TORONTO — Since the Toronto Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard last summer, they’ve tried to control everything they could control.
Leonard met immediately with Raptors head coach Nick Nurse at their club’s practice facility and began sketching out his role in the offence. Director of sports science Alex McKechnie mapped out a plan to help him return to full health and ideally be ready to play his best basketball in the post-season.
When the chance came, they made bold in-season acquisitions to help nudge one of the NBA’s best teams further down the road to a championship. And when they won the Larry O’Brien Trophy — which Leonard has re-christened the ‘Larry OB’ — they partied like rock stars, first in San Francisco and then in Las Vegas. Drake was the master of ceremonies.
Everything has worked perfectly.
On Monday morning in downtown Toronto the final piece of their recruiting pitch will be staring at Leonard in the face as an estimated two million fans in the NBA’s largest, most fevered market are expected to line a parade route that begins at their state-of-the-art Drake-branded practice facility on Lakeshore Boulevard before ending at Nathan Phillips Square, where people have been camping out all weekend from a prime spot.
And if a championship ring, a Finals MVP trophy, an opportunity for a five-year, $190-million contract — a year longer and $50 million more than what any other team can offer — and millions of people chanting his name can’t convince him to run it back with the Raptors?
Well, what else is left to do?
That will be the reality facing the Raptors and their fan base in the coming weeks as the NBA’s free-agent period kicks off on July 1, with Leonard as the biggest prize.
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“For us, at least speaking for myself, there’s nothing more that we can do,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, the only other player to get a Finals MVP vote after his breakout performance against the Warriors. “We’ve done it, the city’s done it, the franchise has done it, the coaches have done it, the teammates have done it.
“We’ve done our job. The best way to recruit somebody is to be yourself over the course of the year and I would assume that he knows what is here and what makes this place special and if it’s enough, it will be enough. And if it’s not, it’s not.”
The problem with predicting what moves Leonard makes is that he’s made a career out of being one of the NBA’s most inscrutable stars.
He’s not standoffish or unwilling to share. Over the course of the Raptors long playoff run he’s provided insight into how he’s worked diligently on his mental game to arrive at his even-keeled approach, how losing his father to gun violence affected him as a teenager and the betrayal he felt when his injuries were questioned in San Antonio, precipitating him being traded to the Raptors last summer.
But when it comes to his future beyond this season he’s said nothing on the few occasions anyone has tried to pry, including when ABC’s Doris Burke asked Thursday night moments after Leonard and the Raptors closed out their 4-2 Finals win over Golden State.
Through the season Leonard’s unwillingness to engage the topic was a positive — the drama around Leonard’s future was non-existent because he calmly brushed aside any efforts to have him address it.
But Leonard’s plans are the one cloud hanging over the Raptors’ parade of joy. Danny Green is a pending free agent and Marc Gasol has an option he can exercise if he wants to stay in Toronto, or he can choose to become a free agent also. Serge Ibaka, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are all heading into the final seasons of their deals. There are a lot of balls in the air, but Leonard is the biggest one, and whatever he chooses will cause a massive splash around the NBA.
“He’s got to consult with his family, his agency and whoever else he keeps close to him and make a decision just like I’m going to do the same,” said Green, who was traded to the Raptors from San Antonio with Leonard and has now played alongside him for eight seasons. “But I think his decision impacts — I’d be foolish (to not say) it doesn’t impact a lot of guys’ decisions. Because he can change a whole organization. He can change a whole team. He can change a lot of guys’ careers or make a lot of guys’ careers easier. So that decision weighs on, I think, a lot of guys’ free-agency decision.”
The league doesn’t stand still. Already the only other domino that can rival Leonard’s decision has tipped over with the Los Angeles Lakers reportedly trading for Anthony Davis, giving the off-season a jump start. With Warriors free agents Kevin Durant (Achilles) and Klay Thompson (ACL) likely to miss most, if not all, of next season with their injuries, Leonard’s decision is even more significant as his franchise-shifting stature has only grown relative to what remains a deep field of free agents.
“Kawhi impacts the team and the franchise in so many different ways that I’m sure it’ll have something to do with [my decision],” said Gasol. “…I don’t think there’s any other player of his calibre right now in the NBA. I think he’s on a pedestal by himself. Age-wise, his game, his leadership, the way he carries himself. I haven’t been around all of them, but I’ll tell you, he’s one of a kind.”
The Raptors’ pitch is simple: He knows them and has had success here. If his oft-stated basketball priority is winning, the Raptors are a much more assured outcome than the Los Angeles Clippers — a widely rumoured front runner — and if he wants to avoid a circus while winning titles, Toronto would have the edge there, too.
His teammates say they have no plans to actively woo him, but that the pitch would be compelling if they did.
“All the free restaurants you can go to, the Kawine and Dine? I even heard that he got a house or somebody gave him a house or something like that. Where’s my house at? Where’s my house?” joked Pascal Siakam, before turning more serious:
“The experience that we had, winning a championship. Once you win a championship, the next thing you want to do is do it again. Having him, that’s a plus, and having young guys like me, Fred, continue to develop — Norm, everyone. Everyone being so young and having to go through this, I think it’s a great fit for him being here. Hopefully he can come back. I’m not a salesman [but] … I want him to come back.”
Chances are those sentiments are shared with the millions of Raptors fans that will take the time to go to a parade Monday, and who watched in ever increasing numbers as the Raptors’ playoff run wore on. Chances are Leonard is going to hear about it on Monday, too.
But will he listen? Will it matter? No one knows.
“We all love him and we would all love for him to be back and if he’s not, we’ll move on from there so it’s not the biggest deal in the world. He came and did what he was supposed to do — he came here and brought this city a championship,” said VanVleet. “And I think he’s earned his freedom in his career to do what he wants to do and we’ll all respect him and admire him, and if he’s on another team we’ll have to kick his ass next year.
“But hopefully he’ll be back.”