If the Celtics thought the coast to the NBA Finals was clear after LeBron James went West — and it’s near certain a Brad Stevens team wasn’t getting ahead of itself — then they’re definitely not looking past the Eastern Conference after Kawhi Leonard joined the Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors acquired the San Antonio superstar forward on Wednesday, dealing guard DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl, and a 2019 protected first-round pick to the Spurs in exchange for the former Finals MVP and forward Danny Green.
While Leonard’s health remains a question mark, and his appetite for a long-term extension once he hits free agency next summer even more hazy, he immediately becomes one of the top players in the East. The Celtics were interested in bringing him to Boston, but were reportedly not willing to part with Jaylen Brown.
The last time Leonard played a full NBA season, he averaged a career-best 25.5 points and finished third in the MVP voting. His move north should act as some modicum of a counterbalance to the collection of talent in the West.
As the Celtics prepare to face the new-look Raptors, here’s what experts are saying the deal means for Boston:
Adam Himmelsbach, Boston Globe
If Leonard is healthy, this deal absolutely makes Toronto better. And Celtics fans will not love that. But this deal is good for the Eastern Conference, and for the NBA as a whole. The talent disparity between the two conferences was getting massive. Now, the player widely viewed as the third best in the world — when healthy — will re-balance the scales at least a bit. Also, Leonard’s presence will make games against the Celtics and 76ers even more compelling, and that’s a big part of the reason we’re all here in the first place.
Zach Lowe, ESPN
[Raptors president of basketball operations Masai] Ujiri will certainly try to sway Leonard on the trappings of a diverse city a little outside the limelight, with an insane (in the very best way) fan base. He will have to do the heavy lifting, because that is too much to ask of a first-year head coach in Nick Nurse. Ujiri has a charisma, and a way with players. A Finals run might help. Toronto has a chance at that. With this deal, the Raptors enter next season just behind Boston — ahead of Philly — in the Eastern Conference pecking order. (The Celtics could be 60-plus-wins special next season.)
Andrew Sharp, Sports Illustrated
Move Kawhi from San Antonio to Toronto, and suddenly the Eastern Conference doesn’t look quite as hopeless as it did 24 hours ago. The East talent pool is still laughably inferior compared to everything out West, but after losing LeBron and staring at an All-Star game that could include like eight different members of the Celtics, Kawhi helps the East reclaim a little bit of dignity.
Rodger Sherman, The Ringer
This is the Raps’ window. The Celtics and Sixers both seem like budding Eastern Conference powerhouses, but they’re still young and figuring out the full extent of their capabilities. So Toronto has taken a contender and added Leonard, who immediately becomes the best player in the East, in the hopes of reaching heights the franchise never has. (And then losing to the Warriors in the Finals, because, well, that’s all non–Golden State teams can really hope for these days.)
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com
Ranking Boston and Toronto is tough, particularly with the uncertain health of some of their respective best players. Both have incredibly deep perimeter rotations — do you prefer the defensive stylings and versatility of Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, among others, or the dynamism and outrageous talents of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (and maybe Marcus Smart)? The Raptors have greater frontcourt depth, yet the Celtics have the finest individual frontcourt player. Call it the Celtics by a nose, but the healthier team will be the better one, as is usually the case.
Gary Washburn, Boston Globe
The Raptors have had great success against the Celtics over the past few years. Their only bugaboo was the Cavaliers, and that won’t be the case with LeBron in Los Angeles.
So while the Celtics are still the favorites in the East, the Raptors become more intriguing with Leonard, Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka recently re-signed Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Delon Wright. It’s not that DeRozan would not have continued to make the Raptors formidable, it’s that this current crew just didn’t have enough fortitude to play with the big boys.
Reid Forgrave, CBS Sports
LeBron, the Raptors’ long-time menace, has moved to the Western Conference. There are two rising powers in the East who ought to be improve from last season — the Boston Celtics, who’ll presumably have a healthy Gordon Hayward and a healthy Kyrie Irving, and the Philadelphia 76ers, whose talented young core of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons ought to continue to progress, and who may even get something positive from Markelle Fultz. But assuming Leonard is healthy, the Raptors immediately become a better team in replacing an All-Star with a superstar after a franchise-record 59 wins. The East is up for grabs, and the Raptors are in as good of a position as anybody to snatch it.