Kawhi Leonard Makes The Raptors The Celtics’ Biggest Threat

With Kawhi Leonard on board, the Toronto Raptors become the biggest threat to the Boston Celtics and their dreams of reaching the NBA Finals.

Oh, boy.

On Wednesday morning, July 18th, Adrian Wojranowski reported that the San Antonio Spurs had agreed to trade Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Demar Derozen, Jakob Poeltl, and a 2019 first-round pick protected 1-20.

Let’s skip the long intro and hop right in: in spite of all the hype about how great the Boston Celtics should be this season (and they will be great), this deal makes the Raptors a serious threat to win the East.

The Raptors finished 5th in defensive rating and third in offensive rating (behind only the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, both of whom were lauded for historic offensive seasons) last season. They were a truly elite team by every single measure, and this deal makes them significantly better on both ends of the floor.

Let’s start with the defense. Kawhi Leonard is, without dispute, the best perimeter defender in the game when healthy. Opponents often concede that Leonard is going to win his matchup and just have the player he’s guarding stand in the corner while they play 4-on-4, as famously written about by Matt Moore. That was actually hurting the Spurs at the time, because the rest of their defensive personnel was (gulp) lacking.

That’s not an issue in Toronto.

Kyle Lowry is a bulldog who shuts down opposing point guards, can handle switches onto bigger players, and kills opponents with hustle plays (he lead the league in charges drawn by a healthy margin in 2017-2018). The newly emerged Fred VanVleet, meanwhile, had the 2nd best defensive rating among point guards who played at least 60 games last season. They’re a tough matchup for Kyrie Irving, who shot a hair below 44% in his last ten games against them. That’s well below his normal averages in both the postseason and the playoffs.

Up and down the roster, the Raptors are stacked with elite defensive personnel. Danny Green is not as young as he once was, but is still an elite perimeter defender. OG Anunoby is 6’8 with a 7’0 wingspan and handled the toughest defensive assignments for the Raptors as a rookie. Pascal Siakam is a versatile plus defender. Serge Ibaka has had his ups and downs in Toronto, but the former Defensive Player of the Year candidate is still capable of being an elite rim protector who can still switch onto most guards.

Jonas Valanciunas is a big, strong center who plays with intense effort. Opponents shot 7 percentage points worse within 6 feet when guarded by him last season. He’s limited because of his foot speed, but the Raptors can shift Ibaka to the 5 with Anunoby or Siakam at the 4 whenever that becomes a problem.

Here’s the bottom line on the defense: the Raptors were a top 5 defensive squad last year, and swapped out DeMar DeRozen (in the best of times, an average defender) and Jakob Poeltl (a good defender, but not a gigantic part of their plans) for the best perimeter defender of this decade in Kawhi Leonard and another great one in Danny Green. The Raptors can put a lineup on the floor that can switch everything and still have an elite defender guarding each position.

Meanwhile, as good as DeRozan was on offense, Kawhi Leonard is even better. In 2016-2017, with a 30.6% usage rate (99th percentile), Kawhi had 122.8 points per shot attempt (96th percentile), an absurd figure considering his usage rate. He shot 38 percent from distance in 2016-2017, which should do wonders for Toronto’s spacing (Danny Green’s sharpshooting won’t hurt either).

Leonard is elite in nearly every offensive category. In 2016-2017, among players averaging at least 1 possession per game of this shot type and who played in at least 60 games, he was sixth in pick and roll points per possession, ninth in spot-up points per possession, and seventh in transition points per possession. While not a playmaker, it is no stretch to call Kawhi Leonard the most versatile scorer in the NBA.

The Raptors are going to be a deep, talented squad who can switch everything, defend at an elite level, and beat you with a prolific scorer surrounded by weapons.

The Celtics are going to be a deep, talented squad who can switch everything, defend at an elite level, and beat you with a prolific scorer surrounded by weapons.

If the Celtics meet the Raptors in the playoffs, this matchup will be absolutely fascinating. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have yet to play against a defensive tandem like Leonard and Green in the playoffs. Kyrie Irving will need to overcome a matchup that his given him trouble. Al Horford will have his hands full with Toronto’s assortment of talented bigs.

Truthfully, it’s hard not to like Boston’s chances. As good as Toronto’s defense was last year, Boston’s was appreciably better. They have future stars on the rise and current stars coming back from injury. The Raptors cannot match their continuity or their ceiling.

Yet Celtics fans have to be feeling less confident now than they were a week ago. A wide-open conference that seemed theirs for the taking now has a dino-sized obstacle standing in their way, headed by a superstar who’s proven it in the playoffs. Maybe the Celtics are still fine. Maybe they’ll still fulfill the prophecy and claim the East as their conference for years to come.

But however you cut it, things just got a lot harder.