It’s been a little hard for me to subscribe to the trend of wanting the Clippers and Kawhi Leonard to fail for two reasons: Leonard himself and the Clippers franchise at large.
There’s been three instances of Raptors fans actively rooting for former stars to fail: Vince Carter in New Jersey, Chris Bosh in Miami and Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers. There’s also Damon Stoudamire after he left for Portland but the franchise was in such a dire state at the time that most fans were upset Damon didn’t take them with him. The vitriol around Carter was understandable because he legitimately half-assed his last years in the city, and the remnant feeling was a combination of what could’ve been and good riddance. The most ambivalent departure might have been Bosh’s, where the consensus was that the Colangelo-Bosh combination would yield no further fruit, so the sadism was mild at best and the booing half-hearted.
The most vociferous Raptors fans have been in hoping a departed star fail is Kawhi Leonard, the only one of the mentioned who brought a championship to the city. That makes little logical sense, especially when you consider we’re still cheering for DeMar DeRozan who won us nothing but didn’t happen to make the sin of choosing to leave. If we dump you, it’s cool. If you dump us, not cool. But this is about emotion, not logic. The Leonard Schadenfreude is due to a flawed idea perpetuated by many that if he had stayed another year the Raptors would’ve repeated as champions. That line of reasoning is far fetched for a variety of reasons, not the least that Lebronto was waiting in the Finals and I don’t need to repeat the history there.
There’s also the notion that a Leonard title with the Clippers would somehow validate the notion that Kawhi Leonard “carried” the Raptors and that it was a “one man team”. Well, yes, he totally carried the Raptors and without Kawhi Leonard the Raptors don’t win the title, and probably don’t even make it to the East Finals. Of course, the same could be said for Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. But the difference between them and Leonard is this: Leonard led the charge, the others followed. If this can’t be acknowledged by someone it may point to a deep fragility in their being which is beyond the power of this space to address. Kyle Lowry was the emotional leader and floor general, but Leonard was the steel and spine.
There is one fundamental truth that I have come to believe about NBA basketball: no matter how sultry your team basketball is, you must have a scorer that can create something out of nothing. In every meaningful playoff series your offense will dry up and you’ll need to manufacture something out of nothing. Leonard did that and deserves special accolades beyond the rest. It’s difficult to compare artists across their domains but Kawhi Leonard’s lone year with the Raptors gave us memories that parallel perhaps Toronto’s most glorious sports moment: Joe Carter’s home run. So rooting for Leonard’s misery seems a little sacrilegious to me just purely based on what he helped achieve: the rarest of the rare, an NBA title in Toronto, something many of us thought was nigh on impossible.
I’m sure with the passage of time everyone will simmer down, but if you’re still hot, maybe the Clippers themselves might soften you up. The Clippers have had a sorry history reaching well before the Raptors inception. Since 1976, the franchise has been overshadowed by the Lakers and has had streaks of 14 and 8 years of lottery basketball. They did not win a playoff series for 29 years! 29 years – let that sink in. They were without doubt the absolute joke in the NBA for longer than any franchise. There’s a recency bias that comes into play here where we tend to remember the Doc Rivers Clippers and not much else. But before Rivers were guys like Bill Fitch, Chris Ford, Alvin Gentry and for the longest freaking time, Mike Dunleavy roamed the sidelines looking like a bat.
There were lovable guys like Lamar Odom, Michael Olowokandi, Quentin Richardson, Darius Miles, Lamond Murray, Darrick Martin (remember him?) and Andre Miller. Those are the Clippers that flash to mind when I’m watching the Clippers. That franchise is closer to the Raptors than most of us think. They’ve been through more hell than anyone and it would actually be sort of gratifying to see them come through, especially if it means eclipsing LeBron James in his own city, and I would imagine watching LeBron’s Schadenfreude is way more satisfying for Raptors fans.
The Clippers haven’t suffered the same type of playoff heartbreak that the Raptors have because they never made it to the playoffs. They were garbage. If there is a rags to riches story here, it’s the Clippers, or as they were called during the 90s, the Clip Joint for clear reasons. Take these excerpts from a 1999 piece previewing a Clipper game:
“Could this really be happening? Yes, you’re playing at 6 in the ‘Clip Joint,’ a Sports Arena as decayed as the south-of-downtown neighborhood around it.”
“You’re playing the team synonymous with NBA futility, the L.A. Clippers stranded in the netherworld between the NBA, CBA and DOA.”
“You know you better beat the Clippers or you might eventually find yourselves back on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the wrong reason.”
For me, backing the Clippers is no different than rooting for the Sacramento Kings with Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Mike Bibby. The way both team acquired their main players was different, but so were the free-agency rules in which they played. In both cases, though, they were historically crappy teams trying to erase a morbid history.
Back to Kawhi Leonard. The “going home” stuff was probably just BS and even if there was an element of truth to it, it can’t possibly be the primary reason. How many of you have spent a weekend in LA? Now picture spending that weekend with millions of dollars. Case closed. Even our global ambassador spends more time there than here. For me, pound-for-pound, impact-for-time, Kawhi Leonard delivered more than any other Raptor in history. That, at the very least, deserves some sort of support beyond his Raptor days. And if that doesn’t do it for you, maybe the Raptors franchise’s parallels with the Clips can.