Kawhi Leonard Traded To The Raptors: Is It Worth It For Toronto?

Bryan Brandom
(Photo: Getty Images)

Kawhi Leonard has made it clear that he wants to play for the Lakers come 2019, when he’ll be a free agent.

The Raptors traded for him anyway.

That’s a lot to give up for a star who’s coming off a mysterious injury and who apparently does not want to play for you.

But I admire the aggression of Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri here.

Under DeRozan and running mate Kyle Lowry, the Raptors have been good but not great, the first team mentioned behind a list of contenders each year. It’s not like they were on track to win a championship or even make the NBA Finals, not with the impending rises of the Celtics and the 76ers.

With no high draft picks coming their way, this is their best recourse for landing a franchise-altering star. DeRozan is an elite regular season scorer, but that’s the extent of his powers; Leonard, when healthy, can be a top-five player in the league, a menace on both ends of the floor.

If Ujiri can’t pull a Thunder and convince the traded-for superstar to stick around for more money than Leonard can make elsewhere, the Raptors will be in a similar situation to the one they were in before the trade — not competing for championships, only with a cheaper and younger roster.

Plus, the GM did well to limit the damage to Toronto’s future in such a scenario. I’m as high as anyone on Poeltl, a fluid, mobile young defender at the center spot. But as lineups get smaller, centers are becoming easier to find on the cheap. It’s not like the Raptors gave up OG Anunoby, who’s already one of the league’s best defensive wings.

And the outgoing first-round pick is top-20 protected. So if Leonard can’t contribute and the team falls off, they’ll still get their pick so long as they don’t finish with one of the league’s 10 best records.

Trading DeRozan, the rare star who actually wants to play in Toronto, is brutal, to him and fans. But even though the gamble probably won’t pay off, the risk is worth the reward.