On Basketball: Toronto will need to work some magic now
Raptors boss Masai Ujiri better have some magic plan.
Because if he doesn’t, Lakers boss Magic Johnson certainly will.
Before Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan — the headline pieces in a four-player trade between San Antonio and Toronto on Wednesday — play a single game for their new teams, this much is clear: The Spurs got better, the Raptors are taking a gargantuan risk and the Los Angeles Lakers are going to sit back and see what happens.
San Antonio essentially swapped one All-Star for another, ridded itself of a headache — the Leonard-wants-out saga — and got a first-round draft pick as well. Hard to argue.
In DeRozan, Toronto traded away a guard who led the Raptors in scoring in each of the last five seasons for a player who, without hardly ever saying a word, has made clear that he wants to be in Los Angeles. A bold strategy, but if Ujiri can win over Leonard in a year just like Sam Presti and Oklahoma City did with Paul George, it could work out like gangbusters for the Raptors.
And if Leonard doesn’t see the virtue in making Toronto home for the long term, the Lakers will be waiting.
Remember what Johnson said earlier this offseason about the Lakers’ strategy: that it will be a two-year mission. Getting LeBron James to sign with LA earlier this month was a big part of the plan, but it wasn’t the whole plan. Phase 2 is surrounding James with superstar talent, and it’s hard to see any reason why Leonard doesn’t end up in purple and gold at some point in 2019 — whether through a trade or free agency.
Leonard probably isn’t happy, but he almost certainly can’t run the risk of sitting out another year.
DeRozan clearly isn’t happy. That’s no disrespect to San Antonio — the Spurs are a model franchise and Gregg Popovich is a coach almost anyone would want to play for — but DeRozan rather would have stayed in Toronto.
DeRozan got plenty of support from his NBA peers, including Dwyane Wade, who told The Associated Press that he hopes this trade reminds fans that teams will do what they want when they feel it’s time to move a player — so players shouldn’t be derided when they exercise their options to move on through free agency, either.
“DeRozan gave everything to Toronto, everything they asked him to do from the standpoint of loyalty,” Wade said. “That’s why I hate loyalty and sports, those two words, they shouldn’t go together. You just feel for guys and their family. He committed to them. It’s a business and you understand the business, but from a player standpoint, it just sucks.”
The Spurs were never going to trade Leonard to the Lakers. It made no sense. Why would San Antonio help a fellow Western Conference team get better, especially when the best team in basketball — Golden State — seems to have a chokehold on the Larry O’Brien Trophy with no plans of letting go anytime soon?
Plus, the Lakers didn’t have the sort of assets the Spurs would have wanted for an elite player like Leonard. He played in nine games for the Spurs last season and was barely a factor. DeRozan will almost certainly give San Antonio more next year than Leonard gave the Spurs last year. Hence, they just got a lot better.
Boston had the required assets but apparently wasn’t willing to part with them. Philadelphia did, too. But Toronto, to its credit, saw no reason why it shouldn’t be bold this summer. Dwane Casey was the coach of the year who won 59 games and led the Raptors to the No. 1 seed in the East last season. He got fired because the Raptors never figured out how to beat James in the playoffs.
The Raptors are really good. Second-best record in the regular season a year ago, behind only Houston. But they know they’re not good enough to win a title, and while they stopped short of blowing up the team they sure gave the foundation a couple of good thwacks with a wrecking ball in dumping Casey and trading DeRozan.
Can Leonard get them over the hump? Maybe. If he’s healthy, he could be the best player in the Eastern Conference, largely because of the way he can take a game over on the defensive end.
That’s a player worth the risk.
So now we see if Ujiri can work some magic.
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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