Can Kawhi Leonard deliver the Raptors a title?

Six Varsity contributors provide their thoughts on the mega-trade

Can Kawhi Leonard deliver the Raptors a title?

Last week, the Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl, and a first-round draft pick, and I, for one, could not be happier.

The Raptors finished last season with a disappointing playoff run, but the team still has a great defense and one of the best benches in the NBA. The team was hindered by mediocre leadership from their star players.

Adding Leonard, a top-five player, NBA champion, and two-time defensive player of the year is the best possible outcome for the Raptors, even if he only plays for one season. While many idealists and DeRozan fans are hurting, I ask, what more were you expecting from DeRozan?

Do you like seeing a star choke and break your heart every postseason? Was he really worth holding on to? In the end, a four-game sweep by an inferior Cavaliers team signaled to Masai Ujiri that enough is enough, and DeRozan is expendable.

To the many fans who are appalled by the way DeRozan’s trade was handled, you probably haven’t been watching the NBA for very long. It is the nature of the league to send players away on short notice, and even against their desires. Nothing especially horrible or new has happened in DeRozan’s situation. The NBA is a business first.

And, to those who say that Kawhi is just a “one-year rental” and not worth the price, I encourage you to see this season optimistically.

Take pride in yourself as a Canadian and as a Raptors fan. We all assumed Paul George would leave Oklahoma City after one year, but this summer he extended his contract by four years because the Thunder fans showed him the love he deserves. Toronto is a far better home than Oklahoma City.

We must show Kawhi the same affection that we once showed Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, and DeMar DeRozan. Kawhi is one of the best on-ball defenders ever to play basketball and has the chance to be the greatest player in Raptors history.

The addition of Kawhi is a godsend for the Raptors and it’s time that fans let go of their DeRozan guilt, celebrate his contributions to the franchise, and welcome Kawhi Leonard with as much love and appreciation as possible.

— Isaac Consenstein

When evaluating the success of a trade, the two most important criteria to consider are: Did you get better players in exchange for who you gave up? And, did you do so without sacrificing your future? The Raptors passed both of these tests with flying colours when they acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Poetl, and a protected first-round pick.

Leonard is an instant upgrade from DeRozan in nearly all phases of the game.

Since entering the NBA in 2012, Leonard has averaged nearly a third more rebounds per game than DeRozan at 6.2 to 4.1, has higher field-goal and free-throw percentages, and is a far better three-point shooter. And that’s just on the offensive end. Leonard is also known for his lockdown defense and his ability to defend four positions on the court.

In terms of the Raptors’ title hopes, welcoming Leonard makes them second favorites to win the Eastern Conference, just behind the youthful Boston Celtics juggernaut. Ogugua ‘OG’ Anunoby will also lessen Leonard’s defensive workload, hopefully spurring his offensive talents. Having LeBron in Los Angeles certainly helps as well.

I don’t believe Leonard will stay in Toronto beyond this season. However, having only played nine games out of a possible 82 in 201718, and never having played more than 74 games in a season, Leonard has a lot to prove. As Isaiah Thomas found out this season, talented players who are injury-prone don’t always command max contracts.

Leonard needs to use this season to reaffirm his love for basketball, or he may end up as just another “could’ve been great” story.

— Kevin Kapenda

If there were any doubts about Masai Ujiri’s culture reset, they were put to rest by the Leonard-DeRozan trade.

Ujiri made his promise in 2017 after LeBron eliminated the Raptors for the second consecutive season. The reset, which led to a much-improved playstyle, was supposed to help the Raptors overcome LeBron in the playoffs and make them champions, or, at least, contenders. Only, it didn’t.

LeBron once again swept the Raptors in 2018, which culminated in Masai’s decision to trade DeRozan.

While controversial, this gamble was a no-brainer for Toronto. Leonard is better than DeRozan in virtually all facets of the game. Leonard’s strengths also pair well with Toronto’s revamped system, further complementing the team in ways that DeRozan strengths couldn’t.

All signs point to Leonard being the X-factor that will push the Raptors over their playoffs hump. Despite last season’s embarrassment, the addition of Leonard to the team helps the Raptors retain their status as true title contenders, at least on paper.

— Long Vuong

It is safe to say that the Toronto Raptors are having one of the biggest offseason trades in franchise history. However, this trade poses more questions than answers. Nonetheless, there are three key takeaways we can pull out of this:

  • It may very well be a one-year rental.

Leonard’s expiring contract has many questioning if he will leave after this season. The superstar has made it clear that he wants to play in Los Angeles, however, like Oklahoma City Thunder did with fellow California native Paul George, the Raptors are hoping they can convince Leonard to sign a long-term deal.

