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Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors Is a Loss for Just About Everybody

Nathaniel Friedman

Sometimes, there are no winners. In the blockbuster trade that sent to Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-round pick, we all sort of lose. Leonard, who hits free agency next summer, reportedly has no interest in playing in Toronto. Even if he is healthy and motivated, the Raptors—still reeling from their disastrous postseason—are far from a powerhouse. DeRozan lands with a Spurs team that, even with all those San Antonio intangibles going for them, is at best middle-of-the-pack.

The outlook is dismal all around. There will be no grand finale for Gregg Popovich, who is rumored to be retiring in 2020. Dwayne Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, won’t be coaching Leonard because the Raptors fired him after the playoffs. Given the circumstances, Toronto fans can only be so excited about landing Leonard; all the Spurs faithful can do is chin up and get on with their lives. If Leonard had been dealt to the Lakers or Sixers, it would have shifted the competitive balance of the league. Instead, both the Spurs and Raptors will start 2018-19 operating at a deficit.

As the opposite of winning, losing is ingrained in sports. Competition is a zero-sum game: one party walks away with a win, the other doesn’t. Athletes also play to avoid losing. Lose too much and you become a loser, which makes it hard to ever truly win again, at least in the court of public opinion. But there’s a difference between losing and a sense of loss—of having lost something and feeling that things are no longer what they once were. While both force us to reflect on what could’ve been, loss also mourns the past. It’s as much about what was once real as a future we have no choice but to invent.

If the Leonard deal were just one big collective L, it would be dismal. Instead, it’s devastating, with implications that run far deeper than anyone’s near-term ability to win basketball games. Take Leonard himself. A year ago, he was sitting pretty. A perennial All-Star who was only getting better, Kawhi was often referred to, however vacuously, as “the best two-way player in the league.” And while outside of San Antonio he was more respected and admired than actively jocked, his reputation was stellar. The rightful heir to Tim Duncan wasn’t just self-effacing. He often seemed to have little real sense of self, no identity outside of his role on the team. Leonard embodied the vaunted Spurs culture and seemed to want nothing more than to add to the franchise’s championship total.

A lot has happened since then. Leonard missed all of 2017-18 with a still-mysterious quad injury. Neither his camp nor the Spurs saw fit to clarify the situation, and it’s become clear that communication between them all but broke down. There were rumblings about Leonard eyeing a more glamorous market, in part because he—or at least his Uncle Dennis—had designs on a bigger sneaker contract. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili took sidelong shots at Leonard and Popovich disdainfully talked around the situation. No amount of intrepid reporting could turn up what the hell was actually going and then suddenly, the Spurs were shopping Leonard. The seemingly unshakable bond between franchise and franchise player had been severed. Even if this didn’t come as a surprise, it still registered as a shock.

While it’s a stretch to say that Leonard has fallen from grace, for the moment he’s no longer the figure he once was. It’s not just that a year on the shelf has raised major questions about his long-term health. The affably blank player we thought we knew has, if recent events are any indication, has been revealed as—or grown into, or manipulated by others to be—a far more ordinary professional athlete. The same thing happened to Kevin Durant, who was also once praised for his perceived humility. In Leonard’s case, though, those traits were directly tied to, and followed from, the Spurs and their culture. The relationship defined him, perhaps to a fault, and when he tugged it began to unravel.

The break-up has been so fraught and indecipherable that it’s changed the collectively-held impression of Leonard, to the point where some have wondered if he’ll even be motivated next season. But as Leonard has come undone the Spurs, too, have been compromised. The organization has always exerted a strong pull on its players but the feeling was always mutual. They didn’t ensnare anyone and Popovich was never punitive. When there was conflict, we heard that they were handled efficiently and even-handedly, if we heard about them at all. No one on the Spurs could stay mad for long and thus only got so upset in the first place. Assigning blame was always less important than moving forward.

Contrast the way this all went down with the way Popovich handled LaMarcus Aldridge’s demi-trade demand last summer, when he sat down with the disgruntled star and hashed out a solution (some people, including myself, have speculated that this was perceived as a concession and alienated Leonard). With Leonard, that trust collapsed early on, and both sides spent the season sizing up each other suspiciously. It was hardly the way the Spurs, or Popovich himself, have historically handled their business. And given the stakes, it’s hard to not count it as a strike against them—and feel a slight twinge because of it. What was formerly an institution around the league now feels less certain, less secure. A constant has faltered and you don’t have to care about the Spurs to feel destabilized.

The sense of loss around the Raptors is even more palpable. Last season, they finished with the best record in the East and were considered one of the conference’s elite teams. After being swept by the Cavs in the playoffs, they got knocked down a peg, to the point where there was speculation that they would blow it all up and start from scratch. Toronto, which had been building toward legitimacy and contention, expected a crescendo and instead got a gut punch. Firing Casey and now trading DeRozan signifies the end of an era, an admission of failure that reflects poorly on their deliberate planning and talent cultivation. There’s no bitterness toward DeRozan or anyone else; Toronto is known (like San Antonio, actually) for its largely unconditional support of its players. But squandering this level of intimacy just feels like a waste.

It’s DeRozan, though, who was hit the hardest. He’s been a Raptor his entire career. DeRozan was groomed to carry the team and has evolved his game to suit its needs. While he may not have been ontologically bonded to the Raptors in the same way that Leonard was to the Spurs, DeRozan had made a home for himself in Toronto and fully expected to play out his career there. Now, he hasn’t just been cast out—he’s been diminished. DeRozan was consistently underrated, if not overlooked altogether. But he was always regarded as a franchise player and the plausible cornerstone of a contender. This trade isn’t just about Leonard being better than DeRozan. It sends a clear message: DeMar DeRozan is not a singular talent that you build around and trust implicitly.

Through no fault of his own, DeRozan has taken the Raptors as far as he can, because that’s what happens eventually with anything less than greatness. Granted, professional sports are a business, and the Raptors owed DeRozan nothing, in the same way that free agents have no moral obligation to a franchise (what they owe their teammates and coaches is another matter altogether). But DeRozan isn’t just leaving against his will. However unintentionally, and however badly the Raptors may have wanted it to be otherwise, this trade is an undeniably harsh verdict.. It’s hard to say what will happen with the Raptors going forward. But like DeRozan, they—and the city of Toronto—are not what they were before and will never be that again. Just because some outcomes seem inevitable, it doesn’t mean they sit well with anyone involved. Sometimes, it’s not about winning and losing. It’s about what sets in, consumes, and potentially destroys us in between.