The Toronto Raptors are inching closer to the biggest gamble in franchise history by completing a trade with the San Antonio Spurs for the superstar forward Kawhi Leonard.
The Raptors and Spurs are in advanced discussions on a trade that would land Leonard in Canada and send the All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio as his primary replacement, according to reports from both Yahoo Sports and ESPN in the early hours of Wednesday.
Toronto appears committed to take this risky opportunity to acquire Leonard even though the player was limited to nine games last season by a quadriceps injury and can leave the Raptors in free agency next summer, according to a person with knowledge of Toronto’s thinking but who was not authorized to discuss the team’s plans publicly.
Toronto posted a franchise-record 59 wins last season, but fired Coach Dwane Casey — who was later named the N.B.A.’s coach of the year in separate balloting by both news media members and his peers — after a humbling second-round sweep inflicted by the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers.
Leaguewide buzz about the Raptors jumping into the Leonard trade sweepstakes has been building for the past week.
If the teams can swiftly complete a deal, it will set up a potentially awkward reunion for Leonard and Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich next week in Las Vegas at a U.S.A. Basketball minicamp, which is scheduled to be Popovich’s formal debut as the successor to Duke University’s Mike Krzyzewski as head coach of Team U.S.A. Leonard is among a group of 35 top players who have been invited to the camp.
It remains to be seen what else San Antonio can extract from Toronto in a final trade construction in addition to DeRozan. Two of the Raptors’ top younger players, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, have been mentioned as likely Spurs trade targets in addition to draft compensation.
Teams interested in trading for Leonard have been consistently told for weeks that the player has no interest in signing anywhere but Los Angeles — either with the Lakers or the Clippers — when he becomes a free agent in July 2019. Trading for Leonard anyway would thus represent a huge dice roll for Toronto’s team president, Masai Ujiri, one reminiscent of Oklahoma City’s trade with Indiana in July 2017 to bring the All-Star forward Paul George to the Thunder.
George was widely believed to be determined to sign with the Lakers in free agency this month from the time Oklahoma City acquired him. The Thunder, though, gambled on a trade for George anyway and used their full season together to successfully win George over and persuade him to sign with the Thunder as Russell Westbrook’s new marquee sidekick.
It appears that the Spurs will also be getting a reluctant star if the trade goes through. ESPN reported Wednesday that DeRozan met with Raptors officials during summer league play in Las Vegas, amid the growing rumbles about a trade for Leonard, and was assured he wouldn’t be dealt.
DeRozan seemed to confirm that in an Instagram post he issued Wednesday morning as news of the potential trade began to circulate, saying: “Be told one thing & outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing.”
The New York Times first reported in late June that the Spurs were ready to move on from Leonard, conceding at that time — after a face-to-face meeting between Popovich and Leonard in San Diego — that the team’s fractured relationship with its best player could not be repaired.
The partnership has steadily deteriorated over the course of last season, with Leonard and his representatives dismayed by the Spurs’ initial handling of the injury to the point that they have entrusted Leonard’s rehabilitation to doctors outside the San Antonio organization for months.
The Spurs have engaged in trade talks with several teams over the past month, most notably the Lakers, Philadelphia and Boston. Yet it appears that only Toronto, at the moment, is willing to surrender multiple quality assets for Leonard, amid real fears among various prospective suitors that Leonard could leave whoever acquires him without compensation once he becomes a free agent on July 1, 2019.
The state of Leonard’s health also remains a mystery. He appeared in only nine games last season because of the lingering effects of the quadriceps ailment he suffered during the 2017 playoffs.
After acquiring Leonard, Toronto would be able to offer him a five-year contract worth an estimated $190 million next season, which approaches the $220 million “supermax” contract extension that only the Spurs can offer Leonard this summer.
The most that the Lakers or Clippers could offer Leonard next summer is a four-year deal worth an estimated $140 million.
In DeRozan, San Antonio would be acquiring a player coming off his best N.B.A. season who remains under contract for at least the next two seasons. DeRozan has the ability to forego the final season of his deal to become a free agent in July 2021.