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Kawhi Leonard’s return to Toronto a pivotal moment for Raptors

The Toronto Raptors are drifting towards a crossroads. This season began with a cavalcade of wins, but Toronto has recently sputtered on the court. Going back far further than the last few weeks, Masai Ujiri has molded Toronto into one of the most stable franchises in the league. Yet reports swirl insinuating his time in Toronto could be limited. And as an exclamation point, a sun dial forcing Toronto to read its own shadow, Kawhi Leonard is for the first time since the NBA Finals returning to play basketball in Scotiabank Arena. Partially through its own actions, and partially as a result of external forces, the Raptors are faced with a potential early-season Seldon Crisis.

The Raptors may no longer be mired in a losing streak, but a one-point win against the woeful Chicago Bulls was almost as uninspiring as Toronto’s three losses that preceded it. Toronto’s offense has plunged off a cliff. Their shooting during the last four games has been a putrid 28.5 percent from deep. They haven’t created much off the dribble, and Pascal Siakam has spent long stretches fading into the background instead of lifting the offense on his shoulders. Toronto’s defense has been equally unfocused, giving up easy penetration, helping away from deadly threats, and not working together. The Chicago Bulls spent entire quarters against the Raptors creating easy shots, only adding to the list of teams who have recently seen the Toronto Raptors defense as shooting practice. On both ends, Toronto’s identity has been buried beneath an avalanche of unexpected mistakes.

Yes, the Raptors closed the defensive gate on Philadelphia and Chicago in both fourth quarters, showing the brand of snarling, telepathic defense to which we have become accustomed. We know Toronto has that defensive gear. That they have only been able to muster it for tiny portions of games is a mild concern. That their offense hasn’t lifted off the ground for a few weeks is a serious concern.

This problematic on-court play has coincided with the wolves circling the franchise’s most important off-court figure, Masai Ujiri. Other franchises have inquired into Ujiri’s desire to mend broken homes outside of the Raptors, but none of the noise has yet amounted to anything. Now his contract will end in 2021, and it’s possible that other teams’ bids will end the marriage between Ujiri and the Raptors. Plugged-in reporters like Michael Grange of Sportsnet are writing columns considering Ujiri leaving Toronto. The element of his reporting that is sourced is only that Ujiri wasn’t offered a contract extension last summer, and the rest is informed guessing, but it’s still concerning. Ujiri and his phenomenal supporting staff in Raptors management have built an environment of stability in Toronto, and it would probably survive Ujiri’s departure. But Toronto was a mess before Ujiri. A future potentially without him could be bleak.

Toronto’s losing, and another chapter in the book of Ujiri’s temptations away from Toronto, all coincides with the return of Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard, of course, was integral in Toronto winning its first ever championship. He boosted those around him, lifting the games of cerebral players like Kyle Lowry. Leonard was the answer whenever opponents posed thorny questions. However, and unacknowledged by most American media, Leonard was also boosted by his teammates, helped on traps by Marc Gasol, given a release valve by Fred VanVleet, offered a reprieve by Pascal Siakam. Leonard was both light and prism, fitting into the Toronto system to magnify the strengths across the roster, and himself benefiting from his time in the North. It was a marriage, ultimately, defined by success.

Then Leonard left, giving Toronto a seemingly empty space where a title defense year would ordinarily fit. The Raptors responded by choosing to don the underdog chip back onto the collective shoulder, going back to work on the defensive end and proving that they remain contenders without Leonard. They opened the year 14-4, beating contenders like the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers. The Raptors seemed every bit a title contender.

Then the losing began. Teams go through losing streaks in seasons; even Toronto last year seemed fallible in the regular season, losing three straight in mid-November to New Orleans, Detroit, and Boston. That the Raptors are losing games in 2019-20 is no reason for panic. We know they are capable, especially defensively, so we shouldn’t doubt them for a stretch of lost focus, even a longish stretch. Perhaps losses force us to rethink the conception of Toronto as dark-horse championship contenders, but a three-game stretch coinciding with an icy shooting streak isn’t enough to outweigh evidence that Toronto is a great team.

Regardless, the return of Leonard puts Toronto’s current reality into stark focus.

The Raptors without Leonard have a smaller margin for error. When their outside shooting is cold, the ways in which they can win basketball games shrink. When the offense looks discombobulated, Toronto has few answers. They can hang their hat on defense, but defense can be a cruel mistress, as it’s hard to be perfect on defense for full games. Last year, the Raptors turned to Leonard when things went awry, and he was fantastic in those moments. He knew when Toronto needed pace, needed to slow down, needed a calming bucket, or needed an opposing star to be frustrated into a miss. Leonard’s sense of game management was elite, especially in the playoffs. Siakam is growing into the same role in fits and starts, and for every few brilliant possessions, he’s had a few head-scratching ones in which he doesn’t give the Raptors what they need. Siakam has a huge amount of time before the playoffs, and his momentum over the long term has only trended forward. A few steps back over the short term are expected. But we don’t know if Siakam can reach that level of leadership that was foundational to Leonard’s game.

So the Raptors have some losses to their name, and Ujiri’s name is once again being dragged into the fantasies of the New York Knicks. What of it? These things happen in a long regular season. That they happen directly before Leonard returns to town is unfortunate timing. The Los Angeles Clippers look every bit the part of title contender, with the offensive diversity and defensive intensity of a playoff juggernaut. The Raptors are less polished, less obvious in their success. Before the losing, we would have put Toronto in the same category as the Clippers. Now, we’re not so sure.

At the very least, it’s uncomfortable to have a series of unfortunate events right before a reunion with the star who helped lift Toronto to its greatest heights. Like living your best life on social media after a breakup, Toronto wants to prove that it is fine without Leonard. As for Leonard himself, he moved on to certainly bigger and arguably better pastures, but the Raptors want to prove that he already had his best opportunity to win in Toronto, and he left it. A losing streak doesn’t prove or disprove anything about Leonard’s choices, but Toronto gets a chance at least to redeem its last week of play in a regular season game that’s sure to be emotional. Leonard will receive his championship ring before taking the mic and addressing the crowd. This game will be bigger than basketball, but the basketball that will follow will be as big as regular season games can be.

One regular season game against the Clippers won’t determine success for the Raptors, but it will help set narratives. Toronto doesn’t have to be Leonard’s forgotten ex-franchise, even if it has been playing like that for about a week and a half. Regular season losses, and rumours about poaching team management, aren’t the end of the world. But Toronto needs a win right about now, and Leonard’s talents, as much as his symbolic importance to the team, represent obstacles. That puts into perspective, perhaps more than any of Toronto’s recent offensive struggles, how much times have changed.

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