The Toronto Raptors are playing with house money

The Toronto Raptors spent all of last season trying to evolve. Years of sputtering in the playoffs led to a shift in offensive philosophy – an emphasis on ball and body movement. That change, combined with a stifling defense, a deep bench, and even more buy-in from their stars led to the best season in franchise history. The Raptors finally looked like a team ready to make the leap into serious contention.

Then LeBron James happened. Again.

One embarrassing sweep later, the Raptors had to look themselves in the mirror and accept the obvious: this core had run its course. That realisation sparked boldness – or desperation – from general manager Masai Ujiri. Instead of blowing things up, he decided to swing bigger.

On Wednesday morning, the Raptors sent DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for mysterious superstar Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The move, first reported by ESPN, virtually came out of nowhere. The sheer randomness of the Raptors swooping in is one thing; the actual price that the Spurs settled for is another.

This is mostly about DeRozan. To be clear: he is really freaking good at basketball. He’s one of the league’s silkiest talents, a mid-range virtuoso with playmaking chops and high-level finishing ability to boot. In a league hyper-focused on maximising efficiency, DeRozan falls a little short as a top dog. The lack of a consistent three-ball, his “meh” defensive presence, as well as his shortcomings in the postseason keep him out of the NBA’s elite class. Still, it’s important to recognise just how rare his level of shot-creation is. He’s very much a star in his own right, and should be respected as such.

As good as DeRozan is, and as much as he meant to Toronto as an ambassador of the franchise, this move was a no-brainer. Turning him, Poeltl (a solid young big), and a first-round pick that probably won’t matter much into an MVP candidate and another three-and-D is a home run.

Or, at least it could be.

What Kawhi Leonard brings to the table

In short: everything.

The last time we saw a healthy Kawhi, these were his offensive percentile ranks, via Synergy:

– 94th percentile on spot-up attempts
– 93rd percentile as the pick-and-roll ball-handler
– 91st percentile on put-backs
– 89th percentile in transition
– 89th percentile on cuts
– 79th percentile on post-ups
– 79th percentile in dribble hand-off situations
– 76th percentile on shots off the dribble
– 72nd percentile in isolation

There wasn’t much the man couldn’t do. He blew past slower defenders, and bullied smaller ones on the block. He displayed craft, patience, and shot-making ability in pick-and-rolls. You couldn’t leave him open or he’d make you pay. You couldn’t lose him off the ball, or he’d – well, you get the point. And if that wasn’t enough, he’d clamp the opposing team’s best player at the same time.

Kawhi terrorised everyone on both ends of the floor, averaging an efficient 25.5 points on one end, and ripping fools en route to his second Defensive Player of the Year award on the other. Somehow, he was even better in the postseason, slapping up a casual 28-8-5-2 with a 53/46/93 shooting split. In one half (and some change) in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, he was by far the best player on a floor that also featured Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.

Curse you, Zaza Pachulia.

When healthy, Kawhi is a true number one option. He thrives in the mid-range area like DeRozan does, but does so more efficiently. He can create for himself and others in the pick-and-roll like DeRozan, but does so more efficiently. The biggest difference between the two is Kawhi’s value off the ball. He’s a career 38.6% shooter from deep, meaning he can hold help defenders while Kyle Lowry does work in a way that DeRozan simply couldn’t.

Defensively, what needs to be said? He’s the league’s best on-ball perimeter defender by a pretty decent margin. He moves quicker laterally than other players think; he picks pockets with the coolness of Robin Hood. If, by some chance, a ball-handler is able to slip by him, he can swat shots from behind like a big man.

The additions of Leonard and Green (more on him shortly) mean the Raptors can absolutely overwhelm teams defensively. How do you score against a unit featuring Lowry, Green, Leonard, O.G. Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka? If you want to get more switch-y, you can substitute Paskal Siakam in for Ibaka.

Good. Freaking. Luck.

What Danny Green brings to the table

Green’s calling card is, and always will be defence. He’s a season removed from an All-Defensive Second Team selection, and was pretty darn good last year too. His ability to defend across the three perimeter positions should boost an already-elite Toronto defense. Even with some slight slippage, Green is one of the better on-ball defenders in the league, as well as an abnormally-smart transition defender.

On offense, Green will mostly be used as as stationary shooter. He ranked in the 70th percentile on catch-and-shoot jumpers last year, per Synergy. His overall three-point percentage dipped from his 16-17 campaign (37.9% to 36.3%), but he drilled 44.6% of his corner triples – the third highest mark of his career.

Remember, he did this with the corpse of Tony Parker as the best drive-and-kick guy on San Antonio’s roster. Being able to play off of Kyle Lowry, Leonard, and even Fred VanVleet should lead to more open looks. Even in the event that opponents are able to recover on Green in drive-and-kick scenarios, they’ll have to be careful. Green showcased some off-the-bounce juice against hard close-outs that, frankly, I’m not sure anyone knew he had in him.

The risk – or lack thereof

The obvious elephant in the room is Leonard’s health, as well as his desire to be in Toronto. If he never recovers, or at least suffers a setback, Toronto’s contention window may slam shut. Lowry is a fantastic player – he’s been their engine for the last three years, at least – but he isn’t leading the Raptors past the Celtics or Sixers.

On the other end of the spectrum, Leonard’s desire to end up in Los Angeles has been well publicised, even if it hasn’t directly come from him. His (alleged) refusal to commit to a non-LA team is a major reason why the Spurs’ asking price eventually lowered. From a Toronto fan perspective, it’s hard to justify shipping out a star who genuinely loved being there for a guy who is likely to bolt after the season – even if he is much better at basketball. Leonard could join a list that features Chris Bosh and Vince Carter as stars that bolted for American pastures. That would sting, and understandably so.

From purely an on-court perspective, there’s not much risk to be had. The Raptors had reached the end with their current core, and shook things up by adding a legitimate superstar without giving up any of their best prospects. If he proves to be healthy, there’s a realistic path to 60 wins and a Finals appearance. That kind of success – with an avid fan base behind them – could convince Leonard to pull a Paul George and commit. That’s the obvious best-case scenario.

If Leonard proves to be healthy, but still has his heart set on L.A., the Raptors could trade him at the deadline. If he bolts in free agency instead, the Raptors could attempt to flip some of their better young pieces for a star, or decide to blow things up all together. That last option represents the worst case scenario, but, honestly, how bad is it? The Raptors already have a talented young core and one of the best general managers in the business. There are much worse places to start from.

The beauty of this deal is that the Raptors can’t really lose here. At worst, they get total clarity on the direction the franchise should go in with the best parts of their core still intact. And at best, they become a serious title contender.

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