The Toronto Raptors are in first place in the NBA, coming off a promising road trip that included a season sweep of the defending champion Golden State Warriors, and with plenty of room for improvement as the season continues.
Yes, these are high times for the organization and its fan base.
But there are two big questions that, rightfully, loom over the team, and will for the next five or six months:
1. Is this team actually different than the Raptors’ other strong regular season teams of recent years, or will they crumble in the post-season?
2. Will Kawhi Leonard re-sign in Toronto — all but ensuring the Raptors retain their contender status for the foreseeable future — or walk in free agency?
The latter has been much-discussed this week in particular, on the heels of reports of the Los Angeles Clippers‘ fairly aggressive recruitment of the Raptors star, in which it was reported that Clippers front office brass — including team president Lawrence Frank — have attended roughly 75 per cent of Toronto’s games in part as a means to express their overt interest in signing the former Finals MVP once he becomes a free agent this summer.
“They’re treating this like a college recruitment,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said of the Clippers efforts. “It’s a unique way they’re going about this.”
Wojnarowski joined Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post podcast over the weekend and discussed the latest status of Leonard’s eventual free agency decision, and the Raptors’ potential road blocks to re-signing their leading scorer.
“They can’t change the geography, and they can’t change the weather in Toronto,” he said. “Those are always going to be things against them in this. Home and L.A. has been the focus of Kawhi Leonard through all of this.”
Leonard was asked about Toronto winters last week, and didn’t seem all too concerned.
“Just wear a jacket,” Leonard said. “We’re in a building. We’re not outside playing in the snow. And it’s good scenery.”
But on the podcast, Wojnarowski continued to make the case why the Raptors could be in tough to retain Leonard’s services beyond this season.
“[Selling Leonard on staying with the Raptors] becomes harder with a player who has already won a championship and is thinking about quality of life and where he wants to be,” he said. “Maybe his best chance to win is in Toronto [but] it may not be his No. 1 priority.”
“They’re the best team in the East — and that’s the only case they can make,” added Lowe.
Former NBA vice-president Stu Jackson was a guest on The Starting Lineup on Sportsnet 590 The FAN on Tuesday morning, and discussed the latest free agency rumours and why he doesn’t altogether buy that the Clippers would be a preferred destination for a player in Leonard’s situation.
“Let’s say Golden State and Toronto end up in the Finals,” he said. “As a player do you still make the decision to leave a Finals-level team … and now go away in free agency to the Clippers in the off chance that you get to the Finals? I don’t know, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Winning cures a lot in the minds of many players.”
On Monday, Leonard’s teammate, Kyle Lowry, was asked about whether or not he had any indication of what will happen next summer.
“There’s no read,” Lowry told Sam Amick of The Athletic. “We don’t have to read him, because he talks to us. He’s our teammate. He’s a guy we talk to every day. He’s awesome. He’s enjoying being back on the floor playing basketball at a high level. That’s what he’s really enjoying.
“I’ve dealt with this before with DeMar — the speculation — and I will be happy for Kawhi Leonard when he makes his decision,” Lowry continued. “Nothing else matters but his happiness, and that’s how I am, because our brotherhood is too small for us to say this, that and the other (about another player’s free agency decision) Our brotherhood in the NBA is really tiny, and we really all appreciate and support and want each other happy.”
Leonard, for his part, seems to be uninterested — or unaware — of the ongoing rumours and L.A.’s apparent recruitment tactics. While the Raptors were in Los Angeles to face the Clippers last week, after the game Leonard walked right past Lawrence Frank in a Staples Center corridor with no acknowledgement.
It was reported in Amick’s story that Leonard said he simply didn’t know who Frank was.
Leonard is currently averaging a career-high 26.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game for the 23-9 Raptors.