  • He will play.

Of course, the first question Raptors fans are asking is if Leonard will play. After initially showing no interest in being here, Leonard has reportedly begun to “warm to the idea” of playing in the North. Even if he still shows no desire to be a Raptor, he would only be hurting himself  should he sit out in free agency.

  • On paper, this is a giant upgrade.

Assuming Leonard plays, this is an unquestionable upgrade for the Raptors. As great of a player as DeMar DeRozan is in the regular season, he infamously shrinks come playoff time. Leonard, when healthy, is the best two-way player in the world with MVP talent. In terms of personnel, the Raptors clearly won the trade.

Love the trade or hate it, no one can deny Masai Ujiri’s commitment to his promise of a “culture reset.”

— Yehia Mahdi

It’s been a tough week for Raptors fans since the news broke that the team parted ways with DeMar DeRozan.

DeRozan is a four-time all-star and the Raptors’ franchise leader in total points scored, games played, and minutes played, but his impact as a Raptor exceeds statistics as he has been the heart of the team since Chris Bosh’s departure.

Raptors fans are eternally grateful to DeRozan for this and it hurts to lose him, but after five consecutive years of playoff disappointments, something needed to change.

This trade is impactful because, by acquiring arguably the best two-way player in the NBA for a top-15 NBA talent at best, the Raptors are able to retain a competitive core while gaining a better centerpiece.

Leonard’s athleticism, defense, and unselfish play meshes well with the Raptors culture, which allows us to compete with Eastern Conference juggernauts, such as the Celtics, and offers valuable playoff experience to our young team.

Some fans fear that Leonard will merely be a rental because his contract expires next season, but this experiment is low-risk, as the Raptors will either  retain a star or gain the cap space to pursue another. Losing DeRozan is gut-wrenching, but it is a necessary decision in the pursuit of a championship.

— Tushar Sharma

Every avid Raptors fan has heard of the trade that happened Wednesday morning. What they need to know is that this trade will only be beneficial if Kawhi Leonard is able to be the superstar that this team needs.

DeRozan professed his loyalty to this city in the finale of Open Gyms’ sixth season. He “always wanted to give Toronto [a championship]; they deserve it” because he “look[s] at Toronto like a second home” and this city has accepted him as one of our own.

After consistently underperforming in the playoffs, despite their regular season success, it was clear that the team’s core needed a change. Hopefully, Leonard will provide that on both offensive and defensive ends of the court.

The loss of Jakob Poeltl also creates a discrepancy in possibly one of the best benches in Raptors history that contributed significantly to the success of the 20172018 Raptors team. CJ Miles commented on the bench, saying that “there weren’t another five guys off the bench that were doing what we did.”

Despite the uncertainty of the upcoming season, as DeRozan once said, “whatever needs to be done to get this opportunity again, we’ve got to do it. We have to trust the next step.”

— Amarra Mohamed

The NBA’s competitive balance conundrum

Can anyone beat the Golden State Warriors?

The NBA’s competitive balance conundrum

After the Golden State Warriors won their second consecutive NBA title against the Cleveland Cavaliers — their third title in four years — many NBA fans are growing restless with the lack of parity in the league.

In the past two seasons, the Warriors have lost once in the NBA Finals, which is especially concerning given that the Finals are usually set up to be the most competitive matchup in the playoffs.

One of the main critiques of these ‘superteams’ is that they have offset the competitive balance the league once had, but I’m not quite sold on the idea that superteams offsetting the competition is a recent development. If you take a look at the history of the NBA, there has never been much parity.

The NBA was built on dynasties. In the ‘60s, you had the Boston Celtics winning nine times; in the ‘80s, the Los Angeles Lakers won five times and the Celtics three; in the ‘90s, the Chicago Bulls won six times; and from 2000–2015, you had the Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Miami Heat winning 12 of 15 championships.

There has never been any distinguishable movement in terms of who gets to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season. This is not a new problem for the league, and trying to eliminate superteams won’t solve it.

In an effort to deter player movement like the league is experiencing now, the NBA created a designated veteran contract — in other words, an incentive for players to re-sign with their team, and which allows them to sign a much larger contract.

So far, the top two teams in the NBA, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, have each managed to sign a superstar — Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, respectively. They have decided to forego the designated veteran contract, along with the extra millions that would go along with it, and instead compete for the championship.

The largest competitive problem the league has right now is not superteams: it’s that the majority of NBA talent is stacked in the Western Conference. With LeBron James now moving out west to the Lakers, arguably, the top 10 players in the league are located in the same conference. The disparity in competition between the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference is a serious problem.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has announced that he will look into a reformed playoff structure to ensure the two best teams meet in the NBA Finals. The proposed new structure would lead to having the top 16 teams overall make the playoffs, regardless of which conference they came from.

