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Does the Kawhi trade vault the Raptors to the top of the East?

For almost two decades, the San Antonio Spurs have been the model organization in the NBA. They’ve built a sustainable culture with the best coach in the league, Gregg Popovich, who has the ability to coax premier players to buy into his system.

David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker trusted the tenets of the “Spurs Way”: selflessness, sacrifice, stability. Then they plugged in Kawhi Leonard, possibly the best perimeter player Gregg Popovich has ever coached. He looked like the second-coming of Tim Duncan, a robotic player with bionic arms who was molded into a terrorizing two-way force.

But, it’s 2018 and players don’t stay with one team for their entire career anymore. Leonard, a top three player in the league when healthy, turned down a sneaker deal that Jordan offered him last summer which some in his camp felt was insulting.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and others reported that Leonard believed the San Antonio market, one of the smallest in the league, would hinder him from attracting bigger dollars off the court.

This could be true but his representatives, a weird uncle and an agent who primarily works in the NFL, also have to consider that Leonard hasn’t developed a personality or connected with fans on social media, which also hurts his marketability.

Leonard is the first player to test Popovich’s model. Though Duncan almost bolted for Orlando in the summer of 2000, the Spurs had never faced a crisis quite like this. Over the last 9 months, the league became transfixed on how they would handle it.

Would they be able to repair the relationship or would they end up trading Leonard for 25 cents on the dollar? They tried for months to get him to sign a 5 year, $219 million deal, but it quickly became clear that wouldn’t happen.

In recent weeks, the Spurs started to actively shop Leonard. Though many believed he would end up in Philadelphia, Boston or Los Angeles, Toronto was able to swoop in today and land “The Claw.”

First thoughts: the Raptors fleeced the Spurs who received DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a heavily protected “fake” first round pick (it will likely become two second round picks). That’s really the best they could get for Kawhi?

Granted, he only has one year left on his deal and this deal carries some risk but maybe Toronto can sell him on their culture if they make a deep playoff run. Though no one thought they could, the Thunder were able to do just that with Paul George. Additionally, the Raptors proved they couldn’t get over the hump with DeRozan and needed to make a change to improve their chances at a title.

Let’s look at the Raptors team in 2018-2019. We can expect that they will eliminate those deep, inefficient two-point shots that DeRozan lived on and replace them with Leonard’ss efficient offensive repertoire of three’s and points in the paint.

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Additionally, a lineup with Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka should be one of the league’s best defenses. The versatility, length, and intensity they can employ on that end will strike fear in every Eastern Conference team.

Don’t be surprised if the Raptors are in the Finals next year and push the Warriors in a long series. At the very least, the Raptors were able to move DeRozan’s albatross of a contract and take a flier on one of the league’s best players. For them, this deal is a home run.

For the Spurs, I’m not really sure how this deal makes much sense. They have to take on DeRozan’s enormous contract, three years and more than $90 million, without getting one of the Toronto’s top young players like Anunoby or Delon Wright. But, the Spurs organization has built a good deal of trust with their fans. While the rest of the NBA is zigging, the Spurs are zagging.

They shoot a high percentage on three-point shots but don’t take that many of them. A large proportion of their shots still come from the mid-range and guess where DeRozan thrives? Pairing him with LaMarcus Aldridge will give them two players whose shot chart would have looked great in 1997- too bad it’s 2018.

The Spurs won 47 games last year with Kawhi only playing 9 games so adding a healthy DeRozan might give them a chance to win 50 or more. But, does anyone think they can actually contend for a championship?

There’s an old saying in the NBA: the team that receives the best player in a trade is the winner. That saying holds true here; Toronto has just been vaulted to Eastern Conference favorites and now they finally have a real chance to bring a title back to the 6.