In the six weeks since the Toronto Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 protected 2019 first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, much has been made about change. A fresh start for Leonard, renewed hope for the Raptors and an unexpected upheaval for DeRozan.
It will certainly take some time for Raptors fans to adjust to life without DeRozan. He was their star that chose to stay, the franchise's all-time leading scorer, and could one day become the first player in franchise history with a jersey in the rafters. While it's difficult to imagine a Raptors backcourt without DeRozan, it's now Kyle Lowry steering the ship with a chance to put a fitting cap on the most successful era in franchise history
Toronto took a gamble both on and off the court for what could be just a year of Leonard, but it was one worth taking. As tough as it might be for Lowry to play without his long-time teammate beside him, it was the right move for him too. Stripping away the emotion and evaluating the decision strictly as a basketball transaction, this deal could do wonders for squeezing more out of Lowry.
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Right off the bat, swapping DeRozan and Poeltl for Leonard and Green completely changes the gravity of the offence. While it's certainly true that DeRozan stretched his game to become more of a threat beyond the 3-point line, the fact remains that he still shot just 31.2 percent from deep, well below the league average and among the worst in the league among players to take a high volume. As such, defences remained content with him shooting from the perimeter - just 27 percent of his 3-point attempts were tightly contested - preferring to clog the lane and protect the rim.
With the additions of Leonard and Green, the flow of the offence should completely change. Over his past two healthy regular seasons, Leonard shot 40.7 percent from distance on 4.9 attempts per game and is a dynamic scoring threat from anywhere on the floor. Green is no slouch himself, especially from the corners where he's knocked down 43.9 percent over the last two seasons and should provide Lowry another viable spacing option. Both Leonard and Green have shown a penchant for shooting high volumes of catch-and-shoot 3s, an area that DeRozan never truly embraced despite sharing a backcourt with an All-Star caliber point guard.
When Leonard is creating his own offence - which he will a lot - Lowry becomes a very dangerous off-ball threat of his own. While the plurality of his shots were pull-ups last season (40.2 percent), Lowry posted a better catch-and-shoot effective FG percentage than CJ McCollum, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, to name a few. With even more spacing this season, Lowry has a chance to become one of the premier catch-and-shoot threats in the league.
On the other side of the ball, the Raptors gained two of the league's best perimeter defenders. While Green doesn't carry the same level of prestige as the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, he remains one of the league's more underrated defenders and has ranked inside the top-5 at his position in Defensive Real Plus-Minus each of the last five seasons.
Danny Green is the only guard in the @NBA to have at least 50 steals and 50 blocks in each of the last five seasons. pic.twitter.com/aEZiyvyj1C- San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) June 26, 2017
Leonard's reputation as a defensive superstar justifiably precedes him. When healthy, there is no better perimeter defender in the league and he gives an already stout defence a legitimate chance to be the league's best. At a point in Lowry's career when he might start to slip on that end, playing alongside two defencive aces on the perimeter will help ease any decline.
Regular season success is all well and good, but the Raptors didn't make this trade for more April superlatives. As Raptors president Masai Ujiri has alluded to - fair or not - they made this deal to raise the ceiling and win a title. That is where Leonard, the 2014 Finals MVP, makes the biggest difference.
In Leonard, the Raptors now have a player that has time and again shown he is among the very best when it matters the most, exactly the type of boost needed for a franchise that's seemingly platuead. In each of his last three postseasons (2015-17), Leonard scored over 20 points per game and shot at least 42 percent from the perimeter. After a spectacular 2016-17 regular season in which he finished third in MVP voting, Leonard took his game to the next level in the playoffs and averaged 27.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game.
That season he led San Antonio to convincing victories over Memphis and Houston and was up by 21 on the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals before landing on Zaza Pachulia's foot. In that moment, Leonard was indisputably one of the five best players in the world. While the melodramatic past 15 months may have changed that evaluation for some, the Raptors traded for him because they believed he become that player again. These opportunities don't come around often.
It may have been lost amidst another disappointing sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers, but Lowry had a very good 2018 postseason in his own right. Though he had a slightly negative overall playoff net rating of -0.7, he was +16.7 per 100 possessions as the primary offensive creator. Even as they were getting swept, he was +41.6 per 100 possessions as the offensive focal point against the Cavaliers, albeit in a small sample size of just 25 total minutes.
When taking stock of the league, Lowry is still one of the best players in the Eastern Conference at perhaps the league's most loaded position. And though he'll still be tasked with proving Toronto can do more than rack up wins from October through April, he is for the first time in a Raptors uniform cast as a clear second option alongside a player more equipped to make his life easier on the court. Only time will tell but there's certainly reason for optimism that a re-imagined roster re-designed to amplify Lowry's strengths can push Toronto closer to true title contention.
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