- Sean M. Haffey/Getty
- The Oklahoma City Thunder’s gamble for Paul George paid off when they re-signed him to a four-year, $137 million contract this offseason.
- The Toronto Raptors are taking a similar gamble by trading for Kawhi Leonard one year before his free agency amid rumors that he has already decided to play in Los Angeles in 2019.
- Teams may be emboldened to try trading for superstars with one year left on their contracts if the Raptors’ gamble on Leonard works out.
A new trend may be emerging in the NBA in how teams handle superstars before they hit free agency.
When a star is approaching free agency, teams usually have two options: try to persuade that player to stay by improving the team, or shop the player in trades before they can leave for nothing in the offseason.
Those scenarios only become more complicated when a player makes it known in advance which team they want to join. The Indiana Pacers saw this with Paul George last year, when George essentially let it be known that he would join the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018 as a free agent.
In such scenarios, the trade market evaporates. Who wants to make a trade for a one-year rental? Moreover, who wants to give up anything of significant value for a one-year rental?
The Oklahoma City Thunder changed that narrative in 2017 when they traded for George anyway, sending Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to the Pacers. The Thunder took a gamble that in one year they could persuade George to stay with the team in the long term.
The trade proved to be a resounding success. Though the Thunder flamed out in the first round of the playoffs (and Oladipo developed into a star in Indiana), they re-signed George to a four-year, $137 million contract the moment free agency began. George didn’t even take a meeting with his hometown Lakers.
The Thunder proved in one season that they could satisfy George’s needs. The gamble paid off.
The Toronto Raptors took the same gamble on Wednesday by trading for Kawhi Leonard, who can become a free agent in 2019 and has made it known he wants to sign with the Lakers or the Los Angeles Clippers next summer. The Raptors pulled the trigger anyway – despite reports that Leonard does not want to be in Toronto – with the hope that over one year, they can prove they’re a fit for Leonard, much like the Thunder did for George.
“I think the Paul George thing has emboldened people,” one league source told Business Insider.
The same source noted there were varying circumstances. The Thunder pulled the deal for George to help convince Russell Westbrook that they could find another star player to play with him. The deal came one year after Kevin Durant left the Thunder for the Golden State Warriors. The Raptors, meanwhile, may have used the trade for Leonard to get rid of DeMar DeRozan’s hefty contract before it became a depreciating asset, the source said.
Even with the varying circumstances, the trade was a worthwhile gamble for the Raptors. They were treading water with a roster that was good, but not good enough to contend for a championship. In trading for Leonard, they upgraded with a star player who, if healthy, gives them a shot at the NBA Finals. There may not be a better way to persuade a star player to stay with your team than contending for a championship. But if Leonard leaves next summer anyway, the cost of getting him was minimal for Toronto.
Conversely, the Lakers took the opposite approach. They negotiated trades with the San Antonio Spurs for Leonard but ultimately backed down from the Spurs’ high asking price. Why trade for a star who may join you in free agency next year? It’s a fair and maybe even wise move. But George’s decision to stay with the Thunder also shows that the Lakers are taking a risk by not trading for Leonard.
There is always another star player on the verge of free agency – or what Bill Simmons has dubbed “pre-agency.” How long will it be before teams start calling the Milwaukee Bucks about Giannis Antetokounmpo or the New Orleans Pelicans about Anthony Davis? Do the Boston Celtics or Minnesota Timberwolves listen to calls for Kyrie Irving or Jimmy Butler before they hit free agency in 2019?
Taking a one-year gamble on a star isn’t for everyone. It takes a general manager with the backing of an owner and a franchise confident in its culture, structure, vision, and day-to-day operations.
It also takes timing. The same league source said the Raptors were most likely hoping to get Leonard in during the summer when he can experience warm weather in Toronto, a city viewed as one of the best in the NBA. Bringing in Leonard in the summer gives the Raptors a bigger recruiting window, while trading for a star in, say, December, shortens that window.
The Thunder created a roadmap for teams to take a swing. The Raptors are next, and the outcome of the Leonard experiment may well persuade or dissuade future teams from trying the same thing.