Kawhi Leonard might just be the most coveted free agent of 2019. Sure Kevin Durant is also looking to make the next major move of his career, but the younger Kawhi has the defensive upside the Durant has yet to reach. Despite the reports that he wanted to be traded to a big market, the Spurs traded him and Danny Green to the Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 protected first round pick in this upcoming draft. So, the questions remain: will he stay north of the border?
For the past year, every move he has made (or not made) has been scrutinized to the umpteenth level; including his laugh on media day. Green is one of the league’s premier sharpshooters and an All-defense caliber defender. He also has inadvertently managed to add one other title to his name. Kawhi whisperer: the one man who might have some insight into the mind of the league’s quietest superstar. Green himself is a quiet individual but Leonard takes this to a whole other level. The only thing we know at this point in time is that the 27-year-old small-forward is playing better than ever. Averaging a career high in points (27.1), rebounds (7.9), minutes per game (34.6), field goals attempted and made (9.5 make on 18.9 attempts); Leonard is proving to the league that he can be a two-way superstar outside of the Spurs system. Where he will end up after July 1 will be a mystery that everyone will speculate on for the next six months.
Sure, that technically is home for Kawhi. All he knew before getting drafted by the Spurs in 2011 was Southern California. Armed with the alluring combination of cap space, warm weather, and being in one of the biggest markets; both L.A franchises are vying his signature. The Lakers have LeBron James as their centerpiece, Magic Johnson running the show, and an organization that has been the most successful (sorry Celtics fans) in the league. The only downside is that he will be the Robin to LeBron’s Batman. Is this a role that he wants? Given the amounts of scrutiny that the likes of Chris Bosh and Kevin Love have received during their spells with the King; perhaps Leonard wants a franchise of his own. The Clippers can offer just that.
Why not stay in Toronto?
It gets bloody cold during the winter and the Raptors are based in Canada. The city is amongst the most metropolitan and diverse in the world though it has failed to entice superstar free agents. They also lack the playoff pedigree that the Lakers can offer. The Raptors are best known for playoff heartbreak having yet to make it to an NBA Final. However, their bogeyman - LeBron James - has moved out West with a power vacuum atop the East. Toronto is first in the East (and have the best record in the league) with a 32-12 start as the second half of the season begins. The Raptors, being the incumbent, can still over Kawhi more money than any other franchise. And they can offer him an entire conference for him to rule over. The risk that Sam Presti took to acquire Paul George has worked out for the Thunder. He had a year to audition the franchise to George and he decided to sign a 4-year deal despite all the discourse that he was moving to the Lakers. There is nothing that can compare to learning the ins-and-outs of a franchise for a year. Maybe Masai Ujiri gamble on Kawhi may not be such a longshot?
Is Toronto good enough for him to stay?
Since Ujiri took the charge of the Raptors in 2013, the Raptors have always been a good but never great team. Under his watch, they have never missed the playoffs having won 48 games or more in each of their campaigns. Despite winning 59 games last season (while holding the best record in the NBA), the Raptors have never felt like title contenders. Always a very good regular season team, Toronto has been a shadow of themselves in the postseason. Ujiri has championship aspirations and had to acquire a superstar for that. Enter one of the league’s best in Kawhi Leonard. He along with Danny Green have playoff pedigree including a title in 2014. Despite his fractured relations with the Spurs (the Gold Standard of the NBA) and major injury concerns, he had to take a bet on himself and the culture he helped create. So far so good. The Raptors are one of the best in the league and Kawhi’s quad injury (that limited him to only 9 games last season), does not seem to be troubling him. That being said, they did trade a franchise legend in DeMar DeRozan and it might be for nothing. Kawhi might just use this season to get back to his best before moving to leave as a free agent. The Raptors bench and role players are still excellent though their biggest X-factor is Kyle Lowry. The Philadelphia native will turn 33 in March. His playoff performances over the past seasons have been poor at best. By the time he is able to find his footing in the postseason, the Raptors are all but eliminated. His health is a concern as is a fact that his relationship with Ujiri is nearly broken down. The trade for Leonard meant that Lowry’s brother in arms - DeRozan - was moved. A ruthless decision by the President of Basketball Operations, this might have the franchise their best chance to even contend for the title.
