The San Antonio Spurs have just traded Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a heavily protected 2019 first round pick, in a variation of a deal that I suggested months ago as a reasonable return for both teams.
The Raptors had seemingly reached the limit of the potential of their current iteration of talent, having turned in the best record in the Eastern Conference last season but exiting the playoffs in an ignoble sweep to the Cleveland Cavaliers. This perceived cap ultimately cost Dwayne Casey, the soon-to-be-named NBA Coach of the Year, his job.
Casey’s Raptors were full of talented players, relying on a 10-deep rotation that featured what was widely considered the best bench in the NBA. However, the Raptors also apparently lacked a single, top-end NBA franchise player who could lead the team in matchups against other transcendent talents such as LeBron James.
While James is no longer in the Eastern Conference, the perception that the Raptors would remain a paper tiger in the postseason with no real chance to win appears to be the trigger behind this deal to bring in a player in Leonard with a legitimate MVP-caliber pedigree, despite the huge risks about his uncertain future.
The Spurs, on the other hand, were in a position in which they seemed to have no option but to move on from Leonard. The timeline of events that led to Leonard’s falling-out with the Spurs has been widely reported, as has been his reported desire to play in Los Angeles. With Leonard as a free agent next summer, the Spurs had little choice but to move their best player and MVP candidate this offseason in exchange for the best package that they could get.
The Spurs were a 47-win team last season, even with Leonard sitting all but nine games, on a squad carried by All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge and an aging cast of role-player veterans. DeRozan, who at age 28 represents a multiple-time All-Star scoring guard in his prime with three years remaining on his contract, gives the Spurs stability and increased upside to remain competitive in the Western Conference as they fully transition out of the last remnants of the Tim Duncan era.
This is how we got here, and why both teams felt compelled to take the risks of making this move. As for the fantasy ramifications of this deal and whose values changed the most, let’s explore.
This analysis assumes that Leonard is healthy next season, and that he is willing to play — and at maximum effort — for the Raptors over the course of the season. These are not givens at the moment, which highlights the monster risk that Raptors decision-maker Masai Ujiri has taken with this move. On the court, though, Leonard represents a clear upgrade from DeRozan with actually very little disturbance to the way that the Raptors play.
Both Leonard and DeRozan evolved from primary off-ball threats into players who could also create off the dribble, and both are primary scorers used to leading ensemble casts without dominating the ball. Comparing DeRozan’s season from 2017-18 with Leonard’s last fully healthy season of 2016-17, the two actually took the exact same number of shots per game (17.7 FGA each) with almost the exact same number of free throws (7.0 FTA for DeRozan, 7.2 for Leonard) in very similar minutes (33.9 MPG for DeRozan, 33.4 for Leonard). The difference between their outputs, then, is that Leonard scored more efficiently than DeRozan from every distance, making 52.9 percent of his 2-point attempts (vs. DeRozan’s 49.3 percent), 38.0 percent of his 3-point attempts (vs. DeRozan’s 31.2 percent), and 88.0 percent of his free throws (vs. DeRozan’s 82.5 percent).
The Raptors maintained quite a bit of personnel stability from last season and retained one of last season’s assistant coaches as their new head coach, so Leonard should enter a situation tailor-made to allow him to maintain a very similar offensive footprint to what he produced at his best in San Antonio. As for his teammates, Leonard is clearly a better player than DeRozan, a more dangerous threat with the ball who also has more shooting range.
Because opposing defenses will have to devote more resources to stopping Leonard, it will give him more “gravity” that pulls defenders toward him and away from teammates. Plus, since those defenses will have to respect Leonard’s range, it should pull those defenders farther away from the rim which will give the other Raptors more space to work.
Finally, DeRozan was doing more creating last season (5.2 assists), which helped his numbers but may have taken the ball out of Kyle Lowry‘s hands despite Lowry being more proven as a team-offense creator. Thus, Leonard replacing DeRozan should also allow Raptors lead guards Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright to spend a bit more time with the ball in their hands setting up the offense.
The end result of this swap, if everything meshes, should be a Raptors offense with many of the same principles as last season that just has the capacity to operate at higher efficiency. Thus, despite Leonard’s higher scoring averages, this trade should allow the other perimeter Raptors creators (particularly Lowry) to improve their own offensive numbers as well.
The other new Raptor, Green, is a role player who will have to fit into a deep rotation that already has solid wing depth. It isn’t clear exactly where he will fit in or whose numbers may be affected if he gets significant minutes.
San Antonio Spurs
DeRozan is actually entering the less stable situation in San Antonio, as the Spurs played last season with a team built around the expectation of Leonard but without the player himself. Plus, already this offseason the Spurs have lost perimeter players Leonard, Green, Kyle Anderson and Tony Parker, with serious questions about whether Manu Ginobili will return.
When considering the similarities in shot selection footprints between DeRozan and Leonard, it would seem that DeRozan should be able to get at least as many shots in San Antonio as he did in Toronto. In fact, considering the lack of other established perimeter scoring threats in San Antonio and that DeRozan has always been a volume scorer while Leonard had to develop into one, it is conceivable that DeRozan’s offensive upside is higher for the Spurs than it was for the Raptors.
DeRozan’s high-volume, more midrange-based game could potentially conflict a bit with Aldridge’s preference for volume scoring from a similar range, but again the dearth of other scoring options in the Spurs’ primary rotation should help minimize that conflict. And while DeRozan represents a downgrade from the peak Leonard of 2017, he represents a huge upgrade in the scoring threat department from the wings of last season. Thus, his presence should help occupy defenses and provide more room for incumbents Dejounte Murray and Rudy Gay to operate.
Poeltl was a backup big man in Toronto behind Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka, but he represents a talented young big man for an aging Spurs front line. He could conceivably start for the Spurs, and even if he backs up Pau Gasol, he should get plenty of minutes, as the 37-year old Gasol played less than 24 minutes per game last season. Poeltl, who played 18.6 minutes per game last season but tantalized with averages of 18.3 points and 12.7 rebounds per 100 possessions, should see more time with more opportunity in San Antonio this season.
Overall, this move shouldn’t largely impact the fantasy potential for Leonard or DeRozan, though DeRozan could potentially have a larger role and thus a few more opportunities this season. The other Raptors players could potentially get a boost from playing with Leonard, and Poeltl has the potential to become a breakout player and fantasy draft sleeper for the Spurs.