Why the Spurs-Raptors trade had to happen

There’s this prevailing idea that in any trade that happens, there has to be a winner and a loser. Fans have become wired to look for the robber and a victim when it comes to these types of situations. You can’t blame them. Most of the big trades that have happened over the last year have immediately shown who takes on which title.

As the San Antonio Spurs traded away Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl and a Top 20 protected 2019 first round pick, immediately did fans try to crown a winner. Most fans have been leaning towards Toronto, but you notice a little hesitation with the way they hedge towards that side. You then ask yourself, “Did the Raptors really win the trade versus the Spurs?”

On that note, let’s establish this: No one, single entity won this trade between the Spurs and Raptors. Both teams won. It’s important to establish that when it comes to this trade. But in order to establish that kind of answer, the initial question shouldn’t be WHO won the trade. A better way to look at this trade would be, “WHY did the trade happen?”

From the Raptors side of things, this was a go for broke move by them, and we’ll sum it up with one statement. Leonard is a top five level talent when healthy and cooperating. Let’s work backwards and start with the first part of that statement, “When healthy”.

No one’s sure regarding the severity of the hamstring injury of Leonard. He played for just nine games last year, only showing spurts of the MVP form he showed before Zaza Pachulia did Zaza things. Maybe there was reason as to why Leonard sat out most of the 2018 season, and not just because he wanted to get shipped out of San Antonio. This hamstring injury may truly, adversely affect his performance on the court.

More than just health, there’s plenty of uncertainty regarding how Leonard’s camp plans to cooperate with the Raptors. Multiple reports have stated that Kawhi does not have any interest of playing for Toronto. It’s never been on his radar of cities he wants to play in, because there’s only one city that’s been on his list. His request was to go to sunny Los Angeles. Instead, Gregg Popovich sends him to wintery Toronto. He must not be pleased that’s where this whole saga ended, so the possibility of his drama bringing itself to Toronto would not be surprising.

So why would Toronto trade for Leonard? Why ship away your franchise player, arguably the best Toronto Raptor of all time, for a player who holds so much baggage and uncertainty?

Why? Because Leonard is the best two way player in the league, a top five talent in the NBA. That’s why you do this trade 100% of the time. From being one of the best stoppers in the league, he’s transformed himself into a complete force on both ends. By all means is Leonard a franchise player, the type any team would wish to have based on his talent alone.

Aside from getting Leonard, the Raptors also got Danny Green, who was a terrific sweetener to his deal for Toronto. Even though Green’s shooting has dipped since the fiery displayed he showed during the 2013 and 2014 Finals, he’s still regarded as a solid two way option in the league. There may be plenty of uncertainty with Leonard, but that isn’t the case with Green. At worst, Toronto gets a proven shooter. Getting more shooters is never a bad thing in today’s NBA.

All in all, Toronto could trot out a line-up of Kyle Lowry-Danny Green-Kawhi Leonard-Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors were able to keep their young guys, OG Anunoby, Fred Van Vleet and Pascal Siakam in the trade. If that line-up plays at its fullest potential, we could be looking at another possible contender from the East.

There’s obviously risks to this move because of health and the lack of cooperation Leonard’s camp has shown over the last few months. But this was a move that Toronto had to do, because the potential reward was too huge.

In the first place, it didn’t look like they were headed anywhere with the line-up they had before the trade. Boston and Philly have so much more room to grow. Milwaukee could emerge as a potential contender if things go well with Mike Budenholzer. With Toronto, it looked like they hit their ceiling after last season. By replacing franchise player with Leonard, they bring up their ceiling to levels that could potentially match whatever Philly and Boston could bring this season.

This could go absolutely wrong in a couple of months, but it was going to go wrong eventually right? So might as well shoot your shot, and do a move that increases your potential at success. Masai Ujiri wasn’t going to go down without putting up a fight, nevermind loyalty and all that. This was a business move that had to be done.

Which then brings us to the Spurs.

From a basketball perspective, this move does not look good at all on paper. DeRozan is talented, but you traded away a top five talent, along with one of your top shooters. What made it hurt even more for many was how the Spurs couldn’t get any of the Raptors’ young pieces. Anunoby looked to be a lock in the deal, while Siakam was also a possibility. Instead, the Spurs got Jakob Poetl and a heavily protected pick.

If you look at it from that lens, then you can’t blame people for thinking the Spurs got fleeced. But when the deal was announced, most Spurs fans came out saying, “Finally this is over!” while breathing a sigh of relief in the process. Why such a reaction then?

The Spurs did not just trade Kawhi to acquire talent. That was certainly a factor, that’s why they weren’t just allowing themselves to settle with Josh Hart and a bag of peanuts from the Lakers. But the biggest thing for the Spurs was letting go of whatever baggage Kawhi brought to the team because of this whole drama that’s revolved around him.

Spurs fans will say time and time again: It’s only Leonard who’s made this much of a fuss during the time of Pop. Granted, it was a messy situation where all of the sides deserve blame. But the fact of the matter was this: It was creating so much instability and uncertainty to a franchise that’s been spoiled of being an inevitable in the league. The Spurs were faced with a dilemma. Were they going to trade Leonard, and if so, how much would it cost?

First off, were they going to trade Kawhi? Pop tried to patch things up with him courtesy of a meeting they had a few weeks back. Sadly, there was no progress between the two camps. It looked like then the Spurs were pushed to trade Kawhi out of desperation. The reality of it, was they traded him because it was the right thing to do.

The Spurs have always been the team that has never allowed players, whether superstar or not, to be bigger than that of the organization. That’s what made Tim Duncan the perfect Spur: he was excellent in basketball, but he never allowed it to get over his head and create unnecessary scandals. Sadly, they wound up having a scandal with Kawhi. They weren’t going to allow one player to ruin the strong culture they’ve built up over the course of 20 years.

The only thing stopping was how much it would cost for the trade to materialize. The Sixers and the Lakers sent offers that revolved around their young pieces. The Spurs seemingly asked for too much. But, they found their right price with the Raptors, receiving an All-Star in DeRozan and a solid big man in Jakob Poetl for the deal.

It’s a coup that’s been lambasted by many, but people fail to realize just how good DeRozan actually is. One of the best things about him was how he continued to add different facets to his already elite game. From being an isolation player, he’s evolved into a more dynamic force who can not only shoot the three, but also create for others.

He’s also just 28 years old, someone who could still improve provided he cooperates with whatever Popovich has for him. Maybe he could become an even better three point shooter. Or even develop a better off ball game? The Spurs development could do wonders in unlocking DeRozan’s potential.

The possibilities are certainly exciting. But at the very worst, the Spurs get a player with warts (but is a really good player nonetheless), while removing baggage that’s clearly taken its toll on the organization. At the end of the day, all the Spurs wanted is to be given the opportunity to do the right things, without facing unnecessary distractions. Those distractions are finally gone, now they just have to trust that their culture can lead them back to championship contention eventually.

What made this deal so weird was the complex paths both teams found themselves facing. The Raptors were facing a plateu. The Spurs, on the other hand, faced uncertainty that they’re not used to seeing. Both teams needed something to change. They took their shots with this trade, finding some glimmer of hope along the way.

The Raptors are going for broke. The Spurs finally get rid of that baggage that’s been derailing them as an organization. Everybody’s happy, everybody wins, one way or another. Both teams were able to do what they had to do.

Photos from AP