Exploring the Rotation Options of the Spurs & Raptors Post-Kawhi Leonard Trade

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Finally, last week the Kawhi-sis ended. The Spurs sent Kawhi Leonard & Danny Green to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl & a top 20 protected 2019 1st round pick. There is a lot to be said about Kawhi and this PR mess he got himself into over the past year. Its been reported by ESPN’s Chris Haynes that Kawhi has “no interest” in playing in Toronto. Masai Ujiri knew that before he pulled the trigger on the deal, he doesn’t care. He is making moves on the belief that Kawhi Leonard is going to quit making stupid career decisions and report and play for Toronto this year. It would be ridiculous for Kawhi to even consider sitting out this season. He is under contract to play basketball professionally in the NBA, regardless of team, for one more season.

Mar 13, 2018; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) smiles during a timeout against the Orlando Magic at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

If he is inclined to sit to attempt to force his way to Los Angeles, Toronto can fine him his full years’ salary. Leonard would also be in violation of league rules and his impending Free Agency would be delayed by one year. He would end up playing 9 games in 3 years of his prime before he has a chance to go to Los Angeles. Leonard is smarter than that, right? Is his Uncle?

Moving on with the assumption that Leonard will report and play for the Raptors, Toronto has some lineup decisions to make going into next year. Nick Nurse, famously the Assistant in Toronto responsible for their new offense strategies that led them to the number one seed last year, will take the reins this season after Toronto fired Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey. Last season, Toronto’s bench had the 2nd highest Offense Rating & Defensive Rating and played the 2nd most minutes in the league. Take a look at their roster:

Guards: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, Lorenzo Brown
Wings: Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Danny Green, CJ Miles, Norman Powell, Malachi Richardson
Centers: Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam

Toronto has long started Serge Ibaka & Jonas Valanciunas together in the front court, however with the way the NBA is moving it could make some sense to start OG Anunoby, at the Power Forward spot to allow for more switch ability on defense. Ibaka has always played out of position and could easily slide over to the Center spot, but Valanciunas improved very much last season as both a shooter and a defender (he may be league average now) and has reportedly been one of Nurse’s guys during his time as an assistant. Moving Ibaka to the bench would be hard to stomach while still owing him slightly less than $50 million over the next two years, and Ibaka is still a better rim protector than Valanciunas.

To end games last season Casey would slide DeRozan to the 3 and put Van Vleet in at the Shooting Guard spot and run a 2-PG lineup. That lineup with Ibaka & Valanciunas had a Net Rating of +24.6, good for third best of all 5-man lineups that played at least 100 minutes or more together last season. Replacing DeRozan in the lineup is Leonard, a player more suited to play the 3-full time. If you decide to push Anunoby to the 4, you have a hole at the 2. The best fit to start there? Danny Green. The overlooked addition in the blockbuster trade, Green has a long history as one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, and a proven Three-Point Shot.

If Toronto puts out a starting five of Lowry-Green-Leonard-Anunoby-Ibaka, even the Warriors would struggle to score 100 points against them. It’s easy to find humor in the fact Toronto has traded for two of the top 10 perimeter defenders after LeBron leaves for the Western Conference. Nonetheless, Toronto is not to be discounted. The NBA is star-driven and the Celtics & the Sixers are both loaded. With Leonard, Toronto has the BEST star in the entire conference and the players around him to be a real danger.

On the other side, the Spurs are looking at their most intriguing season since 2014 if not later. The Spurs opted for a package for Leonard that would allow them to continue competing. Last year the Spurs finished 7th in the clusterfuck of the Western Conference playoff race. Popovich certainly has no plans on leaving that any time soon. Here is the Spurs roster breakdown:

Guards: DeJounte Murray, Patrick Mills, Manu Ginobili, Derrick White, Bryn Forbes

Wings: DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Marco Belinelli, Lonnie Walker IV

Bigs: LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Davis Bertans, Jakob Poeltl, Dante Cunningham

Looking at this roster, it’s safe to assume that there are only three locks in the starting lineup, and it is pure coincidence that all of them have stray capitalizations in their names. San Antonio has a lot of versatility around those three. DeJounte Murray is your de facto Point Guard, but with his 6’10” wingspan, he can guard all three wing positions and some opposing 4’s in small ball lineups. His defensive versatility allows you to start another guard next to him in the back court, like Patrick Mills. Wait, isn’t DeRozan the other guard? As mentioned earlier, DeRozan ended a lot of games at the 3 last season. DeMar is arguably the last two-guard in the same mold of the great two-guards of yesteryear. He will likely log a ton of minutes there, but it may be better for him to start at the small forward. The only other player who could really log minutes at the 3 is Rudy Gay, who was utilized way better last year as a small ball 4 on the Spurs bench. With how the roster is currently constructed the Spurs look likely to play a lot of 3 guard lineups, the question is will they start one? If Will Barton can start as a Small Forward, then why can’t DeMar DeRozan?

Jan 13, 2018; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Davis Bertans (42) shoots the ball over Denver Nuggets power forward Trey Lyles (7) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a long-reported story that LaMarcus Aldridge prefers to play the 4 even though he is a picturesque Center in today’s league as an underrated defensive anchor and floor stretcher. Last year Pau Gasol started 63 games at Center. The veteran just turned 38, and although his last season was solid it’s doubtful he continues starting. Both Davis Bertans & newly acquired Jakob Poeltl are both slated for jumps in playing time & opportunity. Bertans adds another shooter to the lineup, Poeltl fits the mold of rim running, high energy center that Popovich has long loved. Poeltl shot 66.2% last year, good for 2nd highest in the entire NBA. Poeltl allows for Aldridge to play the 4, even though he will likely end games at the 5.

If anybody can turn that group of players into a competing rotation, I would trust Gregg Popovich to do it. DeRozan & Aldridge are capable shooters who much prefer the dreaded midrange, and Murray’s shooting mechanics are a work in progress. It would make sense for their offense to start as many 3-point shooters as possible. That’s the trend you also see reflected in Nick Nurse’s Raptors & around the league, sacrifice of traditional NBA lineups in exchange for shooting & switch-ability. Both franchises improved their chances of success this upcoming season, the rest is up to the coaches.

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