Who Won the Kawhi Trade?

By Matt Flynn | Staff Writer

The trade that had long been talked about as defining the 2018 offseason happened this week, and it landed with less noise than one would have thought when the July moratorium ended.

Kawhi Leonard didn’t go to the Los Angeles Lakers to join LeBron James. He didn’t get traded to the rising Philadelphia Sixers or surging Boston Celtics. No, instead, it was the East’s other top team, rarely talked about due to consistent playoff failure, who landed him. The Toronto Raptors have taken the gamble necessary to try to get them to the next level. It came at a great present cost, which is exactly what the Spurs wanted.

DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard (Getty Images)

DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard (Getty Images)

The San Antonio Spurs are a great story, a franchise without much sparkle or star-power which won a literal handful of championships over the last twenty years. They still have the league’s most famous and most accredited coach in Gregg Popovich. They still have potential future Hall of Farmer Manu Ginobili and All-NBA center LaMarcus Aldridge.

They also have a collection of young players trying to consistently improve. The Spurs valued present assets more than future, and that fact became clear with the deal they struck with Toronto.

Philly and Boston likely packaged picks and mildly useful players in offers for Kawhi. Philly likely offered defensive specialist Robert Covington and Euro Star Dario Saric along with various picks. Boston likely offered future picks and maybe a Marcus Morris or Terry Rozier. Absent from these negotiations were Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, or Markelle Fultz. Absent from these negotiations were Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, or Gordon Hayward.

The Spurs struck the deal that would give Popovich the most to work with at the present, which is why they came out on top. As we look back at the deal in the future, it’s possible that the Sixers and Celtics will be remiss that they did not land Kawhi, a forward who does have Top-5 potential. It’s also possible that more details come out which makes it clear that the Spurs needed more present value than those teams would’ve ever been willing to offer, and those teams made the right call in not mortgaging away their future for a player with such risk attached.

Here’s how the deal shakes out:

Raptors Receive: SF – Kawhi Leonard, SG – Danny Green

Spurs Receive: SG – DeMar DeRozan, C – Jakob Poeltl, 2019 Protected First Round Pick

Don’t let the pick fool you. It doesn’t have a ton of value for this reason: it’s top 20 protected in 2019, which means that if Kawhi plays and the Raptors are one of the East’s Top 2-3 teams, it will convey to the Spurs as a late first-round pick. If Kawhi refuses to play or gets re-injured and the Raptors miss the playoffs or end up as a 7-8 seed in the East, that top 20 protection would allow the Raptors to keep the first rounder, and the trade asset converts to two lowly second rounders, instead.

This actually works very well into the Raptors favor, they either keep their pick if the Kawhi risk doesn’t pay off, and if it does and he plays as a top player this year, they’ll be too good for their first-round pick to have much value anyway.

In addition, in trading Poeltl, the Raptors parted with a decent asset, but not their most important young prospect. Poeltl was the 9th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, heading into the third year of his four year rookie contract. He is a solid rim protector as evidenced by his decently high Block Rate at 1.2 per game in only 18.6 minutes per game, good for 6th in the entire NBA in Block% last year.

He also was top 10 in Defensive Box-Plus Minus (which measures per 100 possession efficiency at that end of the floor), and posted an above-average player efficiency rating. Offensively, he gobbles of offensive rebounds at a high rate and shoots a really high percentage in the mid-60s, meaning he takes what he can get offensively and converts it. His Point-Per-Game average of 6.9 is decent for a backup center.

He’s a really nice catch for the Spurs to slot into big man minutes to watch him potentially grow. In fact, considering the protections I mentioned on the pick, the Spurs future seems better aided by adding Poeltl than the pick itself. However, the Raptors won both aspects of these minor parts of the trade due to the pick protections and in only giving up Poeltl. While Poeltl is a nice player, and one I foresee growing into a legitimate 3rd big man or even decent starter, the Raptors didn’t have to part with any of their three most interesting young pieces: SF OG Anunoby, PF Pascal Siakam, and PG Fred Van Vleet.

If Kawhi doesn’t work out, it’s not as if they are leaving their franchise destitute. They are already set up for a successful rebuild with some of these young players, and it would be as simple as moving on from players like C Jonas Valanciunas and PF Serge Ibaka to begin compiling more future assets.

For the Raptors, they’ve maintained future options in a rebuild and potentially keeping their pick if this goes bad. If Kawhi works out, and he decides to play, they have a one-year period to convince him that Toronto is the place to be for the long term. If he decides to leave, we know that it’s time to blow this team up and start again, because this Raptors team as currently constituted has been unsuccessful in making long playoff runs to potential titles. Kawhi gives them the next-level upside that is needed.

