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Why The Raptors Had To Pull The Trigger On Kawhi Leonard

Why The Raptors Had To Pull The Trigger On Kawhi Leonard

May 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018: 

Raptors Fans: "We need a shakeup, this team team will never compete without a true superstar. Dwane Casey is not a good enough coach in the playoffs."

June 2018:

The Raptors Fire Dwane Casey.

Raptors Fans: "How could you fire the coach of the year? Where is the loyalty? This is on the players, not Dwane. DeRozan and Lowry aren't a good enough duo to compete in the playoffs."

July 2018:

Raptors: "Okay, fine, we'll trade DeRozan, keep all the grade A talent, and acquire a top 3 player in the world, and one of the better 3 and D players in the NBA without trading VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam or Delon."

Raptors Fans: "How could you trade the most loyal player in Raptors history? DeRozan is the greatest Raptor of all time! Kawhi doesn't even want to play here!" 

Clearly there was no satisfying Raptors fans, but this decision by Masai Ujiri was the right one for so many reasons. 

One of the popular arguments for this trade being a mistake is the obvious one that Kawhi allegedly wants to go play in Los Angeles after his contract expires.

This very well could happen, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion. It is tiring to hear people who scoff at the idea that he could stay. You don't know Kawhi. You don't know what he wants, and you don't know what Kawhi will want nine months from now. So, let's stop that narrative. Is there a good chance that he will leave? Absolutely. But how do we know that nine months of being the most beloved athlete in Canada, having an easier path to the finals in the East and a potential deep playoff run with some of the loudest fans in the NBA doesn't warm Kawhi Leonard up to the city of Toronto in the same way Kyle Lowry and Patrick Patterson did. Both of whom have been documented as players who did not want to be in Toronto, and wound up falling in love with the city. 

But, the alternative is a possibility. Kawhi very well could leave, and that is completely okay regardless of what happens this season for two major reasons.

The first is that DeMar DeRozan simply was not good enough to get this team to that next level. The Raptors could have had three more years of their shooting guard and essentially guaranteed themselves no chance to win the conference or a championship. During the process of these three years, an aging DeMar's contract would likely become more and more crippling to the team's growth, while he would lead the team to the same destiny as years past while he hinders to the on-ball development of the younger players due to his 30%+ usage rate. The team had to find a way to move forward from DeMar, and if it is a one year rental for a top five player in the world and one last shot at making a run, I am all for it.

Furthermore, since 2015, the Raptors net rating with DeRozan off the court was +7.4, while the team's net rating with DeRozan on the court was +3.0. You will be very hard pressed to find anyone who is labelled as a superstar who has a negative impact on the team's net rating for a span of four seasons. He was a great scorer, who was placed in a role to be a superstar which lead to solid output stats, that often masked the big flaws in DeRozan's game like his defence, floor spacing ability, playmaking, and poor shot selection. I hate to make this a "Let's bash DeRozan" section, but he was simply not a superstar, and despite having some great seasons and unforgettable moments, he consistently underwhelmed in the playoffs, and was not the guy to carry this team past where they are now. Just like the Boston Celtics felt with Isaiah Thomas last season, who was in a similar role as an elite scorer with obvious flaws that would hinder the team going forward. DeMar was a great player, but he is a flawed player to build around, and a hard player to make as a secondary option.

Losing DeRozan as well as hypothetically losing Kawhi doesn't spell the end of competitive Raptors basketball as proven by the fact that this team has been statistically better with DeMar off the court FOUR YEARS IN A ROW. The Raptors would have boatloads of money and young talent to work with, and with a winning culture that Kawhi Leonard may help create, it can help to attract new talent to Toronto. If Kawhi stays, the young talent can either grow with him, or be packaged for another superstar to build around Lowry and Leonard.

So, our worst case scenario of Kawhi leaving is having an exciting season of Raptors basketball, while moving on from DeRozan and leaving the Raptors with a ton of youth and cap room. The best case scenario is that Kawhi could stay and they have a true superstar to build this team around for years to come, which includes a path to the finals for the next several years. The risk of losing out on the consistent showing up to the playoffs and losing approach for a chance to build a dynasty for years was absolutely worth it. 

