The full accounting of this summer’s blockbuster trade between the Raptors and Spurs won’t be completed until at least some time down the line.
For the Raptors, the flipping of franchise star DeMar DeRozan — along with Jakob Poeltl and a lottery-protected 2019 first-round pick — was deemed a necessary risk. It was an all-in push to ascend higher during this competitive window than they maybe would have running things back for a sixth year. Weighing that decision was difficult in the moment and will be difficult still if the team tops out as anything other than a champion, especially if Kawhi Leonard leaves after the season. The logic will not have changed, nor will the calculation of the gamble. Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and company made the right basketball move with their place on the competitive curve. Most will understand it as a necessary and worthwhile risk on probabilistic terms regardless of the outcome, but that outcome at either extreme will certainly color the long-term perception.
For the Spurs, it was a matter of accepting the end of the Kawhi Leonard era, determining whether that meant taking a large step back or continuing to compete through 2020 and then getting the most of a bad situation through the chosen lens. Choosing to remain competitive was perhaps arguable in a vacuum, one the Spurs don’t operate within — they had a handful of players nearing the end of their peak utility and their contracts and possibly a head coach heading toward the end of his career. Everything on San Antonio’s side of the deal is muddied by the uncertainty of the situation before the need to make the trade. Once it was decided that Leonard had to be dealt and a blow-up wasn’t in the cards, landing a star of DeRozan’s ilk with a prospect and a pick for Leonard and Danny Green wasn’t a bad return. If nothing else, they’ll get an extra year from DeRozan in 2019-20, one Leonard was almost certain not to play in their colours.
There’s a lot of this story left to be told, obviously. So far, though, this seems to be a case of a win-win deal, or at least of two sides making the most of their situations and reaping positive rewards so far. Entering their first meeting of the season on Thursday, the Raptors own the second-best winning percentage in the NBA and there may be no team hotter than the Spurs. Both will be measured more by postseason success (or presence, in San Antonio’s case, as they currently hold the eight-seed in the West by 1.5 games) more than regular season success, but it’s so far, so good at a surface level.
That extends beyond both teams to all four individuals involved in the deal, each of whom, however they felt at the time of the deal, is having a strong season. Here’s a look at how the four primary pieces in the deal are faring in their new homes.
Look at the base stats alone and it may seem like Poeltl has benefited the least from the swap — his scoring is down some, as are his minutes on the year. Early in the season, he was even oscillating between DNP-CDs and the Fabricio Oberto Honorary Quick Start. Poeltl’s fit on the Spurs was questionable, as his primary offensive skills — rim-running and offensive rebounding — are both more difficult with cramped spacing, a problem plaguing most of the units he was playing in.
Things have changed since Pau Gasol went down hurt in early November, freeing Poeltl to play more minutes overall and alongside Davis Bertans, with whom he found quick chemistry. Poeltl has played in 27 straight games for the Spurs now, averaging 16.8 minutes and putting up numbers familiar to those he posted in Toronto. Dive into the surface stats a little deeper, and Poeltl is scoring at roughly the same volume as his sophomore season in Toronto on slightly lesser efficiency, but he’s made up for it with a career-best rebounding rate and a massive spike in passing output.
His impact on winning has grown, too, as evidenced by Jacob Goldstein‘s Player Impact Plus-Minus. Poeltl also has the best net rating of any Spur to play at least 175 minutes this year, and he’s shown growth scoring in the post and as a roll-man. Synergy Sports play-type buckets see him taking a step back in small defensive samples this year and opponents are shooting 57.1 percent at the rim with Poeltl defending — up from 51.3 percent last year, though still above-average — but the Spurs still have their best defensive rating with him working the middle.
Maybe this is more subtle growth than some anticipated for a 23-year-old prospect considered a real piece in a massive trade. At the time, though, Poeltl was the most tradeable of Toronto’s young players, lacking the upside of a Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby and playing at a position of organizational depth. He’s also always profiled as a high-floor, lower-ceiling player, one who could probably plug-and-play with any team. Reliability is important, and Poeltl has begun providing that.
The Spurs even moved him into the starting lineup on Dec. 31, meaning he could be opposite his old pal Siakam on Thursday.
DeRozan has made a career off of proving to people that he can somehow get better year after year. He hasn’t done that as a scorer for San Antonio, necessarily. He’s still very much the same guy in that regard, scoring at about the same volume and efficiency as last year, using about the same share of possessions. His 3-point volume has dropped dramatically, too, and the annual “DeRozan developed his three!” narrative has been noticeably absent.
And still, DeRozan looks like an improved player once again. It started early in the year, as he took aim at his own personal bests as a playmaker almost right out of the gate, tallying 14 assists in his third game of the year and 44 over a five-game stretch. Zoom out and those numbers remain impressive: DeRozan is averaging 6.3 assists, a 20-percent jump over his previous career-high, and his assist rate is nudging close to 30 percent (it ranks 23rd in the NBA). Despite the level shooting usage and spike in passing, DeRozan still stands as one of the league’s lowest-turnover high-usage stars.
Don’t look now but Leonard is starting to look a lot more like the player who placed second and third in MVP voting and won an NBA Finals MVP before injury struck. It took a bit of time for him to find a comfort zone on offence, and that may still be ongoing due to the Raptors playing half of their games without one of him or Lowry. There have been nights where his defence dominates or his offence does, and maybe there hasn’t been that one game of two-way dominance yet. He’s shown it at both ends, though, and has been rolling with some consistency on offence of late.
Synergy loves the work Leonard has been doing at both ends, grading him in the 85th percentile on offence and 88th percentile on defence. He’s scoring well in isolation and the pick-and-roll, and after a slow start to the season from outside, Leonard’s pushed his 3-point percentage to 36.1. Defensively, he’s been enough of a deterrent that opponents rarely try to attack him in isolation, and he’s been a key part of Toronto’s successful small-sample zone looks.
More basic measures aren’t quite as robust as Synergy or qualitative evaluation, both of which suggest Leonard is once again playing at an MVP level. Like with DeRozan, he’s playing a similar role on offence in terms of usage and efficiency, but where DeRozan has seen a spike in playmaking and a drop in advanced-stats impact, the opposite has been true for Leonard.
If there’s a residual concern about his play so far, it’s that assist percentage, even if it does come with a turnover rate so low it makes DeRozan look like 2003-04 Michael Curry. The Raptors don’t have to play like they did a year ago and work a Leonard peg into a DeRozan-shaped hole, but their assist rate without Lowry on the floor remains very low and there’s a level of dynamism that makes a team harder to gameplan for and defend against that can still be unlocked, even with Leonard scoring at elite levels. Luckily, there is half a season still to go, some of which Lowry and Leonard may even play together for.
Coming off of a career-high scoring night Tuesday, Leonard would seem to be in the right groove to return to San Antonio and help the Raptors come out with a win. The result of Thursday’s game will probably be magnified in terms of impact because of the story around the game, while the real measure of the deal will come in the playoffs and, to an extent, in the coming offseason. Between those two measuring points, the trade seems to be working out okay for everyone involved so far.