One year later: How the Kawhi Leonard trade still echoes across the NBA

One year later: How the Kawhi Leonard trade still echoes across the NBA

It began with confusion. Exactly one year ago Thursday, Raptors fans woke up to the news: “Toronto has reached agreement in principle to acquire San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard for package that includes DeMar DeRozan, league sources tell ESPN.” Ummm, what? They just traded DeRozan? For a guy who played nine games last season? Why? As details leaked, the trade became clear: DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a lottery-protected first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The end of an era for the Raptors. Gulp.

It crested with a championship. You’ve heard the story numerous times now, and it never gets old. Leonard arrived to Toronto so shrouded in mystery that the first question he was asked as a Raptor was about his personality. “I’m a fun guy,” he said. He laughed. The mystery only grew as Leonard began sitting out regular-season games in the name of load management. It was all about the playoffs. “Eighty-two practices,” he said.

And then the playoffs arrived and it was almost all for naught until Leonard saved the Raptors with a superhuman second-round showing against the Sixers and a miraculous series-winning shot. Leonard then shut down Bucks’ MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, punctuated by a ferocious Game 6 slam dunk, and ended the Warriors dynasty. He got that Larry O.B.

WATCH | Raptors clinch NBA title in Game 6 over Warriors:

The Toronto Raptors won their first NBA title in franchise history with a 114-110 win in Game 6 of the NBA Finals over the Golden State Warriors. 2:56

It ended in chaos. On July 6, Raptors fans woke up to some worse news: “Free agent forward Kawhi Leonard has informed runners-up teams of his plans: He’s signing with the Clippers, league sources tell ESPN.” And so, after days of tracking both Leonard and the MLSE plane’s every move, it was over. The mercenary star went home to Los Angeles. Another Raptors era was over. A new NBA era had already begun.

It empowered the win-now philosophy. The only thing that matters in the NBA is the championship, and if there’s an opportunity to position your team to win it all, you take it at any cost — future assets be damned. There was a time when first-round picks were considered gold; now, they’re closer to bronze. Sure, bronze is nice, but how far does it really get you? A conference finals appearance is similarly nice. But flags fly forever.

It changed basketball in Los Angeles. We’ll get to Leonard’s Clippers soon, but before he even made his decision, the Lakers pushed all their chips to the middle by acquiring Anthony Davis. The former first-overall pick requested out of New Orleans in the middle of last season, more than a year ahead of his free agency. The situation became untenable with the Pelicans as Davis played sparingly the second half. He made clear his preference to play for the Lakers.

New Orleans shouldn’t have had any leverage. And yet they extracted three former first-rounders (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart) and three future first-rounders (including 2019 No. 4 pick DeAndre Hunter, later flipped to Atlanta) from the Lakers just for Davis. The Clippers took it one step further when they dealt seven future draft assets, plus young Canadian star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Paul George. The thinking in Tinseltown: Get two superstars, figure out the rest later.

It changed basketball in New York. The Brooklyn Nets acted aggressively this off-season after their surprising run to the sixth seed in the East, fuelled by breakout star D’Angelo Russell. But Russell is on the Warriors now because the Nets saw an opportunity to improve by signing Kyrie Irving — undoubtedly a better player — but had to shed Russell to do so. The Irving signing also paved the way for the Nets to sign Kevin Durant to a four-year max contract, despite his Achilles injury. The Russell-for-Irving swap was ruthless, but made in the name of winning.

And when the Warriors recognized they would lose Durant, they acted quickly to turn it into a sign-and-trade where they parted with a first-round pick (plus another in a separate, crucial salary-shedding trade) to acquire Russell. Earlier in the season, the Knicks dealt Kristaps Porzingis, a player ticketed as New York’s franchise player, to Dallas for two future firsts, a prospect and KD’s buddy DeAndre Jordan. The idea: clear cap space, because surely Durant will sign in New York. Whoops. But the Knicks’, Nets’ and Warriors’ plans were clear: sacrifice future assets or existing chemistry for a chance to win now.  

LeBron James, left, and Anthony Davis, right, hope the Lakers’ win-now moves end with their hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

It taught the NBA a lesson. Nothing is guaranteed. Leonard was supposed to be heir to Robinson and Duncan in San Antonio. An injury and some confusion later, he was King of the North. Now he shares a building with LeBron James’ Lakers. We didn’t even mention Russell Westbrook, the one who stayed in OKC, suddenly being sent out to join former teammate James Harden in Houston in the aftermath of Leonard and George’s power move to LA. The NBA landscape can even change with the turn of an ankle. Durant goes down, the Warriors dynasty follows and now everything is up for grabs. 

And it all kicked off with Kawhi. Who cares about team chemistry when Leonard just did what he did? Who cares about first-round picks when you can lift that Larry O.B.? There’s no point discussing whether the Leonard trade was worthwhile for the Raptors. How many future assets would Toronto have had to forfeit to make it a bad trade? Three first-rounders? Four? Many NBA teams — including Kawhi’s Clippers and LeBron’s Lakers — will soon find out. In the end, only one will be happy.

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Published at Thu, 18 Jul 2019 20:12:10 +0000