Revisiting the Toronto Raptors’ Trade for Kawhi Leonard

We’re continuing our series of articles revisiting past deals by analyzing the Toronto Raptors’ trade for Kawhi Leonard. In just the past month, we’ve broken down the Houston Rockets trading for James Harden, who has now reunited with Daryl Morey with the Philadelphia 76ers; the Boston Celtics’ ill-fated trade for Kyrie Irving; the historically-significant Luka DončićTrae Young draft night trade; and, finally, we came full circle by discussing Harden’s short-lived time with the Brooklyn Nets.

The trade for Leonard in the 2018 offseason was franchise-altering for Toronto. It also slammed the San Antonio Spurs’ window for title contention, which started when Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997. Few trades have had the historical impact of this deal, and even fewer offer such a complete education of the NBA’s trade economy.

Revisiting the Toronto Raptors’ Trade for Kawhi Leonard

Terms of the Deal

The Trade

Toronto Raptors received: Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, $5 million cash

San Antonio Spurs received: DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, the no. 30 pick in the 2019 draft; Spurs selected Keldon Johnson

The San Antonio Spurs’ Trade Grade: B

The Spurs’ haul for Leonard may seem a bit underwhelming on the surface. Johnson has solidified himself as a starter after earning a contract extension to stay in San Antonio. However, Poeltl has only made gradual improvements on offense while playing capable (but not All-Defensive team-level) defense as a starter. DeRozan is a potent scorer, but his best season after this trade didn’t come in a Spurs uniform. 

And of course, the very next offseason, the New Orleans Pelicans received three first-round picks, the right to swap picks, and young players headlined by Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball after trading Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers. Then, the Pelicans received two first-round picks and two pick swaps after trading Jrue Holiday to the Milwaukee Bucks.

However, the Spurs made a series of savvy moves after this deal. San Antonio sign-and-traded DeRozan to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for a 2025 first-round pick, second-round picks in 2022 and 2025, and veterans Al-Farouq Aminu and Thaddeus Young. The Spurs then sent Young, Drew Eubanks, and a 2022 second-round pick to Toronto for the no. 20 pick in the 2022 draft while taking on (and buying out) Goran Dragić. The Spurs selected another high-upside guard, Malaki Branham, with Toronto’s pick.

In exchange for Leonard and Green, the Spurs have acquired 3 first-round picks (Johnson, Branham, and Chicago’s 2025 selection), a quality starting center in Poeltl, and an extra second-round pick for good measure. The Spurs’ overall return is even more impressive considering Leonard played only 9 games in the prior season due to tendinopathy issues. Still, one wonders if this deal could have been made without the inclusion of Green, who was and is a valued veteran role player with championship credentials.

The Toronto Raptors’ Trade Grade: A+

No need to overthink this.

The Raptors’ acquisition of Leonard started a trend of teams seeing immediate dividends after making offseason trades for All-Star level players. Both the Lakers and Bucks won titles after making the trades for Davis and Holiday mentioned above, just like Toronto. Only the Raptors acquired the MVP of their championship team, however, and GM Masai Ujiri also got a capable starter and game finisher in Green in the deal. Ujiri and the Raptors could not have done more to convince Leonard to stay in Toronto; it isn’t their fault the two-time Finals MVP chose to play closer to home in LA.

It’s also commendable they were able to include Poeltl in the deal instead of their young forward prospects Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. Siakam, of course, was a major part of that title run and has grown into an All-NBA level player. Anunoby’s lockdown defense has lived up to its promise, he shoots 37% from three for his career and just scored 17 points a game as a supplementary offensive weapon in Toronto. Both players are more impactful than Poeltl and play a much more valued position. Anunoby staying in Toronto also led to this argument about fashion with Serge Ibaka, reason enough for this trade to earn an “A+.”