Whether he stays or leaves Toronto, the Kawhi Leonard trade has been a massive success. Will more teams take an aggressive approach for player rentals this offseason?
Following a third straight playoff exit to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Masai Ujiri knew something had to change for the Toronto Raptors. Ujiri realized that the Raptors had maxed out their potential with their current core. Even with LeBron taking his talents to the Lakers, Ujiri still believed that DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and coach Dwane Casey could never get over the hump as a unit. Something drastic had to change.
Enter Kawhi Leonard. Yes, the same Kawhi Leonard who won the NBA Finals MVP in 2014. It’s also the same Kawhi Leonard who played nine games in 2017-2018 after a long battle with the San Antonio Spurs and their medical staff over a lingering quadriceps injury.
Masai Ujiri threw all of his chips into the middle like Teddy KGB and bet it all on Kawhi Leonard. To reiterate, Leonard’s mysterious injury was still up-in-the-air. Plus, Leonard never said he would resign with Toronto. However, Ujiri took the risk because it bought him one year to put a potential rebuild on pause and go for it all.
The Raptors traded franchise legend DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick in 2019 for Kawhi Leonard and an aging Danny Green. A few weeks prior, Ujiri fired reigning Coach of the Year, Dwane Casey, and promoted his assistant, Nick Nurse. It was safe to say Ujiri was not a fan favorite for not only trading away DeRozan, but for making a bold move for a superstar that by every indication would sign with a team in Los Angeles in the summer of 2019. Ujiri not only traded a fan favorite in DeRozan, but he traded Kyle Lowry’s best friend. In fact, Lowry felt betrayed and didn’t speak to Ujiri until midseason. Speaking of midseason, Ujiri gambled again by trading Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a 2024 second-round draft pick to the Grizzlies for Marc Gasol this past February.
Fast forward to now and the Raptors are one game away from winning an NBA Championship against one of the best teams ever assembled, the Warriors. Just a season ago, Leonard’s medical battle with San Antonio overshadowed just how good Leonard is and could be. Leonard has carried the Raptors and the entire city of Toronto on his back this postseason. During this historic postseason run, Leonard is averaging 31.1 ppg and 9.1 rpg. Leonard has scored a remarkable 30 points or more in 14 of 22 playoff games this postseason.
What’s even more remarkable is that win or lose, Leonard could be a one-and-done in Toronto. Ujiri knew the risks of trading for a rental in Leonard who has given zero indication on where he will end up in the offseason. However, in this instance, a high risk led to a high reward as the Raptors made the NBA Finals and could win their first championship in franchise history.
Players change their minds all the time. The Thunder traded for Paul George knowing that in a year, he may leave for the Lakers. However, the gamble paid off as George resigned with the Thunder. The same may happen with Leonard and the Raptors. Leonard and his success could be an exception, but there’s no doubt that the Raptors have inspired front offices especially in smaller markets to consider gambling on rental or one-and-done players. According to Adrian Wojnarowski, Kawhi Leonard’s success in Toronto seemed to embolden factions of Anthony Davis’ nonpreferred and smaller-market destinations to probe New Orleans on trades.
Take Daryl Morey’s “5 Percent Theory,” which states if you have at least a 5 percent chance to win the title, you should be focused on doing whatever it takes to win a title. If Kevin Durant leaves Golden State for New York and Kawhi Leonard for Los Angeles, the balance of power will once again shift. If you’re the Knicks and Durant signs with you, why wouldn’t you mortgage your future to acquire Davis, who will be a free agent next offseason? A duo of Durant and Davis (even if it’s for one year) skyrockets the Knicks into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference.
Take another team like the Portland Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum proved why they’re one of the best backcourts in the league as they brought the Blazers to the Western Conference Finals. Even with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic, can the Blazers reach the NBA Finals with their current roster? What’s to say the Blazers package McCollum, Nurkic, and draft picks for Anthony Davis. Would you make that move if you’re Portland and get no promise from Davis that he’ll sign long term? That deal may not be on the table, but being aggressive to capitalize on Lillard’s prime is the right idea.
The worst place to be in the NBA is mediocrity. Either compete for a title or rebuild. Fighting for the last playoff spot every year and then losing in the first round will get you nowhere. The Kawhi gamble may end up sticking this offseason if more teams take a similar, aggressive approach to upgrading a roster. That may not happen, but for the Raptors, the gamble worked.