The Spurs position here makes sense though. Kawhi had no interest in staying with this organization, and I would guarantee that this would’ve never gotten as ugly if Kawhi didn’t have a family member as his agent. Every discomfort and inner-team in-fighting became public, leading everyone to know Kawhi was trying to leave. It made him seem desperate, completely destroying any leverage he had with the organization. The talks about needing to go to Los Angeles led teams like Boston and Philly to promise less asset-heavy packages because they didn’t want to sell their futures for a rental player on a one-season remaining contract.

The Spurs wanted to remain competitive at the end of Pop’s career as a coach, and Kawhi essentially made it so that the Spurs would’ve had trouble compiling large packages for him because of the constant discomfort and talking about Los Angeles. Think about it from the Lakers perspective: why promise Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart in a trade for Kawhi if you think you can just add him in free agency next season with cap-space. They already have LeBron James locked up long-term.

So, the Spurs shopped around and ended up landing a legitimate Top 15 player for their former franchise star turned disgruntled diva. Kawhi was never going to come back and play for them anyway. If the Spurs wanted to improve in this coming season, adding DeRozan to a playoff team which succeeded without Kawhi last season is clearly an upgrade, and Poeltl should work in the Spurs system. It’s possible this deal could work out for both sides, but also possible that the Spurs end up on top.

Think of this way, is Kawhi, now almost 20 months removed from competitive basketball, yet to pass a physical, with recurring quad problems and risk of re-injury definitely a better player than DeMar DeRozan? I would be willing to accept an argument that says no.

Here are some DeRozan snippets from the last two seasons.

2016-2017, All-NBA 3rd Team:


2017-2018, All-NBA 2nd Team:


The scoring is great, and only went down this most recent season because he became a more dynamic play-maker. He performed more with the ball in his hands and managed to see over an assist per game leap out of an attempt to modernize his game. To start, he was a mid-range operator who styled his game in the late 90s/early 00s model of shooting guard, but the Raptors leap to the one seed this most recent season is partially because of DeRozan’s increased amenability to passing the ball and also a 4% uptick in his three-point percentage, which is not a fluke because he more than doubled the amount he took in the previous season.

His increased comfort shooting the ball may have decreased his scoring and efficiency on paper, but it made him a better player. This issue really comes down to lapses defensively, but I could also see his athleticism helping him become an above-average defender in the Spurs system, where he was a slightly below average defender as a Raptor. Getting two straight All-NBA nods, as well as two straight all-star appearances and finishing eighth in MVP voting is not a fluke.

Kawhi, meanwhile, missed all but nine games last season. His two seasons prior to that were extremely successful, here are the numbers

2015-2016, All-NBA 1st Team, 1st Team Defense, Defensive Player of the Year


2016-2017, All-NBA 1st Team, 1st Team Defense


For Kawhi, who finished second and third in MVP voting those two seasons, legitimately had two seasons as a Top Five Player, followed by an injury which has now largely kept him out for over a year. There’s no guarantee that he will be that player upon returning, and yet DeRozan is consistently a Top 15-20 player who makes improvements to his game every season. For the Spurs, who are trying to stay relevant in the Western Conference as an homage to Pop, couldn’t have done much better in terms of acquiring a player who wants to win now.

Perhaps what I’m trying to say, mainly, is that I’m worried that Kawhi became a little overvalued over the last couple months of teams trying to acquire him in trades. It’s as if everyone is assuming he will be 2016 Kawhi again, and the Raptors are taking a calculated risk in hoping that he is that guy. He will improve their team and make them more playoff palatable, and the Raptors didn’t sell the farm to get him.

No, instead, they parted with their current best player, who looks to slot into the Spurs lineup and continue to make the improvements necessary to fit in the Western Conference. If I’m the Spurs, and I think I have a shot at contention as long as Pop is my coach, adding DeRozan in replacement of the black hole that was the ghost of Kawhi last season, I’m happy with the deal.

This is a rare trade that I like for both teams. The Raptors win it if Kawhi looks like he did in 2016. The Spurs win it if DeRozan propels them to more legitimate playoff contention.


About Matt Flynn

Matt is a New Jersey attorney currently clerking in the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court. He also is a graduate of Rutgers Law School and The College of New Jersey, where he formerly served as a radio talk show host and engineer for the Trenton Thunder. When not pursuing law, he tends to his two greatest intellectual loves, film and the NBA. You can catch his reviews and year-end lists here on Blended Opinion.

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