By TIM REYNOLDS
The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is over. So is DeMar DeRozan’s time in Toronto. An NBA summer blockbuster got pulled off Wednesday, with the Spurs sending Leonard to the Raptors as part of a four-player deal that has DeRozan heading to San Antonio. The Spurs also got center Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 protected first-round draft pick, while the Raptors acquired sharpshooter Danny Green.
For Leonard and the Spurs, there’s finally closure to a relationship that seemed fractured beyond repair and played out like a soap opera as the season went along. But in the end, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — insisting that looking back at what happened would not be worth his time, and that Leonard was a good teammate throughout his tenure in San Antonio — simply said he hopes the move works out for everyone involved.
“Kawhi, obviously, worked very hard to become the player he is,” Popovich said in San Antonio, a couple of hours after the trade became official when the teams got approval on the terms from the NBA. “Our staff worked very hard to help him get there. We wish him all the best as he moves on to Toronto. I think he’s going to be great.” Leonard was the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and had been with the Spurs for seven seasons, averaging 16.3 points, though was limited to just nine games last season because of a leg injury.
DeRozan has been in the league for nine years, all of them with Toronto, and is a career 19.7 point-per-game scorer. DeRozan has led the Raptors in scoring in each of the last five seasons. He was key to Toronto winning 59 games and securing the No. 1 seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs last season. But after getting swept in the second round by Cleveland, the Raptors decided massive changes were necessary — first the firing of coach of the year Dwane Casey, and now the trading of a perennial All-Star who once famously declared “I am Toronto.”
DeRozan’s initial reaction seemed to be one of anger and frustration. “Ain’t no loyalty in this game,” DeRozan wrote in an Instagram story that appeared in the wee hours of Wednesday, around the time that ESPN and Yahoo Sports reported that the trade was approaching the imminent stage, several hours before it was finalized. “Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing … .” DeRozan did not specifically reference the trade in that post, but his message didn’t exactly need translation. Raptors president Masai Ujiri has been traveling in Africa and was not immediately available for comment.
Not only is the trade huge, it’s potentially risky for both teams. Leonard hasn’t played since January because of the somewhat mysterious right quadriceps injury — and the level of severity was something that even some of his now-former teammates reportedly questioned last season while San Antonio was trying to qualify for the Western Conference playoffs. The Raptors clearly aren’t worried about Leonard’s status, and Popovich indicated Wednesday that Leonard has recovered sufficiently enough to play.
During the 2016-17 season, he averaged a career-best 25.5 points and was third in the MVP voting. When healthy, there may be no better two-way player in the game. And that makes him worth the risk for Toronto. Leonard can be a free agent next summer. When he asked the Spurs for a trade weeks ago, it was made clear that he wants to play for the Los Angeles Lakers — a team that landed LeBron James earlier this month to lead their planned rebuild back into a contender.
That means the Raptors are entering into this deal knowing that they could have given up a star like DeRozan for someone who might not be in Toronto for long. Popovich and Leonard met last month, but nothing the Spurs could say apparently changed Leonard’s mind about wanting a trade. “Attempts were made to see what would be best, and in the end this trade appeared,” Popovich said. “We felt that this was the way to go.” DeRozan and Leonard are expected to be on the court together next week in Las Vegas when USA Basketball convenes a national team training camp.
That team’s coach? Gregg Popovich. “I look forward to it,” Popovich said. Green, a career 40 percent shooter from 3-point range, said he wanted to thank Popovich and Spurs general manager R.C. Buford for what they’ve done for him over the years. “I have many great memories that I will take with me,” Green said in an Instagram post. “Through the ups and downs you’ve always made me feel SPECIAL. I want to personally thank Pop and RC for being the first to believe in me and give me the opportunity.”Poeltl has been a backup for his two NBA seasons, though is a 64 percent shooter so far in his young career.