The frontrunner candidate for Kawhi became a reality on Wednesday morning, as the Spurs dealt away Leonard and Danny Green to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick.

I like this trade for multiple reasons. Toronto looked like an absolute dumpster fire this offseason after firing NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and looking further from title contention than ever. Toronto was in a state where they needed to either blow up their team and rebuild, or trade for a title-or-bust contention.

They chose title-or-bust.


San Antonio was in a bind, rolling their eyes as Kawhi constantly demanded a trade, and as time went on, the question of depreciation in value started arising. Lakers offered Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart, but after the Spurs’ first declined the trade offer, LA didn't pursue further. Philly could only offer a mix of Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz and/or draft picks down the line. Boston reportedly lowballed SA so low that neither Jaylen Brown nor Terry Rozier were in the mix. Fantasy trades between Minnesota for the likes of Jimmy Butler or Andrew Wiggins didn’t come to light. The Clippers, who were arguably the second-best target for San Antonio, had some nice trade value with draft pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Patrick Beverley, plus draft picks being in the talks, but they too fell short. 

If San Antonio went into the month of August with Leonard still weighing on them, they may have even pressed the panic button and settled for less. But now they have DeMar DeRozan, who was perfect for the Raptors to get rid of in terms of cap space and an interesting All-Star veteran for San Antonio to take on.

Before talking Kawhi, let’s talk DeRozan. Coming off an All-NBA honor, DeRozan saw his season end prematurely in the second round of the playoffs and watched LeBron James carry his embarrassing Cavaliers squad to the Finals for the eighth straight time. DeRozan, 28, averaged over 20 points for five straight seasons and still has a lot in him.

With DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl in the mix, here’s what San Antonio’s depth looks like for next season:

  • PG:   Patty Mills
  • SG:   Dejounte Murray / Lonnie Walker IV / Manu Ginobili / Marco Belinelli
  • SF:    DeMar DeRozan / Rudy Gay
  • PF:    LaMarcus Aldridge / Dante Cunningham
  • C:      Pau Gasol / Jakob Poeltl

Here’s a possible rotation that I would also like to see:

  • PG: Dejounte Murray
  • SG: Lonnie Walker IV
  • SF: DeMar DeRozan
  • PF: Jakob Poeltl
  • C:   LaMarcus Aldridge

DeRozan, granted, isn't your traditional small forward, but if San Antonio tries him there, it would be his best fit with the team. He can be an off-the-ball guard, with a guys like Murray taking the ball down the court. Maybe rookie Lonnie Walker IV emerges as a threat as a 3-point shooter, and maybe Poeltl gets a second-wind with the Spurs and gets utilized better in San Antonio. Most importantly, Aldridge has a second-punch option. DeRozan and Aldridge can complement each other perfectly under Pop’s direction.

DeRozan needed a guy like Aldridge his entire career like Aldridge needed a guy like DeRozan without the two -knowing it.

The Murray-to-Aldridge connection seemed to work last year, but Murray’s inexperience in the league shows. Now, DeRozan can drive to the hoop and have an option to a.) finish at the rim or b.) dish it low to Aldridge for an easy bucket. I’m excited to see it put into work.

If the Kawhi-less Spurs squeezed into the playoffs in 2018, there’s no telling what an Aldridge-DeRozan team can do.

For Toronto, it’s basic math when it comes to DeRozan. He’s 28, and although he’s exceeded expectations with the franchise, he was a cap space nightmare and never could get past LeBron in the East. With the talent Toronto possesses year after year, they’re perennial NBA Finals contenders year after year. But this year they want to contend for the Eastern title without DeRozan and with the league’s best defender in Kawhi.

In 2016, DeRozan signed a five-year deal nearly worth $140 million and Toronto didn’t want to deal with it anymore. The Spurs will owe him exactly $27,739,975 for three more seasons, which is about $5 million more than Aldridge makes per year.

The Raptors are obviously riding a championship-or-bust wave with this trade. Beyond the 2018-19 season, neither Kawhi nor Danny Green are bound to stay with the Raptors, as they are both on expiring contracts.

Still, this is great for the present and future of Toronto.

DeRozan and Kyle Lowry were the faces of Toronto and helped build up the winning spirits of the team, but dropping DeRozan’s cap space means for a strong rebuild. And who knows, maybe Kawhi re-signs? We’ll talk about that later.

But for now, here’s how the Raptors look next year:

  • PG: Kyle Lowry / Fred VanVleet / Delon Wright
  • SG: Danny Green / C.J. Miles
  • SF: Kawhi Leonard / OG Anunoby / Norm Powell
  • PF: Serge Ibaka / Pascal Siakam
  • C:  Jonas Valanciunas / Lucas Nogueira

Similar to the Spurs, I want to see this rotation used at some point:

  • PG: Lowry
  • SG: OG Anunoby
  • SF: Kawhi
  • PF: Siakam
  • C:   Valanciunas

Just the thought of OG Anunoby and Kawhi on the court together seems too good to be true. Anunoby and Kawhi are phenomenal defenders and Anunoby will learn a great deal from Kawhi.

My only concern at the moment for Toronto will be scoring in crunch time. While guys like VanVleet are destined for points, guys like Ibaka often shoot too much. When it’s the final possession, Kawhi or Lowry will get the call to score. But can Kawhi and Lowry put up 23 and 18, respectively? It’ll be interesting to see the two share the floor together, and I think Kawhi could end up taking away some of Lowry’s points.

This year could be the year we see more of a depreciation from veterans like Serge Ibaka and Danny Green. Ibaka struggles defensively when hanging with stronger offensive players. Green averaged 8.6 points a game last year under a great system, and averaged around seven points when Kawhi was on the floor during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. Green could go from a starter on the Raptors to an off-the-bench 3-point shooter, which might be fine.

Now for the future of Kawhi, ah yes. Leonard obviously wants to play for a Los Angeles team by next season and he’ll be free to do so. But the bottom line is Kawhi needs to play this season. Even the desperate-for-another-star Lakers will scratch their heads if Leonard decides to wildly forgo the 2018-19 season with the Raptors.

In a LeBron-less Eastern Conference, Kawhi has the potential to not only lead the East, but take the Raptors to the NBA Finals. Against a vamped up Boston team, Toronto might lock down extremely well defensively and grind out a series win. Then, Toronto could go up against a juggernaut Golden State and might take the most playoff games away from the superteam.

At that point, maybe the city of Toronto could convince Kawhi to sign an extension on a two-year, insanely high deal, with a player option after the first year. Kawhi gives it another shot and becomes the leader of the East for a while.

Wishful thinking if you’re a Raptors fan.

But for now, to the Toronto Raptors, you build an army around Kawhi for this season--and however many more he agrees to join for--and when he leaves, you tear down it all and start from scratch.

And to the Spurs, you hope that DeRozan has three great seasons ahead of him and that he can coexist with Aldridge.

More From 600 ESPN El Paso