The other reason why the Raptors had to make this trade was timing. Toronto chose at least one year of Kawhi Leonard instead of three years of DeRozan because they simply had to make a move, and with an opportunity this good to try to sneak through their closing window, there was no way they could say no considering that OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam were not part of this trade package. 

With the window for the Raptors to win the East rapidly closing due to the emergence of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers coupled with their clear best player, Kyle Lowry, getting older, the Raptors had to make a move in the East this year. In order to do so, the Raptors had to make a major change to this roster that has a large enough sample size of playoff failures (21-31) to prove that "giving it another go" was not an ideal choice for a team that is trying to reach new heights. This trade gives the Raptors at least one great chance to come out of the Eastern conference, as opposed to three more years of a team that simply wasn't cut to make a run. 

The other reason that timing is applicable is because this is probably the first time the Raptors have had a realistic shot at acquiring a legitimate superstar. When you have the opportunity which doesn't consist of blowing up your future, you do it.

Kawhi is an absolutely perfect fit for this franchise to make a run right now. He, Danny Green, Anunoby, Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and Kyle Lowry are all plus defenders, and the majority of this roster can shoot the three ball. The switching ability, floor spacing, defence, and length will be off the charts for this roster, and they will have a more in rhythm and efficient version of DeRozan's offensive production with Kawhi Leonard, while having a huge upgrade on the defensive end during the 55 minutes formerly belonging to DeMar and Poeltl  that other players I just mentioned will fill in for. 

Also, keep in mind that Kyle Lowry will have a chance to become a primary scoring option  again which is a great thing. In 2200 minutes since 2015 with DeRozan off, Lowry has averaged 23 points per game with a 60.2 True Shooting % per 36 minutes. Those are absolutely elite numbers, and Lowry will have a chance to handle the ball a lot more rather than having to fit DeRozan's needs and be a floor spacing guard who's primary shot is a catch and shoot three. Lowry is capable of much more than that, but he is also someone who can play in that role very well if Kawhi indeed soaks up all of DeRozan's usage.

Kawhi Leonard and a more involved Kyle Lowry give the Raptors the best 1-2 punch in the Eastern conference, and the complimentary players like Danny Green, OG Anunoby, and Fred VanVleet will be vital towards this team's success. A 3-4 combo of Leonard and OG is simply scary for anyone with talented wings as their primary scoring options.

Another player who benefits from this trade is Serge Ibaka, who can be more aggressive pursuing blocks as he will likely see more minutes at the center position. The Raptors wings are a lot more athletic to allow Serge to take more risks on the defensive end. 

Jonas Valanciunas will also have to be important for the Raptors when they need some old fashioned post offence against teams that try to go small against the Raptors. He is one of the most efficient scorers in the post, and he is someone who is not going to cause dramatics if he is not in the gameplan on some nights. He also has an opportunity to steal some of Jakob Poeltl's minutes and play heavy minutes in the right matchup. I expect a potential breakout season from JV if he is prepared.

I fully expect to see the Raptors "bench mob" style of basketball for a full 48 minutes every night, and new head coach, Nick Nurse, was widely credited for being responsible for the changes in the offence that led to the 59 wins last season. You can be sure that the Raptors ball movement, and unselfish play will now be infectious through the entire roster, as Kawhi is a much better off ball player than DeRozan, and his presence on the court will be felt when he is not touching the ball, much moreso than DeMar. He has an ability to play that style like he has for his whole career. When DeRozan played with the bench, despite the surprising effectiveness this season, it was a hard sight to see him with a 43% usage rate in key moments. Despite the new success it brought during the season (+9 net rating), it was tremendously ineffective in the playoffs as Lowry-less lineups led by DeMar had a 123 defensive rating and a 98 offensive rating, while DeMar had the same amount of turnovers as assists, despite taking almost half of the team's shots in this collective time span. Kawhi will surely perform better than this with the secondary units. 

I hate to cut DeRozan up this much because he is still a top 25 player in the NBA, an amazing scorer, and model citizen in Toronto for his entire tenure. It sucked to have to deal his personality, but basketball is a business, and if it makes your team better, you do it. 

The team looks really amazing right now and though many people are understandably heartbroken by the trade, your heart will be warmed by the time the season starts and arguably the third best player in the world is wearing the Raptors' red and white.

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