As free agency draws closer, it’s hard to distinguish which rumors to believe, which portions of the story are being played out in the media and which parts are more wishful thinking on the part of the person giving information to the media. This is a game that can be stressful and not terribly fun for fans of the teams involved in the biggest summer storylines, and it’s mostly unfamiliar territory for Raptors fans.
Sure, we’ve been here before to some extent, with Chris Bosh, in the summer of 2010, but that was a very different Raptors team and a very different situation. Bosh wasn’t a star on the level of Kawhi Leonard, as great as he was in Toronto, and the outcome felt mostly known, with the rumors of Bosh teaming up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade already out in the media at that point in time, and it being known that Bosh was unhappy with the Raptors’ inability to build around him.
To really capture the current situation around Leonard’s free agency though, you have to go back to the trade last summer, and the emotions around that. The Raptors were sending away a fan favorite player, one of the leaders of the greatest era to that point in Raptors basketball, for a disgruntled superstar who wanted to be in Los Angeles, and who hadn’t played basketball in nearly a year. There wasn’t just the risk that Kawhi wouldn’t be healthy enough to contribute to the Raptors and help them have a great season, there was the risk that he would be a player who wasn’t interested in his situation and would be disengaged, just waiting out free agency so he could go home to Los Angeles, where he wanted to be in the first place. In New Orleans this season it was demonstrated the power that a superstar can have in these situations, the ability to force a team to put it’s season, and it’s franchise, on hold until his situation is dealt with. Anthony Davis wielded that power well, managing to maneuver himself to exactly the outcome he desired.
Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster, of course, mitigated a lot of that risk in the Leonard trade they made. Sure, if things had gone sideways, there would’ve been a portion of the fan base that would’ve remained upset for a long time over the trading of DeRozan. But they held onto Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, seen as the franchise’s blue chip prospects in the deal, and they didn’t trade a draft pick past this draft just finished, holding onto future assets that may be useful if the Raptors end up rebuilding in the near future. They also got back Danny Green, another good player with championship experience to help not just Kawhi’s adjustment to Toronto, should he decide to commit to the season and see how far the Raptors can go, but also help the Raptors look towards higher heights.
Of course, we all know how this played out now, with Kawhi hitting the first game 7 buzzer beater in league history, with the Raptors winning four straight to finish off the powerhouse Milwaukee Bucks, seen as one of the best teams in the league in recent history, and with the Raptors beating the injured, but still capable, Golden State Warriors to capture a championship. All of the gambles involved in acquiring Leonard look fantastic at this point, because the risk paid off and the Raptors have achieved the highest goal in the NBA with him leading the way.
But still, Los Angeles is there, as it was always going to be, this summer.
It’s easy to speak about this upcoming decision in platitudes, saying that the Raptors did everything right, and they truly did. They managed his health, took care of the lingering injury and made sure that it was a focal point throughout the season, keeping him from re-injury and managing any pain and symptoms he did have. Alex McKechnie deserves a lot of credit for his load management and how he took care of Leonard through the season. The Raptors also built a roster around Kawhi that could compliment his game well, shooters to space the floor for him, distributors and ballhandlers to run the offense and create away from him, to alleviate pressure, and a defensive group that didn’t require him to always take the toughest assignments, that sometimes allowed him to slide into a comfortable matchup at that end of the floor rather than constantly having to handle the opposing focal point.
It wasn’t just a good plan, it clicked. Kawhi and Kyle Lowry seem to have a budding friendship, and partnership, that is a true joy to watch, and Pascal Siakam’s emergence as a star in this league also gave Leonard another reason to consider the Raptors this summer, as they are no longer just a team of older veterans around Kawhi, but they also have a young star to offer him as a teammate in the future, a player with whom he can build past the primes of Lowry and Gasol, and keep competing through Kawhi’s prime. Also, if there is a front office in the NBA that you can trust to continue to find ways to put a solid supporting cast around a superstar, it’s this Raptors group, led by Ujiri and Webster, that has reloaded with success after each and every season.
From the Raptors’ side of things, they have executed with near perfection from the moment of the Leonard trade. Not just the things listed above, but also Nick Nurse finding his comfort as a rookie head coach and building Kawhi’s confidence in his ability to direct the team. The fans and city have also held up their end of the bargain, showing their passion for the team, not just having one of the best home court advantages in the NBA, but also traveling well and serenading the team with chants of “Let’s Go Raptors!” in Oracle Arena in San Francisco in the NBA Finals, a tough arena for any opposing team to generate traction.
