Raptors, Ujiri betting on themselves with acquisition of Kawhi Leonard

Even after a franchise-best, 59-win regular season and an off-season that already saw their longtime nemesis LeBron James leave for the Western Conference, the Toronto Raptors weren’t convinced they could remain with the status quo and made a blockbuster trade on Wednesday.

Blockbuster trade of all-stars shakes NBA landscape as DeRozan heads to San Antonio

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, seen in this file photo, followed his decision to fire head coach Dwane Casey by trading DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/Canadian Press)

Even after a franchise-best 59-win regular season and an off-season that already saw their longtime nemesis LeBron James leave for the Western Conference, the Toronto Raptors weren't convinced they could remain with the status quo.

The organization didn't believe that they'd assume the throne atop the East as currently constructed, especially with the young, talented cores emerging with the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.

What’s the risk in the DeRozan-Leonard trade?

4 years ago
Duration 2:34
CBC Sports' Jacqueline Doorey and Anson Henry break down some of the pros, cons, risks and rewards of trading former Raptors star DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard.

So Masai Ujiri and Co. decided to shake things up and boy, have they ever.

After firing coach Dwane Casey in May, on Wednesday the Raptors sent shockwaves throughout the NBA landscape with their acquisition of San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick.

Leonard is one of the best two-way players in the game as he enters the prime of his career at age 27. Leonard is already a two-time defensive player of the year, has received all-NBA first-team honours twice, and has a Finals MVP in his pocket.

Kawhi Leonard, left, holds a statistical edge over DeMar DeRozan, right, in most categories. (Getty Images)

But is the move the biggest gamble in franchise history?

The former 15th overall pick was limited to just nine games in 2017-18 due to a mysterious quad injury that very few know the full extent of. However, there's a strong possibility that Leonard will attend a U.S.A. basketball camp next week in Las Vegas in what would be his first basketball appearance in a public setting since mid-January.

Amidst the health questions, he's also made it no secret of his desire to join his hometown L.A. Lakers and can opt out of his contract at season's end.

With all that being said, Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster don't make this move without believing they have a legitimate shot at retaining Leonard's services beyond one season.

The Oklahoma City Thunder were in a similar situation last season after acquiring a disgruntled Paul George from the Indiana Pacers and it seemed like a forgone conclusion that he'd be donning the Lakers' purple and gold next season — a team he grew up cheering for.

Yet the moment he arrived at the airport, George was given a hero's welcome from the thousands of fans that awaited him.

The Thunder spent the year pitching their case to George figuring out how to satisfy his wants and needs from the front office to the medical team and it seemed to have a lasting impression on his decision to stay put.

"I haven't been in a position to be a free agent or know what that is like and then to have the chance to go where you want to go. That's always been, I feel with players, they want that option," George said at exit interviews after the season. "But then you go into an organization where they kind of check the boxes on all the things that you want out of an organization, and then immediately they become a candidate to where you want to play long-term … that's been the case here."

Raptors fans say goodbye to DeMar DeRozan

4 years ago
Duration 4:57
CBC Sports' Devin Heroux explains what DeMar DeRozan what meant to Toronto.

In that same vein, the Raptors are betting on themselves. They're betting on the winning culture they've established over five consecutive post-season appearances, including three-straight, 50-plus win seasons.

They're betting on their player development — that the likes of homegrown draft picks O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Delon Wright continue to progress upwardly along with their core.

Lastly, they're betting on the city to make Leonard fall in love with a unique, rabid fanbase that spreads nationwide.

While Leonard's heart might currently be back home in L.A., that's not to say things can't change. When Kyle Lowry was acquired via trade from the Houston Rockets in 2012, he had no intentions of staying long-term in Toronto.

Gregg Popovich on blockbuster DeRozan/Leonard trade

4 years ago
Duration 1:07
San Antonio head coach discusses the deal between the Spurs and the Raptors.

The Raptors' star initially wanted nothing to do with the team and told his agent he was against the deal. But Lowry went into the situation open-minded knowing he could bolt after the season if the team didn't pick up the option on his contract.

Little did Lowry know, Toronto was about to become home.

"I had no idea what Toronto was going to mean to me and what it was going to help me do. I had no idea. No clue. Who knows?" Lowry told ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski last April. "And then boom, I'm here for two contracts. I'm in my sixth year. I've been a four-time all-star, [an] Eastern Conference finals and you're like, 'who would've thought?'"   

A scenario that saw Leonard become a Raptor seemed to be unthinkable but that pipe dream is now a reality.

The Raptors are truly a contender in the Eastern Conference and while losing DeRozan will hurt — a star who arguably embraced the city more than any Raptor — the team is replacing him with a top-five calibre player in Leonard when healthy.

Toronto also acquires a much-needed sharpshooter and capable defender in Green. While much was made about the Raptors' culture change last season, they only shot 35.8 per cent from long distance (18th in the NBA) and adding a former NBA all-second defensive team member doesn't hurt.

Without surrendering their 2020 first-round pick in the deal, the Raptors at the least have a foundation to rebuild on along with their entire young core should Leonard leave.

But that isn't the plan.

It's every team's goal to win a championship and it was evident the Raptors weren't doing so by remaining the status quo.

Sometimes there are risks worth taking and this is one of them.


Chicco Nacion returns to his birthplace of Toronto after growing up in Niagara Falls. He graduated from the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at the University of Western Ontario. Follow him on Twitter @chicco_n


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