The Toronto Raptors took the biggest gamble in franchise history Wednesday by completing a trade with the San Antonio Spurs for the superstar forward Kawhi Leonard.
The Raptors and Spurs’ trade lands Leonard in Canada and sends the All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio as his primary replacement. The Spurs will also get center Jakob Poeltl, while the Raptors will get guard Danny Green.
Leonard was limited to nine games last season by a quadriceps injury and can leave the Raptors in free agency next summer. Toronto posted a franchise-record 59 wins last season, but fired coach Dwane Casey — who was later named the NBA’s coach of the year in separate balloting by both news media members and his peers — after a humbling second-round sweep by the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers.
Leaguewide buzz around the Raptors jumping into the Leonard trade sweepstakes had been building for the past week.
The deal sets up a potentially awkward reunion for Leonard and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich next week in Las Vegas at a USA Basketball minicamp, which is scheduled to be Popovich’s formal debut as the successor to Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski as head coach of Team USA. Leonard is among a group of 35 top players who have been invited to the camp.
Teams interested in trading for Leonard had been consistently told for weeks that the player has no interest in signing anywhere but Los Angeles — either with the Lakers or the Clippers — when he becomes a free agent in July 2019. Trading for Leonard anyway is thus a huge dice roll for Toronto’s team president, Masai Ujiri, one reminiscent of Oklahoma City’s trade with Indiana in July 2017 to bring All-Star forward Paul George to the Thunder.
George was widely believed to be determined to sign with the Lakers in free agency this month from the time Oklahoma City acquired him. The Thunder, though, gambled on a trade for George anyway and used their full season together to successfully win George over and persuade him to sign with the Thunder as Russell Westbrook’s new marquee sidekick.
It appears that the Spurs are also getting a reluctant star in this trade. ESPN reported Wednesday that DeRozan met with Raptors officials during summer league play in Las Vegas, amid the growing rumbles about a trade for Leonard, and was assured he would not be dealt.
DeRozan seemed to confirm that in an Instagram post he issued Wednesday morning as news of the potential trade began to circulate, saying: “Be told one thing & outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing.”
The New York Times first reported in late June that the Spurs were ready to move on from Leonard, conceding at that time — after a face-to-face meeting between Popovich and Leonard in San Diego — that the team’s fractured relationship with its best player could not be repaired.
The partnership had steadily deteriorated over the course of last season, with Leonard and his representatives dismayed by the Spurs’ initial handling of the injury to the point that they have entrusted Leonard’s rehabilitation to doctors outside the San Antonio organization for months.