhat damaged goods – had just finished fifth in MVP voting. Making this swap even spicier was the fact that the Celtics and Cavaliers had just met in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Allen Iverson for Chauncey Billups
Both players were on the backside of their careers, especially in Iverson’s case, but at the time this was considered a swap of two premier guards. While Iverson would return to Philadelphia after finishing out a sub-par season in Detroit, Billups averaged 17.9 points and 6.4 assists to help lead the Nuggets to a 54-win campaign and a berth in the Western Conference Finals.
Tracy McGrady for Steve Francis
McGrady was at the height of his powers when the Magic shipped him to the Rockets, having won back-to-back scoring titles and establishing himself as one of the greatest players of that era. Despite forming a one-two punch with Yao Ming, McGrady and the Rockets never got past the second round of the playoffs during his time there. Francis, meanwhile, wouldn’t make another All-Star team.
Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury
Kidd and Marbury were both in the prime of their careers when this blockbuster went down, with the former a four-time All-Star and the latter a 20-plus point scorer. Kidd would go on to lead the Nets to two straight Finals appearances during a successful run, while Marbury would continue to put up numbers for a middling Suns team before being sent to the Knicks less than three years later.
Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond
This trade couldn’t have worked out much better for the Kings, who nabbed a franchise player in Webber for someone about to hit the final years of his career in Richmond. Sacramento would reach the playoffs the next eight years and come so close to knocking off the Lakers, while the Wizards received diminishing returns from Richmond over three seasons.
With the Kawhi Leonard saga finally resolved, it feels like the craziness of the NBA offseason has reached its end.
There’s still plenty of time for moves to come out of nowhere, like the Kyrie Irving–Isaiah Thomas trade did last August, but at least for the time being, it seems like the dust has mostly settled this summer.
Here’s a look at the biggest winners and losers of the offseason so far, with the two-time defending champions once again snatching victory.
Heading into the summer, they were already in the conversation for most talented team ever. So of course they had to get even better by adding a four-time All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins.
But really, the way the Warriors truly won this summer was through their competition not improving. If anything, the Houston Rockets got worse (more on that later), while the much-fantasised Big Three of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George never came to fruition in Los Angeles.
Speaking of the Lakers, they didn’t land another star to go alongside LeBron (yet), but they still got the best player in the world – and that too without having to trade any of their young guys – to once again be incredibly relevant.
As currently constructed, they don’t have nearly enough firepower to dethrone the Warriors, but James’ signing revives Lakers exceptionalism and gives them the cache to lure other big names down the road.
They bet on their culture to win over Paul George over the course of this past season and their faith paid off.
It’s not just that they retained George, but the fact that he committed to at least three years and didn’t even take a meeting with his hometown Lakers.
It also inadvertently helps to hush the narrative that other stars don’t want to play with Russell Westbrook for whatever reason.
LeBron left the conference, so they, along with every other team in the East besides Cleveland, won in that regard. But other than that, this summer has been a dud for them.
Even though they weren’t able to coax LeBron to Philly, the 76ers also lost out on every other star player that was available, namely Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. They had a legitimate chance to close the gap between them and Boston by adding another big gun to their core of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, but they couldn’t wield their salary cap space like they hoped.
And in a cruel twist of fate, Leonard ended up on one of their competitors, which likely pushes Philadelphia down to third in the East’s pecking order.
Similar to the 76ers, the Rockets can be considered losers because they didn’t get better while others in their conference did.
While the Warriors got Cousins and the Lakers brought in LeBron, the Rockets lost Luc Mbah a Moute and, more importantly, Trevor Ariza, who was vital to their identity.
They still have James Harden and Chris Paul, but the latter will be another year older. Their window for beating Golden State hasn’t shut by any means, but it’s definitely less ajar than it was a couple months ago.