All of that being said, there is a scenario where that all could’ve played out and we’d still be sitting in a very different place. The Raptors and the city of Toronto could’ve handled things exactly the way they did, and this summer we could still be having the conversation that it just didn’t work. Kawhi could’ve taken the stance that he merely had to prove himself effective this season, showcase that he can be a superstar in this league, and then do everything in his power to keep himself healthy while waiting out the season in a city he didn’t want to be traded to. He could’ve taken every opportunity to sit out games with every nagging injury, and the season still would’ve been good for Toronto, but the postseason would’ve ended very differently. When his leg started bothering him against Philadelphia, Kawhi could’ve insisted on sitting out, concerned over his long-term health, and it would’ve been a legitimate concern on some level, knowing that the injuries kept him out for most of the preceding season. He didn’t, because it wasn’t just from the organization’s side where things were handled well.
Leonard gave the Raptors everything that a team can ask from a player. He committed, and every player in the room has spoken to his leadership this past season, and the results speak for themselves. He played through those nagging injuries and found ways to win the Raptors games in the playoffs that they had no business surviving, games when everyone else seemed to not have enough in the tank, or it seemed that the moment was just too big. That second round series against Philadelphia, Kawhi didn’t seem to have enough help for most of it, needing to take over constantly and just barely surviving against a tough, physical opponent. Kawhi kept the faith in his teammates though, and it paid off in the next two rounds of the playoffs when they came through for him.
The trade would’ve always been a good risk. Even if Kawhi had never played a game in a Raptors uniform, it was a defensible trade. The Raptors kept their rebuild window open, with nearly $100 million in cap space projected for the summer of 2020, and with Siakam and Anunoby still on the roster. They had reached as far as they were going to go with the team as constructed last season, and the only path forward was to take a risk before the rebuild became necessary, and Kawhi is one of the best in basketball. If it hadn’t worked out, the Raptors could’ve looked back and said that at least they tried to take that next step, and didn’t just accept that they couldn’t go further than they had. Every outcome between Kawhi never playing and what happened, winning the Championship, felt in play last summer, and all of them felt like they could’ve been justified based on the trade the team made.
Still, the best case scenario is what happened, the Raptors lived up to the best expectation Kawhi could’ve had for the organization, they handled his health, and him as a player, as well as could’ve been asked of them, and Leonard gave the Raptors everything the team could’ve asked of him, and still we end up, with six days before free agency begins, with no certainty going forward.
Leonard keeps his camp close, too. He has a small circle of people around him who really know his mind on decisions like this one, and they’ve been very careful about not tipping his hand with this decision. Even the normally knowledgeable members of the media surrounding the NBA speak largely in pure speculation when talking about Kawhi’s decision, carefully coaching their words to avoid predicting an outcome because it’s so hard to read which way he is leaning.
All of that, because there is still one question left unanswered, and it’s the biggest one. Is Los Angeles simply the only factor that matters for Leonard? Does that desire to play in his hometown reign supreme in his mind as a deciding factor in where he wants to play? If that’s the case, then this will be a one-year experience for the Toronto Raptors, a singular season of success that fans can look back on, and there should be no regrets at all. After all, despite that singular factor dictating Kawhi’s desires, he still gave the franchise everything and risked his long-term health to help bring the Raptors their first championship, and for that we should remain thankful for his performances this postseason.
The other outcome of course is that Kawhi’s priorities have changed, at least slightly, or that Los Angeles was just a factor, and not the factor. In that case, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that Leonard will stay, at least in the short-term, because the Raptors have offered him everything else an organization can. A championship roster, a front office capable of finding solutions to keep a team relevant, and a young star to partner with going forward. The Raptors have everything Kawhi could want from a NBA team this summer. Everything except being in Los Angeles, and all we can do now is hope that is enough, or thank him for what he gave us in the meantime. There really is no bad outcome for Raptors fans here, even if it would be a little bit disappointing to see Kawhi leave. Either he was successfully convinced to stay, and his mind was changed on Toronto and the Raptors through the course of this season, or there was no chance in the first place of that occurring, and the Raptors got the best possible outcome of the only season they were ever going to get with him.