“When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”, Bob Dylan wrote in 1965 in Like a Rolling Stone. Probably while high. That has been the prevalent undercurrent of this Raptors franchise with the exception of a couple moments when Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady turned their backs on us. We had something to lose back then and we lost it. It hurt because we were onto something and could sense the potential if we were just able to ward off the vultures. In contrast, we were apathetic to the Chris Bosh era and when it ended nobody was too fussed about it. The DeRozan-Lowry partnership had a glass ceiling named LeBron and much of the fan base had seen enough of the feeble playoff ventures.
For the first time in ages the Raptors have something significant to lose because it’s the first time they’ve held something of great significance and power: a title and a legitimate, unquestionable superstar. Many of us are emotionally hedging by having a mindset of not being shattered if Kawhi Leonard leaves because he delivered us the elusive title and ‘understand’ if he opts to go home. Of course, we want him to stay but the narrative is that we are prepared to lose him and everything that goes along with it. And a lot goes along with it which I’m not sure we’ve fully comprehended. Leonard leaving would shut our title window unless Masai Ujiri manages to acquire another top tier player, a low possibility. We can Ka’wine and Dine him, give him jets, condos and the keys to the city, and all can be for naught. Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby are excellent pieces, but this team without Kawhi Leonard will face challenges that it’ll be considered underdogs to overcome, perhaps for years. With Leonard also goes the momentum and spotlight this club has been accustomed to this year. He has also stamped his personality on the team and because if fits so well with the shunned-underdog-in-a-remote-northern-outpost mentality, there is an energy here which is hard to describe let alone quantify. He is the standard bearer for #WeTheNorth. There can be no other. To lose him is to lose years of progress, not just this season’s.
Coming off a title high it seems bleak to worry about this what-if scenario, but humans are wired to worry about things. We can’t help it:
“…our brains are wired in such a way that we are naturally highly receptive to risks. Anthropological history would argue this is because our ancestors were always on the lookout for predators, since their chances of being killed by animals or other human beings were once (and for many centuries) very high. A portion of the brain—the amygdala—screens everything for negative news. Therefore, humans are wired to pay 10 times more attention to negative news than positive news. The reason is that until not too long ago, Sapiens were one of the underdogs in the savanna. According to Harari, we are thus ‘full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous’”
Those antennas that detect the risks that we are highly receptive to have had their sensitivity amplified by our achievements. Though the public comment will be one of understanding of Leonard leaves, the fears that lurk beneath our facade will only intensify. And that is OK because that’s what it means to be human. I want to admit that and not hide behind ‘understanding’. It is far better to acknowledge that we’ll be upset and even devastated if he leaves than to feign contented acceptance. I would seriously question my humanity if he left and I didn’t vomit at least a few times.
Players rarely leave title situations, they usually leave title-less situations. Shaq and Orlando. Barkely and Phoenix. Durant and OKC. Other than the Bulls after their second three-peat and the Heat’s last hurrah you’ll be hard pressed to find a situation where the champions disassembled their team willingly – they usually got dethroned. If anything, a winning position should entice free-agents to even take lesser money at a chance of a ring. Milwaukee has key free-agents they need to deal with, Jimmy Butler is unlikely to be back with Philly, and the Celtics are currently a joke. It would not be contentious to suggest that the road to the NBA Finals will go through Toronto next year, with the Raptors as favorites. This is a situation primed for a title defense, especially since Kyle Lowry’s contract and age present a somewhat hard end to the window. Of course, Masai Ujiri could extend that through some sort of trade but given how things are, there is a natural inclination to a title defense which could also serve as the sunset to Lowry’s Raptors career.
Leonard is only 27 years so there’s nothing precluding him for defending a title and playing for his hometown. Viewing it as an either/or instead of a sequence of events where in both cases he’ll be in his prime is backwards thinking. It’s for that simple reason alone I feel he’ll sign an extension (also, being a free agent in two years allows for a super max). And if he doesn’t I’ll be hurling into plastic bags for a month. If Uncle Dennis wants a four year deal peppered with player options to protect against injury, we can even do that.
Whatever the strategy to keep Kawhi in Toronto, John Tory and Nav Bhatia holding a press conference to tell fans to leave Kawhi alone isn’t it. Nevermind that the cringe reminded many of ‘Leave Brittany Alone’, it was also entirely unnecessary. Fans have been snapping pictures and taking selfies of players (and celebrities in general) for decades. This is nothing new. The championship and Kawhi’s free agency has resulted in the media paying more attention to fans taking pictures, which has resulted in this weird sort of outrage. There may be an element of the illusion of validity effect happening where people have assumed that pictures posted on social media tell a particular story, when they may not. Also, I love Superfan’s enthusiasm but he’s basically like you and me except with money to afford the games and time to attend them. There’s little special treatment required.
Through the post-season the city, the fans, and the franchise have done extremely well to present a dignified, friendly and metropolitan persona. Even the parade which was poorly organized and had the shooting incident was a general success. Credit to the US stations for covering the parade and not the incident to give a true reflection of the atmosphere. Let’s be honest: cities are not designed for 2 million people to gather at the same spot and this city doesn’t have experience in handling these events. Overall, the last two months have been fantastic. So it was odd to see the mayor and Nav Bhatia take it upon themselves to address an “issue” which even if it were an issue is a very minor one in the grand scheme of running a city. And it’s not like anyone will change their behaviour based on their words either. This made the whole thing pointless and embarrassing, but oh so Torontonian and the opposite of what was preached on opening night by that great video: “let’s quit with the insecurities”. That video has aged well.
June happens to be pride month and this year especially there’s a lot to be proud of.