The Vegas Odds for where Kawhi Leonard will play next season have been a joyride thus far. The day after LeBron James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, the odds for Leonard playing for the Lakers were down to as low as -1000. Since then, multiple sources have reported that LeBron is not pressuring the Lakers front office into mortgaging the future of the team to acquire a star immediately. That led to the line evening out with the Lakers and Spurs being the top two projected destinations for the former 1st team All-NBA talent. Thursday, the odds for Leonard have shifted to favor an unexpected contender, the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors are currently EVEN odds to land Kawhi Leonard, with the Spurs sitting in second at +400.
I was flabbergasted when I saw this development. Why would the Raptors trade for Leonard? He is currently located in a small market, and although Toronto is a considerably larger market, it is not Los Angeles, where Leonard has expressed interest playing at either this year via trade, or sign in free agency next summer.
The Raptors are in a bind. The team won 59 games last season, a franchise record, and proceeded to getting shit-pumped by the worst Cavs team since LeBron returned in 2014. Dwayne Casey awkwardly won the NBA Coach of the Year award after getting fired a few weeks prior. LeBron may have left the Cavs, but the Celtics and 76ers have emerged as the top dogs in the East for the foreseeable future. The Raptors have relied on the core of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry through the playoffs five years now and have only one Eastern Conference Finals appearance to show for it. Now, could the Raptors run this roster back again this year with a new coaching staff, and reach the Eastern Conference Finals once again with LeBron no longer haunting them? Maybe. My prediction would be they make it to the second round and lose to either Boston or Philly.
Now why would a team like the Raptors trade away valuable assets to take a chance on a guy that only has one year remaining on his contract when he has made it publicly known that he wants to be in LA next year? Probably a stupid one, right? That is what I thought last summer when the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Paul George, and I am not going to fall into that trap again if the Raptors trade for Kawhi this summer.
Oklahoma City found themselves in a familiar situation last summer. Kevin Durant left in 2016, and the Thunder rolled the dice by adding Victor Oladipo from the Magic to pair with Russell Westbrook. The partnership on the court did not work out, leaving the Thunder in an impossible spot with Russ becoming a free agent the next off-season. That is where Thunder General Manager Sam Presti gambled and traded for Indiana’s Paul George, who demanded a trade from the Pacers, and publicly expressed his interested to return home to LA. Now why would Presti part with future assets (Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis) for a player that had no guarantee of staying past his contract?
It was because it was a win-win for the Thunder. The Thunder were either going to be able to convince George to stay in OKC, giving Westbrook the sidekick he needed, or the team could begin a complete rebuild from scratch and attempt to gather every asset they could from Russell Westbrook.
I believe that there are some similarities between the Thunder situation last year and the one Toronto is currently in. The Raptors could use a rebuild. Their team reminds me of the Hawks and Pacers between 2013 and 2015 that would produce large win totals in the regular season but stood no chance against a force like LeBron come playoff time. DeRozan and Lowry are both All-Star-caliber players, but neither is suited to be the best player on a championship team. This is where Kawhi Leonard comes in. Below is a potential package that Toronto could offer the Spurs (via SportingNews):
Spurs Get: DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam
Raptors Get: Kawhi Leonard, and Rudy Gay
Now my guess would be that people push back at DeRozan being part of this deal. DeRozan was 2nd team All-NBA this year, but he is only under contract for two more years with the Raptors, including a player option for year three. Why would the Raptors give up their only All-NBA player in a trade for Kawhi? The Thunder did not give that much up for George… well actually, they did. Oladipo earned 3rd team All-NBA honors this season and might have been more deserving than DeRozan for the second team spot. The Raptors will have to include DeRozan in any deal for Kawhi, and I have no problem with that if I am Masai Ujiri, President of the Raptors. I will always die on the, “Elite Wings over Elite Guards,” take, and I hope to see another example of that this year.
The Spurs are not interested in a rebuild and adding DeRozan with LeMarcus Aldridge would certainly keep them in the playoff hunt next season. Leonard added to the deep roster that Ujiri assembled should be able to compete in the Eastern Conference, and like the Thunder, the Raptors may be able to convince Leonard that Toronto is the place for him long-term. He could become the king that Toronto never got with Vince Carter departing for the Nets. The thought of Kawhi being that guy should be enough for the Raptors to pull the trigger if the Spurs agree to a deal. Worst case scenario… the Raptors start to rebuild while the East is dominated by the Celtics, Sixers, and possibly another super-team that is formed in the 2019 free agency class.
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