Why the Toronto Raptors made a huge mistake in trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard

Photo: USA Today

I’d like to interrupt the near-unanimous round of applause from basketball writers across the North American continent over the last week or so after the Raptors extricated Kawhi Leonard from his self-hostage situation in San Antonio.

Lost in Brian Windhorst’s euphoria and Zach Lowe’s reasoned-but-wrong conclusion that this was a good trade for the Raptors are one or two inconvenient details.

It comes down to this:

Toronto just traded away the most accomplished (if not the best) player in its franchise’s history for a dude who wouldn’t re-sign there next year if you allowed him to annex Saskatchewan.

An NBA GM told Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher that Kawhi Leonard “hates the cold,” and said that he stayed in his room the entire time during All-Star week in 2016.

As somebody said on Twitter, we’re not sure how that’s much different from any other week, but still.

If this trade was made in 2K, or inside the computers of the analytics nerds on podcasts, maybe it makes sense. If Kawhi Leonard were 100 percent healthy, and 100 percent motivated, then swapping him for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round pick would be worth it. Toronto also got sharpshooter Danny Green in the deal.

Kawhi Leonard

There are no guarantees Kawhi Leonard will be a) healthy, b) motivated to play, or c) the same player he was in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)

But this is real life–where things like Kawhi’s attitude, his quadriceps, and the fact that his game is no longer being developed by perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history actually matter.

It would be a stretch to believe that the Kawhi Leonard the Raptors will get next season will actually be the same player who ascended to third in MVP voting in 2017. It’s going to take some time for him to get back into NBA shape, to gel with his teammates, to figure out what it’s like to live in Toronto, and what it’s like to work for a new organization.

There’s almost no chance, as the windbag Windhorst declared, that this move will single-handedly vault the Raptors to the top of the Eastern Conference. Not when you consider what Boston has coming back, and what Philadelphia has the potential to grow into.

Sure, the Raps will be competitive again, and who knows–maybe they will break through. Maybe Kyrie Irving’s glass knees give out again, maybe Brad Stevens hits his head on the low ceilings at The Fours and forgets how to coach, maybe Joel Embiid is trash-talking in street clothes come May.

But even if the Raptors claw their way into a Finals sweep at the hands of the Dubs–then what?

Come this time next year, barring a miracle nearly as far-fetched as the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup, Raptors president Masai Ujiri will be left holding the bag–minus DeRozan and Leonard, and staring a rebuild straight in the face.

OK, so you could argue that the old version of the Raptors was a paper dinosaur.

Despite winning 59 games and earning home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs last season (they would’ve had it if they faced the Warriors in the Finals, too), this group never found a way to get to the next level.

A playoff meltdown at the hands of LeBron became as predictable as the weather in the spring, and this latest one–a sweep against a completely undermanned Cavaliers team–was easily the most humiliating and demoralizing.

Given that, it’s understandable that Toronto would want to re-tool. It was understandable when they fired Dwayne Casey, who just so happened to go on to be named Coach of the Year for the job he did.

But the fact that LeBron left the East and bolted for L.A. should have given this franchise new life– a lease to be competitive in the East for years to come and not just next year.

For the first time since Vince Carter was doing unthinkably athletic things in a purple jersey–the Raptors are relevant. Next year, they’ll go back to being just another middling NBA team. Instead of trying to add the right pieces around DeRozan, who was second-team All-NBA last season, and Kyle Lowry, they’ll be in search of the next big star to get them back to this level–a search that most of the league is currently on and half of the league has been on for over a decade.

Finally, there’s this.

DeMar DeRozan

DeMar DeRozan gave Toronto everything he had. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

DeMar DeRozan loved Toronto so much that he never even met with other teams during his free agency in 2016. He was committed, all-in, the perfect ambassador for a city that absolutely adored him.

“I put my blood, sweat and tears into this organization…and I’m far from done,” DeRozan said during his press conference after re-signing for 5 years in 2016. “I am Toronto. Outside of where I’m from, I represent this thing harder than anybody. I have so many goals that I want to accomplish still, and I just can’t wait to put that jersey back on and keep going.”

DeRozan grew from a promising lottery pick (9th overall in 2009) after a one-and-done freshman season at USC to an All-Star and All-NBA player, and the best player on the best team in the East (record-wise), doing all of it proudly in a Raptors jersey.

Unlike Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh before him, DeRozan embraced Toronto with open arms, and the fans hugged him back.

“Words could never express what you’ve meant to me,” DeRozan said in a goodbye Instagram post on Saturday. “I was just a 19 year old kid from Compton when we first met, but you took me in and embraced me as one of your own. I am so grateful for the love and passion that you’ve given me over the past 9 years. All I ever wanted to do was duplicate it 10x over just to show my appreciation. Thank you Toronto, thank you Canada.”

You’re trading that guy for someone who wasn’t even happy in San Antonio–one of the winningest franchises in all of sports, and a place where he won the 2014 Finals MVP and earned Spurs fans’ undying adulation?

Not to mention the fact that Kawhi Leonard probably wouldn’t be nearly the player he is today if he didn’t have the good fortune of being coached by Gregg Popovich.

I get it–at this time last year, Oklahoma City traded for Paul George despite all indications that he was going to L.A. They showed him love, wined and dined him and were able to woo him into a four-year, $137 million max contract. Masai Ujiri probably thinks he can do the same with Kawhi Leonard.

But as we’ve seen, Kawhi isn’t like most players. He’s whinier, and needier. And the Thunder didn’t give up Russell Westbrook to get George. They gave up Victor Oladipo, who blossomed into a star in Indiana, but had no future in OKC.

We’ve reached the Late Cretaceous period for this iteration of the Raptors. The end of their run is near.

But unlike the dinosaurs they’re named after, these Raptors have brought it on themselves.

It didn’t have to be this way.


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