The second biggest story of this year’s off season came this week when the San Antonio Spurs announced that they would be sending Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round draft pick.
Leonard and the Spurs organization have been at odds since last season when Leonard didn’t return from his right quad tendinopathy injury after being medically cleared to play. Speculation about the right trade situation for Leonard has been abundant, and many expected the Los Angeles Lakers to pursue him heavily. But alas, he gets shipped off to the Eastern Conference as the Raptors look to improve their position in the playoffs after an embarrassing sweep against the Cleveland Cavaliers this past season.
So how will Leonard change the Raptors in the 2018-2019 season?
Leonard is a defender.
In the Spurs organization, defense is a non-negotiable fundamental skill that is never neglected. The Raptors have been an incredible team during the regular season, but they lack the ability to get the job done in the post-season. I will argue that’s primarily a result of their poor defensive performance (primarily on the perimeter). Everything escalates once the playoffs begin, and it’s foolish to expect to beat the best teams in the league with no defense in the backcourt. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry could have been splash brothers epic if they put a little more effort in on D, and unfortunately that never happened.
Leonard fills that role for them as he’s a two-time defensive player of the year award winner, and if he doesn’t win he’s at least in the running. With the sharpshooters in the league, Toronto must have solid perimeter defense if they hope to make any sort of progress in the playoffs this coming season.
Leonard is a shooter.
DeRozan’s contribution to the Raptors cannot be minimized. At 23 points, 5.2 assists, and 4 rebounds per game, his minutes were the lifeblood for the Raptors, and ultimately led them to their first place slot in the Eastern Conference. However, DeRozan wasn’t necessarily a shooter, nor did he handle defensive pressure very well. This caused Toronto some problems against the better defensive teams in the league–namely the Cavs. If he wasn’t able to get the ball to the rim, his likelihood of scoring was greatly diminished thus disarming Toronto in the post-season.
Leonard, on the other hand, is an incredibly versatile player. He can shoot from almost anywhere on the court, he can get to the rim, and he doesn’t shy away from a little physical contact. At over 38% from distance, Leonard will be better able to help the Raptors score against the teams who are skilled at protecting the rim when the strategy needs to change.
Leonard has championship level experience.
Winning at a high level is something you understand only when you’ve done it. Sure, it’s easy for me to say that about the NBA given that I’m a female and not a basketball player. However, I have experienced it in the business world, and I’m here to tell you that my understanding of how to win changed dramatically once I actually experienced it. I had great the fortune of being able to learn from someone who had done it previously so I was able to duplicate the process, but if I had to get there on my own I would still be trying.
This is why Leonard’s (and Green’s) experience will add so much value to the Raptors organization. They will know the right strategic moves to make when the time comes, and they’ll be able to help coach the team through trying times as they make their way through the postseason.
If they’re lucky, they may just be able to make it past the second round again with a chance to compete with the Celtics for a spot in the Finals. (Yes, I threw in a little early prediction there.)
Ultimately, the Raptors do need one or two more defenders to make sure they have a well-rounded starting unit as well as a capable bench, but they’re well on their way to becoming a championship contending team in the Eastern Conference. Forget LeBron, the East won’t have any trouble staying competitive come next season.