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Kawhi Leaving is an End and a Beginning

This was always an accident. A very happy accident. A great one, even. But an accident nonetheless.

It was an accident when Masai Ujiri traded away Rudy Gay, thinking he was headed for a rebuild, and the team got better. It was an accident when Masai negotiated a Kyle Lowry trade, thinking that it was in the best interest of the franchise, and the Knicks backed out at the finish line, leaving Lowry in Toronto. It was an accident when that team went on to make the playoffs, necessitating that the franchise let it run it’s course. That wasn’t supposed to happen, the Raptors were supposed to be building through the draft, but those happy accidents just kept getting in the way. Somewhere along the line, the plan just changed and they stopped being accidents. They built a bench mob, then rebuilt that bench mob. Made an Eastern Conference Finals. Won 59 games.

The other side of it was that they just kept running into LeBron in the playoffs, and just couldn’t compete. He was too good, too much, and those playoff series hurt. The wounds piled up, too, and it was hard not to let it get to you a year ago as a Raptors fan, when that version of the team, the version that was the best they had ever been, just got eviscerated by a vulnerable Cavaliers team. Destroyed in that fashion, showing the world that the team just wasn’t built to compete. The plan, at that point, seemed to be to rebuild. It was two years away, too. All of the contracts coming off the books, there was supposed to be a lot of cap space and a decent group of young guys to build around, to start the next era of Raptors basketball.

Along the way, another accident happened. This one worse, but not connected to the Raptors. Zaza Pachulia undercut Kawhi Leonard on a jump shot, and Kawhi came down badly. We all know the story, we’ve all seen the video, and we all know what comes next. The Spurs lose the series badly, after winning that first half against one of the most dominant teams in recent NBA history. The injury lingers, Kawhi hurts his calf, and the Spurs head for turmoil. The next part isn’t really clear, but the communication definitely breaks down between Leonard and the organization, and it ends with him asking out, wanting to go home to Los Angeles, and the Spurs start taking trade offers. The Lakers, convinced that Kawhi is headed there anyways, aren’t willing to sell the farm to get him, and aren’t willing to give the Spurs what they want.

This is where those accidents come full circle for the Raptors. Masai Ujiri made a decision, a year ago, to take a gamble. To say that the Raptors had built themselves to a place where taking that risk of trading for a true superstar is worth it, and roll the dice on a one year sales pitch to Leonard, that the Raptors are a team where he can win a title. It wasn’t a perfect season by any means, with injuries and chemistry issues throughout, and a team that looked for most of the season like they just couldn’t quite find themselves, but Leonard kept showing that with a superstar and the supporting cast around him, they could compete against anyone, and the playoff run was when they really found themselves, bringing home the first championship for Toronto.

Now, that’s where the happy ending stops, because Kawhi isn’t staying in Toronto. The one year sales pitch wasn’t enough to keep him from wanting to go home to Los Angeles, and maybe that’s understandable. Maybe a guy with two young children just decided that being close to family was his biggest priority, and he created an opportunity for himself to do so while also remaining on a team that can compete for titles, with Paul George working his way to the Clippers alongside Leonard. It’s a good gamble for Kawhi to take, just like the gamble for the Raptors was a good one.

For Masai’s part, even if the trade wasn’t a perfect success, it was definitely enough of one. He did what he promised, he brought the city of Toronto a championship. This era of Raptors basketball goes out on a high note, because the franchise will almost assuredly be transitioning to a rebuild soon. Even if they keep the older veterans through next season, it’s hard to see the Raptors competing for a championship with what’s left on the roster, although they’d be a playoff team, and probably a pretty dangerous one, still.

This is the true brilliance of Masai’s gamble though, the fact that it really wasn’t one. Sure, DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl are both good NBA players. DeRozan is a 5-time All-Star who helped build this era of Toronto basketball and was a huge factor in the team getting to the place where taking the risk of the Leonard trade was worth it, and he’ll always have a place in the hearts of Raptors fans for what he did for the city. Poeltl is a talented young big man who had a really nice season in San Antonio, and will probably be a good player in this league for a long time yet. The Raptors didn’t give up nothing in the trade, but they did win the trade.

At the same time, the rebuild is intact. The Raptors own all of their own first round draft picks going forward, and all of the large contracts on the team come off the books in the next year. Pascal Siakam is due an extension in short order as well, and it will be a large, but deserved extension. That’s the next era though. Siakam as one of the centerpieces of the next Raptors team, and Masai at the helm of building something new in Toronto. The Raptors pulled off the impossible, turning a good team into a truly great one, even if just for the blink of an eye in the long glance of NBA history, and they did it without compromising their future in the process.

What comes next is complicated for the Raptors. Do they move the veterans on large expiring contracts for additional assets for the rebuild? The temptation will certainly be there, and coming off a championship run and with the league looking wide open with a lot of teams considering themselves contenders, there should be a trade market there for the trio of Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, and each of them may be interested in taking another run at competing elsewhere with Kawhi no longer on the roster in Toronto. Taking on some bad salary to get back younger, interesting players and draft picks certainly doesn’t look like a bad option at this point in time for the Raptors, and Masai may choose that path as the summer goes on. The team could also go the route of running it back, remaining a solid playoff team to showcase to future free agents that they are committed to competing, and leaving the door open for trading for another star in a trade like the Leonard one, to help bring them back to the upper echelons of the NBA. The Raptors have almost certainly been considering these options for if Kawhi would choose to leave this summer, and probably already have some contingencies in place, and it’ll be interesting to watch this front office figure out the next steps.

There’s some hard lessons in the news of Saturday morning, learning that Kawhi was never going to stay in Toronto, and learning that this era of Raptors basketball is truly coming to a close. But what better way for something that started with a series of happy accidents to end than at the top. No one really wanted this to end, but that’s part of this new experience for Raptors fans of being on top as well. Nobody stays there forever, and it always ends. As far as endings go, this isn’t a bad one, and as far as beginnings of a new era of basketball in Toronto, it feels like a pretty good one.

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