In other words, the exciting seven-game series that the Rockets and the Warriors had this year could have been for the NBA championship, instead of the lackluster four-game series with the Cavaliers.

It’s very clear that the top teams in the NBA are on a different level than the rest of the league. So where does that leave teams who are on the outside looking in, like the Toronto Raptors?

As it turns out, the Raptors are in a tough spot. To compete in this league, they’re going to have to make bold moves, and that can come from big free agent signings or blockbuster trades. With LeBron moving to the west, the door seems to have opened for the Raptors once more. Under the tutelage of their new head coach, Nick Nurse, the Raptors are looking to retool, which may put them among the top few teams in the east ready to compete for a spot in the finals.

The signing of DeMarcus Cousins to the Warriors sent the league into a frenzy, with many coming to the conclusion that the NBA season is already over, and while that may be true, his signing itself isn’t simply the problem.

As fans, we tend to judge star players’ free agency decisions based off of what seem to be their reasons for signing. It’s either that they’ve signed for the money, in which case we criticize them for choosing money over championship rings, or that they’ve signed with a major contender, and we accuse them of taking the easy way out.

Fans can’t have it both ways. If players are judged solely on NBA championships, we can’t blame them for joining the top contenders.

The NBA is still about competition, and the Warriors are simply competing at a higher level than everyone else. After they lost the NBA Finals in 2015, the team replaced Harrison Barnes with Durant. They faced elimination twice this past postseason against the Rockets and have added Cousins, a perennial All-Star. The Warriors have refused to stay complacent, and other teams should follow suit.

Despite all the criticism the league is facing, ratings are the highest they’ve ever been, with fans tuning in hoping to see Goliath fall. The NBA has always been about dynasties, and true parity has never existed. As the saying goes, don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Into the maw of victory

Basketball through the eyes of an ignoramus

Into the maw of victory

I have seen more live sports in the past two years of my life than in all the years preceding them. When I came to Canada, I came with a checklist of sorts: I made it my goal to see as many quintessentially North American sporting events as possible.              

Last weekend, I was able to check basketball off the list, which joined ice hockey and baseball. The game I attended was between the Toronto Raptors and the Boston Celtics — I was quickly corrected when I attempted to pronounce it with a hard ‘c’.              

While I do not care for playing sports myself, I love watching them and participating in the rituals of the game, including singing the national anthem at the beginning. I even had a hat to remove when prompted to do so by the announcement.

Knowing everyone else would come dressed in some manner of team swag, I had anticipated feeling out of place, so I had done my best by wearing my OVO cap in homage to Drake, the Raptors’ patron, and a jumper with ‘Toronto vs. Everybody’ emblazoned on the front.

I picked up a sense of the rules of the game fairly quickly: players may move anywhere on the court, the perimeters of which are clearly marked; the further away a player is from the basket when they take a successful shot, the higher the number of points they score; and fouls may result in a penalty shot or two.             

After the game began, the first thing that surprised me was the speed at which it was played. The players moved with such fluidity, and it was a delight to watch.

I lack sufficient understanding of the game’s technicalities to appreciate the players’ strategic manoeuvres, but I enjoyed what I saw for its aesthetic merits.

This proved to be a problem when I came to see the beauty of the opposing team’s playing too. I exclaimed, “Wow! Nice shot!” when Boston scored with seemingly effortless grace. I began to applaud in appreciation but realized that nobody around me was doing the same.

As the game went on, I heard Toronto fans buzzing and howling in attempt to throw Boston off their game. I thought the lack of applause and hooliganism distasteful, but I accepted it as part of the experience, even if I did not wish to partake in it myself. When I tried to politely clap for Boston I was cowed out of my attempts by the silence of Toronto fans around me.

The entertainment during time-outs and breaks was also something I considered to be more North American than British, with the t-shirt cannons being a particular highlight. I did not try to catch one, but watching the cannon firing into the stands was a novel experience.

Aside from that, I was not particularly fond of the commercialization and would have preferred some game commentary or replays of impressive shots. Still, it was entertaining and I did benefit from the sponsorship in the end; the Raptors broke 100 points, meaning that I was entitled to a free slice of pizza the following day.

The end score was 105–91 for the Raptors. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, my criticisms notwithstanding. I had the fortune to see two slam-dunks, one by each team.

A slam-dunk is a wonderfully flamboyant gesture. It is testament to a player’s confidence in their ability to pull off the move and their team’s capacity to comfortably forgo a higher scoring shot. I truly appreciate the sacrifice of a larger victory for pure theatrics.