Do the Raptors Finally Have a Claw?

In short, no. This incredibly stunning trade sends Toronto’s franchise player, as well as a solid back-up big in Jakob Poetl and a 2019 first round pick, to the opposite conference, while Toronto gets a one-year flyer in Kawhi Leonard, and Danny Green. It’s been brought up nonstop since the trade that the trade works for both teams, and I have no doubt that both teams will benefit greatly from this trade in the short-term.

Both players were reportedly dissatisfied with the trade, with Kawhi being sent out of the country as a way for the Spurs to stall him from going to a conference rival. DeRozan had several Instagram stories that showed his displeasure at what he thought was a lack of loyalty and total misdirection by the front office. I’m sure Popovich will have a field day with manipulating DeRozan’s thought process and trying to incorporate his skill set into the system.

DeRozan theoretically works in Pop’s current offense as is, with his slashing, ball-handling, ability to create his own shot, and mid-range shooting all being components of the Kawhi-centric system Popovich was effectively utilizing in the 2016-17 season. Last season, Toronto finally got around to implementing what Popovich has been preaching for decades now; moving the ball, attack the defense, make the right play; there’s no reason DeRozan shouldn’t be picking up right where he left off in Toronto, and perhaps even improving upon his game. He started taking less long two’s for the first time in his career, committing more to attacking the basket, passing the ball or taking his mid-range shots, while still attempting more threes than he’s ever had in his career. Under Popovich, all this should improve.

Toronto’s situation is much more uncertain. Kawhi can certainly lead this team to a Finals appearance, but it won’t be as easy as many1 are stating. Boston and Philadelphia are both franchises on the cusp, but with LeBron out West, Kawhi can take over as the best player in the East, and lead this team that was the top seed in the Eastern Conference last season to its first Finals appearance. He may still leave anyway.

Simply put, players don’t willingly leave the USA to go play in Canada. Toronto effectively built their current culture around previous GM and future burner account extraordinaire Bryan Colangelo’s first round draft pick, ninth overall, in 2009. His rookie season was Colangelo’s fourth as GM of the Raptors, which was also Bosh’s last season in Toronto. The team bottomed out, winning 22 games after winning a surprising 40 games in 2009-10. DeRozan was the sole player on the 2010-11 roster who had star potential, and growing pains were had that season and the next, Dwayne Casey’s first as head coach; winning one more game than previous coach Jay Triano could muster with largely the same roster. 2012-13 would be Colangelo’s last season as GM, the last time Toronto missed the playoffs, and was also both Lowry and Valanciunas’s first season with the team.

All that being said; culture means nothing if you’re not winning anything. Masai Ujiri recognizes this concept, that’s why he traded his best player and the franchise piece, for a better player with championship experience. Much like DeRozan, Kawhi was raw when entering the league, but he wasn’t afforded the luxury of growing pains on a franchise without much legacy. Kawhi was a defensive stud from day one, and plugged right into Pop’s well-established culture; improving his game until completely taking over the squad in his third-place MVP finish 2016-17 season. DeRozan had a knack for isolation scoring early on, averaging only 8.6 points on a career high 49.8% from the field his rookie season; comparable to James Harden’s 9.9 points on 40.3% from the field his rookie season, and when you realize their usage rates were close as well; Harden’s 20.4% beats out DeRozan’s 18.1%, with Harden also playing 1.3 more minutes a game and taking 1 more shot a game, you realized early on this 20-year-old kid could be the superstar of the franchise, as his scoring output improved his second season while the team around him struggled mightily.

