Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:03 AM

Raps put house money on Kawhi gamble

Kawhi Leonard wasted little time letting it be known via ESPN’s Chris Haynes that he has no desire to play in Toronto. That report from Haynes hit Twitter at 4:35 AM ET on Wednesday morning, just a few minutes after Adrian Wojnarowski’s report that a blockbuster deal sending the former NBA Finals MVP out of the country was close.

That’s not the most promising of starting points for the Raptors as they look to woo Leonard into falling in love with playing in Canada, which is just as far-fetched as Oklahoma City’s courtship of Paul George, who was similarly L.A.-or-bust.

The Thunder beat the odds and managed to win him over. Similarly, Toronto is gambling on its franchise’s appeal, dealing all-time leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected (1-20) first-round pick to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green, who are each no longer under contract after the season.

Make no mistake, even if Leonard is gone by the trade deadline this season, Toronto won this trade. General manager Masai Ujiri had already been mulling a culture change after the 2016-17 team failed to reach a second straight Eastern Conference finals after being swept by the Cavs. After a franchise-record 59 wins and a first-round victory over the Wizards, LeBron James and Cleveland broke out the brooms against the Raptors again.

Coach of the Year Dwane Casey lost his job because Ujiri couldn’t significantly alter his roster, but when the opportunity to get out from under star guard DeRozan’s contract became available, he pounced. The All-Star guard has three years, $83 million remaining on his deal and it’s become obvious that the Raptors weren’t enamored with him being on the books that long.

The Raptors are doing something they wanted to, while San Antonio was backed into a corner and making a move it felt it had to. In being unable to pry away OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam or even Delon Wright, the Spurs landed only one young piece still on his rookie deal in Poeltl. Considering who they’re parting ways with, that seems like a missed opportunity. Toronto could still find a taker for Leonard at the trade deadline if their pursuit of re-signing him appears hopeless. They’ll be able to offer him a five-year, $190 million deal this offseason, while the most the Lakers or Clippers can offer would be a max deal in the 4-year/$141 million range.

Late last week, multiple betting sites made the Raptors the favorite to land Leonard despite them appearing off the radar when the free agency futures market unveiled numbers that had teams like the Lakers, 76ers and Celtics as the frontrunners. Whispers got out there that the Spurs and Raps were talking and both were interested in what the other was saying. Reports from Wojnarowski indicate that the deal almost died multiple times over the past six days as the teams negotiated, but it finally was agreed upon early Wednesday morning.

DeRozan believed that he wouldn’t be traded after meeting with the Raptors in Las Vegas last week during Summer League and vented on his Instagram feed about the lack of loyalty displayed in Toronto’s decision. “Sell you out quick for a bit of nothing…,” DeRozan wrote, which tells you what he thinks about his former team’s chances of changing Leonard’s mind on remaining in Canada.

That wasn’t an issue for DeRozan. While also an L.A. native, the four-time All-Star who is nearly two years older than Leonard hoped to finish his career where it started, something no Raptors star has ever done. Former teammate Terrence Ross called for the franchise to build him a statue on Twitter, while other players expressed their shock at the move.

Even though DeRozan’s efficiency had improved over the past three years, he was still just a 31 percent 3-point shooter last season and saw his scoring average dip from 27.3 to 23.0 as he made a more concerted effort to get everyone involved. His 5.2 assists were a career-best and helped foster a great dynamic for a team that got along and had a nice blend of veterans and young guys. While nowhere near the two-way player he’ll now attempt to replace in San Antonio, he’s averaged over 20 points in five consecutive seasons and improved defensively.

He’ll presumably take Green’s spot at shooting guard in the Spurs starting lineup, teaming with Rudy Gay on the wing. Manu Ginobili has still not committed to return and Kyle Anderson left for Memphis, so San Antonio must address depth issues at those positions in the coming weeks. After being a 50-to-1 choice to win the West according to odds from the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook to open the month, the Spurs are now 125-to-1 in the conference and 200-to-1 to win it all upon flipping Leonard.

With James finally departing the Eastern Conference after joining the Lakers, the Raptors figured to be in the mix to reach the Finals but were considered a 40-to-1 shot to win the NBA title by Westgate if they returned the same roster. That number is now 20-to-1.

The Raps were 8-to-1 to get out of the East, trailing the Celtics (5/8) and 76ers (2/1). Following this Leonard news, Boston (4/5) and Philly (5/2) have been downgraded slightly as East favorites, while Toronto is now 4-to-1. Milwaukee, Washington and Indiana are each available at 18/1 while Miami has some nice value at 50-to-1.

Until we see how Leonard has recovered from the quad injury that limited him to only nine games last season, it’s irresponsible to throw money on the Raptors at this point. If he’s right, 8-to-1 is a decent return on your investment if you choose to fade the rightfully favored Celtics, especially since Green will be playing for a contract too and brings championship experience and tremendous defense to the mix. There’s a new head coach in the equation with former assistant Nick Nurse taking the reins, but everything takes a backseat to Leonard and how he handles this shake-up.

Leonard has been traded before reporting to play for Gregg Popovich and USA Basketball at camp in Las Vegas from Aug. 25-27, so we’ll soon get to see where he’s at physically if he shows up. He’s clearly close to 100 percent if he’s entertaining playing, so with a few more months to get ready for the ’18-’19 season, the expectation is that he’ll be ready to suit up for the Raptors from the jump. If that’s the case, there’s no doubt Toronto has to be taken seriously as a threat to reach the NBA Finals for the first time.

Even if Leonard does bolt for L.A. afterwards, that would make this gamble worthwhile.

DeRozan will bring a massive chip on his shoulder to San Antonio, but given how loaded the West is and how much the NBA has changed, it’s hard to say the Spurs will be anywhere near as good as they’ve been over the past five seasons even though they’ve replaced one All-Star with another. DeRozan joins a team loaded with question marks on the defensive end outside of point guard Dejounte Murray. The Spurs must also figure out potential spacing issues given the lack of projected perimeter firepower in their starting lineup.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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