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The Raptors trade for Kawhi Leonard: a risk worth taking

The Raptors bet big on their culture when they traded DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, the kid from Compton didn’t bother to meet with any other teams — including his hometown Lakers — before he inked a five-year extension, hopped onto a podium and healed the Raptors fanbase, announcing into the microphone, “I am Toronto.”

The moment was cathartic: finally, a star who stays. Happily, at that. The Raptors and DeRozan were a perfect match: welded together by constant sleights, trying to prove to the NBA they deserved a seat at the table. Together, they drove to relevancy. But nothing more.

During the same press conference, DeRozan said this, via Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star:

“For me, to be second all-time scoring, the most wins as a Raptor, that’s something — you might not see it now, but that’s a legacy. Unless you go there and win seven championships, there’s no overshadowing who played (with the Lakers) for 20 years.”

He might have added, ‘if you’re me, that is’. In other words, DeRozan knew he could beat Toronto’s paltry franchise records, but he wouldn’t have much of a shot elsewhere. DeRozan settled for the place he could end up in the rafters (fans are already discussing a statue) and the Raptors settled for the guy they knew would never leave them.

Now, they’re trying to punch up and get the guy who reportedly insists he’s not interested. In the wee hours of July 18th, the Raptors made a franchise-altering decision by sending DeRozan — who is understandably upsetJakob Poeltl, and a protected first-round pick to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

NBA: Toronto Raptors-Press Conference Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Leonard doesn’t think in DeRozan’s terms about where he could leave a legacy: he already won a Finals MVP with the Spurs with Duncan still on the team, after all. The other side of the coin: he knows he can win on the biggest stage, and he reportedly wants it. The Lakers are reportedly the only team he would have re-signed with following a trade, and ESPN’s Chris Haynes reports Leonard has no interest in playing for Toronto.

Much like the Thunder did with Paul George, Toronto is taking the cachet it built through the era of Kyle Lowry and Drake to the checkout till, making a big purchase and hoping their credit card doesn’t get declined. The eyes of the NBA — and every potential free agent they could go after in the future — are standing in line behind them and watching, waiting for Leonard to decide whether he likes colored money.

... So the Raptors are taking on some risk.

Naturally, that’s inspired some fear from the fanbase. But improvement almost always involves risk-taking. Fifty of the total 72 championships in NBA history belong to five teams. Every other franchise, including the Raptors, is playing against the house. And when you’re playing against the house, you’re more likely to win if you make high-variance decisions. In other words, if you’re not constantly terrified that epic failure could be on the horizon, you’re not doing it right.

For all of DeRozan’s improvement, his worst traits flared up in the post-season. They exchanged him (alongside two assets) for proven playoff performers who can defend, switch and shoot threes. Oh yeah, one of them is a top-five player, and he might well be the best player in the Eastern Conference. If the pendulum swings right for them, the Raptors will field their best team in franchise history, and have a real shot at the Finals. If they don’t, Leonard will leave and the Raptors will have to start their re-build early — albeit short of some assets. Either way, the end was eventually coming. The Raptors have accelerated their timeline and given themselves a shot at contention. If they fail now, at least they’ll fail fast.

Besides, standing pat was risky too. The Raptors rammed into their ceiling in the playoffs: despite the ‘culture reset’, Dwane Casey’s Coach of the Year bid, and DeRozan riding his newfound playmaking skill into his best season yet, they still got swept by the Cavs. They were stagnant, and stagnation is just a stone’s throw away from regression: just ask all the other middling semi-contenders, straining to extract meaning from an 82-game season (looking at you, Wizards) or the guy who went all in with one blind at the main event of the World Series of Poker this year. He won the hand, sure, but he was knocked out less than five hands later.

Leonard, given his murky health status and reportedly wandering eye, might not the best bet to stay, but he was still the best bet available.