Building around DeRozan was a plan equally crafted by Colangelo and Ujiri. Colangelo set up the pieces for a nice core, and then rebuilt another rather quickly. Ujiri was brought in, and then assisted in developing that core into the consistent playoff presence they have been for the past half-decade. During this time span, the Raptors have finished with a top-10 defensive rating just twice, and one of them was a tenth place finish; 2013-14, their first playoff appearance in the DeRozan-Lowry era. Teams adjusted to them, and they went right back to being a bottom-six defensive rating team in 2014-15, and it costed them in the playoffs when they were swept by the fifth-seeded Wizards in the first round. Despite playing at near the same rating in pace year-in-and-year out; slow, grind-it-out iso ball, set plays and picks, the Raptors finished eleventh in defensive rating in consecutive years, 2015-16 and 2016-17. Their opponents points per game was third and eighth in the league, but their slow pace skewed how good their defense really was, and a quick glance at DeRozan’s defensive box plus/minus stats tells us he’s allowing more points than he’s contributing to in some years. Those three seasons the Raptors weren’t a top-10 defensive team saw DeRozan end those three seasons with a -1.4, -1.2, and a -1.5 DBPM. It’s no secret that Valanciunas isn’t the best pick-and-roll defender, so it’s not advantageous for Toronto’s star wing to not be contributing much defensively. The no-shows in the playoffs couldn’t continue until retirement, and as the franchise star and best player, DeRozan had to be held partially accountable for the team’s failures in the postseason.

It’s slightly baffling Ujiri wouldn’t roll the dice for one more season, since LeBron did just leave the Eastern Conference, making their path to the Finals significantly easier. Everyone was set to return and the band would’ve been able to make another run at it. If we’re going to be honest though, was anyone confident in this team ever making another Eastern Conference Finals, let alone a trip to the Finals? I find that hard to believe anyone outside of Raptors fans and the team at this point believe in that, so a shakeup was necessary, and this move definitely bolsters the Raptors defense. We don’t know what the chemistry between Kawhi and the rest of the locker room will be like, so they may not immediately click as a unit, but objectively speaking, this team should be much better defensively than last season’s Raptors.

A starting five of Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi, Serge Ibaka, and Valanciunas, along with one of the best second units in the NBA, tells me that Toronto could win 60 games for the first time in franchise history, especially in the top-heavy East, but with a franchise whose management has always been historically maladroit like Toronto, that likely won’t happen. DeRozan is in a much better place, basketball-wise, than Leonard is now. DeRozan won’t have to be a star in San Antonio, just another really solid player with a specific skill set looking to help continuously facilitate the offense. His defense better improve, and it likely will, as the culture of the Spurs won’t allow him to fail on that end of the floor, or he simply won’t see minutes. His confidence and long-range shooting should improve, unless Pop breaks him, and with his inexorable retirement looming, perhaps he may fail DeRozan, but I don’t see that happening after this Kawhi saga got as messy as it did.

It’s only after the press conferences will I be able to get a more vivid picture of how these athletes react to the situation in the media, and what to expect of each team going forward as far as strategy, personnel, and chemistry. It was a seemingly out-of-nowhere trade, but the Spurs did say they would not trade Kawhi to any Western Conference team, and I knew they would stick by their word. Still, the Raptors? Masai Ujiri better be on the hot seat, because he didn’t have a good reputation coming into Toronto, and he just gave up his best player, a solid player who helped make them the best second unit in basketball last season, and a first round draft pick, to an organization who had no leverage. Ujiri better hope Kawhi really is “warming up” to the idea of playing in Toronto2, because if he leaves, which he will, then you’ll be forced to rebuild, possibly without a first round draft pick, for the second year in a row I might add. Lowry will be in the final year of his contract, and Valanciunas has the option to opt out. I don’t know if you can get a first round pick for Lowry, who will turn 33 a month after next season’s trade deadline. All this will lead to a grand rebuild, and it all may be without Ujiri this time.

Editor’s Notes

1. Jalen Rose on Kawhi trade: ‘He could be the LeBron James of the Eastern Conference’ | Get Up! | ESPN

2. Kawhi Leonard Reportedly Warming to Idea of Playing for Raptors After Trade

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2 thoughts on “Do the Raptors Finally Have a Claw?

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