Kawhi Leonard’s Trade to Toronto Illustrates the Limits of NBA Self-Determination

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 15:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 15, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Spurs defeated the Suns 107-92. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan are trading places.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Kawhi Leonard is moving to Canada. On Wednesday, the San Antonio Spurs traded the former Finals MVP and shooting guard Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for All-Star DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 draft pick. In a vacuum where only basketball is allowed to exist—I’d enjoy living in that vacuum, I think—this move changes the pecking order in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. It also gives the Raptors the world’s greatest LeBron stopper, albeit a few weeks after the team’s long-time tormenter moved to the Western Conference. According to famous Canadian Alanis Morissette, this is like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife.

Now, let’s clear the floor for ESPN’s Chris Haynes, who is not reporting from a vacuum, and who is like rain on Toronto’s wedding day.

Leonard has gone to great lengths to control his future, a future that, according to reports, revolves around him becoming a Laker. Last month, reports began surfacing that he wanted the Spurs to trade him to Los Angeles, in part because of a long-running dispute with San Antonio brass about his recovery from the world’s most mysterious quadriceps injury. Leonard effectively refused to play for the Spurs last season, cutting off communication with the team and even allegedly hiding from team executives when they came to check on him. This drawn-out saga has ended with Leonard getting a change of scenery, although he’s now roughly 1,000 miles farther away from Los Angeles.

The Spurs’ motivations here are obvious. San Antonio had no desire to gift a Western Conference competitor an all-universe swingman, and instead found the best return value it could for its franchise player. Leonard, meanwhile, has one year left on his contract, and according to the Sporting News’ Sean Deveney, “There have been indications that he would sit out the entire season [with Toronto] if necessary.” While that would typically be an idle threat, the Raptors must be at least a little scared given that Leonard just pulled pretty much this exact move on his previous employer.

I understand Toronto to be a great, cosmopolitan city, but it has long been terrible at keeping its basketball stars happy. In 2004, Vince Carter engineered a trade away from the Raptors to get to the greener pastures of East Rutherford, New Jersey and the Nets. After Chris Bosh joined LeBron James in Miami in 2010, the forward cited “good cable” as one of the reasons he was happy to no longer live in Canada. (Sadly, SCTV had been off the air for decades before the Raptors drafted him.)

DeRozan may have his flaws, but he’s a rare All-Star who was willing to pledge his long-term future to Toronto. He signed a five-year deal in 2016 and was, until Wednesday, the face of the franchise. He responded to the trade by expressing some thoughts on his Instagram page regarding the pitfalls of loyalty.

No one is happy!

But let’s go back to that basketball vacuum, shall we? In DeRozan, the Spurs get a talented scorer who relies on long 2-pointers and has earned a reputation for playing his worst in the postseason. He is locked into his contract until the 2020-21 season, and San Antonio likely hopes its lauded coaching staff can fix his flaws as the team rebuilds on the fly.

Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, meanwhile, is acknowledging that his team has a one-year window to achieve NBA glory. With Leonard, they have a legitimate chance to make the Finals and convince their star to stay. (Similar thinking informed Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti’s trade for Paul George, and that ended up working out for the Thunder, minus the getting-to-the-Finals part.) If Leonard doesn’t find his bliss in Toronto, Ujiri is free to rebuild his team from scratch.

If LeBron James and Chris Bosh’s moves to team up on the Heat signified the moment NBA players realized they hold power over their own futures, Leonard’s failure to join the Lakers represents the limits of this self-determination. Leonard was still under contract, and the Spurs were free to send him wherever they pleased. Burning bridges and willingly dragging his own reputation through the mud may have bought Leonard his exit, but it came in the form of a one-way ticket to Toronto. Hopefully the cable situation has improved.