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For Boston Celtics, Kawhi Leonard trade to Toronto Raptors makes Eastern Conference more dangerous

For a league that just spent the better part of two weeks in Las Vegas, the Kawhi Leonard trade saga — which appears to have finally wrapped up, at least for the time being — is appropriately a gamble on just about every side.

Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the San Antonio Spurs brought the situation to a merciful end on Wednesday, dealing Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick.

For the Spurs, dealt an abysmal hand by Leonard and the now-infamous Uncle Dennis, this is an acceptable value move. Leonard’s refusal to even consider playing anywhere except Los Angeles put them in a bind and limited the assets they could receive in return. Young talent like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Markelle Fultz were all reportedly off the table in exchange for an injured superstar with no intention of re-signing. So rather than risking losing Leonard for nothing — and it seems abundantly clear they would have lost him — the Spurs get an All-Star in DeMar DeRozan, along with other compensation.

The Raptors, of course, get Leonard. When healthy, he’s one of the five best players in the NBA, and for a Toronto team that has continuously scuffled in the postseason, a trade for even a disgruntled superstar makes a lot of sense.

Perhaps just as interesting as the teams involved, however, are the teams that weren’t. The Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers all could have beaten the package offered by the Raptors — any trade involving Brown, Brandon Ingram or even Fultz plus picks would probably have swayed the Spurs, who are staring a rebuild in the face. Jumpstarting that rebuild by adding a cornerstone prospect almost certainly would have been a more attractive option than DeRozan, an All-NBA talent who will still turn 29 before the season begins.

But each team had separate reasons to pass. The Lakers believe they can sign Leonard outright next summer without giving up assets (and Leonard’s camp has given them every reason to maintain confidence). The Sixers didn’t want to give up the necessary assets for what appears to be a rental, especially with plenty of cap space looming in next summer’s deep free-agent class.

The Celtics’ lack of interest, of course, has been well documented. Boston’s current starting lineup is Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford. All five will have a legitimate chance to make the All-Star team next season, and the Celtics are excited to see how they all fit together during the regular season after the young stars on the team made a push to the Eastern Conference Finals. Giving up any of those pieces for Leonard with no guarantee of health and no assurances he would even consider remaining in Boston would have been an unnecessary risk for a team so well constructed for both the present and the future.

Of course, the gamble all three teams took was simple: They don’t get to employ Kawhi Leonard this year. The Lakers hope the Raptors don’t sell him on Toronto. The Sixers (who suddenly might be the third-best team in the East) hope they can find someone else willing to sign next summer. The Celtics hope the Raptors didn’t just vault themselves to the top of the conference by acquiring a potential MVP candidate.

So where do things stand now?

Celtics fans who believe the Raptors aren’t a threat (and there are plenty of those fans) have forgotten exactly how good Leonard is. He’s the best wing defender since Scottie Pippen and a consistent 3-point threat who can also create offense for himself in isolation (0.94 PPP on nearly three possessions per game in 2016-17, good for the 72nd percentile). The Spurs looked like a legitimate threat to the Golden State Warriors with Kevin Durant, when Leonard was on the floor briefly in the 2017 Western Conference Finals before he suffered a bad ankle sprain.

Adding Leonard and Green alongside Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka makes the Raptors a potentially nasty defensive team — Toronto was fifth in defensive rating last year already with DeRozan (a bad defender). Replacing him with Green and a healthy Leonard may turn them into a juggernaut.

Meanwhile, Toronto gave up essentially none of the depth that made its bench so tough. Fred Van Vleet re-signed earlier this summer, and Ujiri somehow managed to hang on to Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles. The Raptors should be able to punish teams with both their first and second units on both ends of the floor. They are going to be really good.

The Celtics still look better, at least on paper. The starting unit is essentially a Big Five, and if Boston keeps the band together, a second unit of Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis and Aron Baynes (interspersed with potential All-Stars) is as good as any that exists league-wide. Boston’s defense was even stingier than Toronto’s last year, and while Irving is far from a plus defender, the Celtics were great around him for most of the season, and Hayward’s return will only help. Meanwhile, the addition of Irving and Hayward — and inevitable improvements from Tatum and Brown — will likely boost the Celtics’ faltering offensive rating, which finished 18th. The Celtics still look like they will be as good as anyone — a two-way juggernaut with a ton of options and star power.

But the Raptors made things interesting. A healthy, engaged Leonard would automatically be the best player in the conference (barring some not-impossible improvements from Giannis Antetokounmpo) and Toronto’s two-way options will give them a real chance to compete.

The Celtics will probably still be the favorites, and their gamble was a good one. But the road through the East is considerably more treacherous than it was a week ago.


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