Is Lowry willing to build more than just a working relationship to seduce make Leonard stay long-term? While Kawhi is easily the best player he has ever played with, he still holds a grudge over DeMar getting traded away. And this is something that - on some level- has bothered Kawhi. Also, given his torrid playoff history, Lowry is yet to prove that he can be the second best player on a championship caliber side. All of this combined with a relatively inexperienced bench (for at least the postseason) may make Kawhi seek greener pastures.
Nick Nurse is having his first run as a head coach and navigating the noise (none of which is actually from Kawhi’s mouth) around Leonard just adds to the challenge of coaching a team with championship aspirations. Nurse was previously an assistant for a few years and the opportunity to coach a generational talent does not come often. The duo of Ujiri and Nurse could not be more opposite. The now President of Basketball Operations for the Raptors hails from Nigeria and started off as a scout at the age of 31. He rose among the front office ranks of Toronto and Denver (as an assistant GM) before coming back North to run the show. Nurse has had a coaching career that stretches back to college with this path taking him through the G-League and the Euro League.
The 51-year-old Iowan takes an unorthodox approach to coaching. Instead of using his as a stretch-four, Nurse uses Siakam as a point-forward that leads the break and facilitates. His minute's load has significantly increased along with his offensive production, having a career high in scoring and assists. The Raptors have lacked a true offensive focal point since their inception and Kawhi has been the perfect player for that role. And, by being the heir apparent to Scottie Pippen, Leonard is proving to be the best perimeter defender since the Pip. Nurse is also aware of the fact that Kawhi is not the most social or vocal guy. He is a quiet person who puts his all on the floor. Instead of trying to befriend the 6-7 forward, he is trying to get the best out of The Claw. That is something Kawhi should be able to respect. Success is hard to turn down and Nurse is trying to run a title contending team.
All of this comes just a year after Sam Presti traded for Paul George despite only having a year left on his contract. It was publically known that he was bound for the Lakers. Before July 1 could even come, George was onstage with Russell Westbrook at a spontaneous party announcing his four-year max deal. Oh, Paul George did not even meet with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka.
Masai is banking on the same strengths that Presti had last season. The Thunder already had a strong basketball culture despite only being in Oklahoma for less than a decade. They also had an incumbent star in Westbrook, who just happened to be the league MVP. The Raptors have built a strong foundation and also have a perennial All-Star in Kyle Lowry signed till 2020. However, we are yet to see Lowry fully embrace his role as a recruiter. Westbrook was quite the opposite.
Toronto knows that this will be an uphill battle. Despite some indication that star players do not want to play second fiddle to the King, LeBron is still the most influential player in basketball. The Clipper has been treating Kawhi like a sought after high school with their executives seen in the stands for each of their games. Even their President of Basketball Operations - Lawrence Frank - has attended several of his games. This is unlike the public speculation surrounding Anthony Davis and an inevitable departure from the Pelicans. The memo that was sent out by the league office regarding tampering was mainly directed towards the Lakers through the Clippers themselves could so be attributed as well.
The Raptors are trying not to get ahead of themselves. They know that their future is dependant on their ability to get the best out of the present. Kawhi cares about contending and they are fully aware of that. Known for being a pretender for the past few years, they finally have a chance to break out of their funk and make their debut on the NBA’s biggest stage. Serge Ibaka is re-emerging as one of the league’s most effective big-man as a small-ball 5. Nearly all of his minutes are coming at the center position and he is exploiting the other big’s of the league. His finishing at the rim has never been better (making 77.4% of his shots) with a significant improvement in his overall scoring. Pascal Siakam is a gem who is just now reaching the eyes of the average fan. Lowry has missed time with injuries though Fred VanVleet taking up the mantle of running the offense.
If all else fails, the Raptors can still dangle a 5-year, $190 million deal in front of Kawhi on July 1. For them, this is a not a risk. Despite a right quad injury that plagued him last season, Leonard is looking better than ever. The Raptors have yet to play him on the second night of a back-to-back hoping that his best production can come in the postseason. While there were hints that he could have played through the pain, Kawhi is an ultimate competitor. Despite all the medical science in the world, nobody can tell a player how they truly feel. If he truly was hurt, why should he jeopardize the possibility of getting a near $200 million deal for half a season of play? Succumbing to an injury does not mean that a player wants to check out and quit. It just means that they need time to heal to come back stronger than ever.
At the end of the day, can he truly find a better place to call home than Toronto? Sure it does not have the warm weather of So-Cal or then pedigree of the Lakers. But the basketball situation and money on the table are very hard to deny.