By Griffin Hill
Last week, a blockbuster trade was made; sending Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Raptors, and in exchange, the Spurs received DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a projected 2019 first round pick.
Obviously the talk surrounding Leonard this offseason has been centralized around the idea of him somehow being traded to the Lakers to join LeBron. Sorry Lakers fans, it was never going to happen. Gregg Popovich, of all coaches, wasn’t going to trade a MVP caliber player to a team within his conference, ultimately helping them build a superteam for years to come.
With the West out of the picture for Kawhi, and the $220 million supermax offer in San Antonio still being pushed, the options were minimal. The only real possibility of a trade remained in an Eastern Conference team that could offer the Spurs something of current value, and Toronto was perfect. The Spurs getting DeRozan and a first round pick is an excellent trade for a player that wasn’t going to return after one more season anyways. So why is everyone up in arms about this situation for Kawhi? Why is everyone assuming he will be so unhappy? Yes, he wanted to be a Laker, and still can! However, I believe, even to his surprise, he will fall in love with playing in Toronto.
Last season the Raptors posted the best record in the East and looked to be the favorites to take down LeBron in the playoffs. While this didn’t happen, and their curse associated with the King still proved to be present, they still had a more than respectable regular season, and at times looked to be the best team in the East.
So, take DeRozan out of the picture and add Kawhi, another level up of a superstar. Then add Danny Green onto a Raptors team that needed a perimeter shooter. Not to mention they still have a premier point guard in Kyle Lowry. The absolute worst case scenario is if they finish third in the East, behind Boston and Philadelphia.
Here’s my theory: In some ways, Kawhi is the new LeBron, and more specifically, the new King of the East. The Celtics may have a better team than the new-look Raptors, but they had a better team than the 2017-2018 Cavs as well, and look where LeBron ended up… the finals. Kawhi Leonard’s stats this upcoming year will put him top 3 in the MVP race, and he will also be in a position to get to the finals that doesn’t involve going through the Warriors, Rockets, Blazers, or now, the Lakers. This has to be a relief for Kawhi, and a refreshing change.
After the first part of his career was a struggle to get to the Finals out of a highly talented, and very deep Western Conference, he will now be able to coast into the Eastern Conference Finals. As I mentioned, he still has the Sixers and Celtics to beat, but would likely have to face only one of those two in the playoffs. It will be so different than what he was used to in San Antonio that he will be taken back by how much easier a finals appearance is earned. Several trips to the Finals, as we saw with the King’s 8 straight, can do a lot for your career. I believe that a player’s game can develop and improve in a full NBA Finals series perhaps more than it does throughout the course of the entire offseason; it is simply a different stage, and an atmosphere built for superstars to succeed. I would love all of this to fall upon Kawhi Leonard as a Raptor, it would change the course of the league, and a roles reversed LeBron-Kawhi finals matchup would be amazing to watch.
There is one more main reason I think the Raptors will reel in Leonard for the long haul, and it is kind of an odd one. While Kawhi has always been the clear cut leader on the court after the Duncan era ended, he hasn’t been the true leader of the team. Gregg Popovich has. Rightfully so, the Spurs have belonged to Pop, contrary to any player-coach dynamic LeBron has ever experienced. After Dwane Casey got booted out, Nick Nurse was named the new Raptors head coach, and this is a beautiful thing for Kawhi. He knows going into this season that the Raptors are his team, not Nick Nurse’s, and the truth of this league, whether they like to admit it or not, is that organizations have no problem virtually handing the master key to players in situations like this. Ty Lue was not making the majority of the decisions for the Cavs, and neither will Nurse for the Raptors.
This position of power is new to Kawhi Leonard, alike the change from his former conference. Mark my word, he will LOVE being a Raptor, and will resign for a long term deal. The league is changing fast, and moving to the East was an easy way to get a step ahead, even if it wasn’t his choice. He’s a smart player, this WILL turn into something great…