When Kawhi Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors last summer, many believed that he would stay in Toronto past the current season. Leonard was the San Antonio Spurs’ top player but his relationship with the Spurs soured while rehabilitating an injury. Leonard reportedly preferred moving to California after San Antonio but instead, he ended up North with the Toronto Raptors.
With the playoffs starting and the summer coming next, Leonard ‘s next move is as good as your guess. Let’s take a closer look at the Kawhi Leonard story:
Leaving San Antonio
Leonard was hampered by a tendinopathy in his left quad and during his rehabilitation from that injury, a breakdown in trust happened between player and organization. The Spurs insisted that Leonard was ready to return but he insisted on taking a longer rehab in order to ensure he was 100%. Ultimately, the differences between Leonard and the Spurs were irreconcilable and a divorce had to happen.
In July, the Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio finally reached its conclusion. The Spurs traded Leonard to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan. San Antonio also sent Danny Green packing to Canada while Toronto gave away big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected first round draft pick.
Both Leonard and DeRozan would fit like a shoe in their new homes. DeRozan was disheartened when he got traded but in the end, he finished with his best season ever under the guidance of the great Gregg Popovich, Leonard clicked with Toronto as well as the Raptors continued their ascent in the Eastern Conference.
Lessons From Paul George
It is common knowledge that when Leonard decided that he was going to leave San Antonio, he was eyeing to return to his native California. That meant that the obvious front-runner would be the two Los Angeles teams who were both in search of a star like him. Still, the Raptors gambled not only because Leonard was worth it but because the only way to find out if he is willing to stay in Toronto is to trade for him first.
Remember when Paul George transferred to the OKC Thunder? Many thought he would be there on a short lease because he too, was eyeing a California homecoming. But because the Lakers were confident (overconfident) that George would prefer to sign with Los Angeles after that season, they didn’t trade for him and waited for the season to end.
What happened was that somewhere along the way, George realized what OKC did for him and what the Lakers didn’t. Ultimately, George decided to stick with Oklahoma City, spurning the high profile and big market Lakers because as George would later say, they did not trade for me. PG13 looks like he’s happy now with the Thunder while the Lakers are still in search of that second superstar that they can pair with LeBron James.
Toronto is hoping that the Kawhi Leonard story is going to end the way the Paul George story did. After all, the Raptors traded their franchise player in DeMar DeRozan just to get Leonard here. And while Toronto may not be the city that is Los Angeles, Toronto has the better roster if Kawhi wants to win another NBA title.
The Raptors were the #1 seed in the East last season, only to lose to the 4th seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in round two of the 2018 NBA playoffs. After the debacle, the Raptors fired 2018 Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and hired Nick Nurse. Then they shipped DeRozan out in favor of Leonard.
Success With Leonard
Toronto Started the 2018-19 season on a tear. They were the top team in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors would later slow down a bit and finished the regular season in 2nd place, behind the NBA leaders Milwaukee Bucks. But to finish with the 2nd best record in the league during the 2018-19 season is already an indication of how good the Raptors have become with Kawhi Leonard at the helm.
With the first round of the 2019 playoffs underway, the Raptors are hoping that they will go deep enough or even go all the way so that Leonard will have one good reason not to leave Toronto. But then again, winning may or may not be on top of Kawhi Leonard’s mind. And his mind is harder to read than Paul George’s last year.
Like some of the upcoming top free agents like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard has already accomplished what other players moving to other teams like him have not. Leonard is a former Finals MVP and already has an NBA title with the Spurs. His priority this summer may be getting paid and securing his future more than anything else. That’s what worries Toronto because the California teams are bigger markets with plenty of other earning potentials for Leonard. However, while Leonard may still have a preference for California, the Raptors had the entire 2018-19 season and the ongoing 2019 Playoffs to convince Leonard to stay.
One of Toronto’s best selling points is their winning record. The Raptors are positioned to be a competitive team in years thanks to their excellent drafting of players beginning with late first round picks Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, second round pick Norman Powell and undrafted guard Fred Van Vleet. These names have been valuable contributors to the success of the Raptors.
Success Will Make Leonard Stay
Toronto also added veterans Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin during the trade deadline to give the Raptors more leadership and solid contributions outside their main gunners. The addition of Gasol makes Toronto’s frontline even more imposing with Leonard and Serge Ibaka completing the forward rotation.
When you look at recent history, the Raptors have won at least 51 games in each of the last four seasons. They won a franchise best 59 last year and were one short of that this year. Still, that track record of success is undeniable and in a LeBron-less Eastern Conference, they are going to be one of the top teams in that conference.
Leonard has been, as usual silent about his intentions and as he said earlier in the season, he’s going to make that decision when the time comes. Only Leonard knows when that time is. And the Raptors can only hope that they have done everything to make him stay beyond this season.
But given how successful the Raptors have been in Leonard’s first season there, there is strong reason to believe he is staying. Winning is always important to any NBA player regardless of the amount of success he has already achieved. Leonard is only 27 and not yet in his athletic peak. I don’t think he will settle for just one NBA title.
The shortest way to an NBA title would be doing what Kevin Durant did and what DeMarcus Cousins is eyeing to do. But knowing Leonard and his principles, he’s sold about a team that’s built not bought. The Raptors worked their way from being the doormat of the NBA to one of its top teams. Kawhi Leonard worked his way to the top himself. I think that’s a perfect match this coming summer.