Kawhi Leonard’s Raptors tenure is over but historic season will live forever

Sportsnet's Michael Grange breaks down how the Paul George trade was the key to Kawhi Leonard signing with Clippers.

It was fun while it lasted.

So fun. But nothing is forever, except the memories from a season no one will forget, delivered by a player unlike any the Toronto Raptors have ever had, or likely ever will.

They simply don’t come around very often.

But no one will forget how the Kawhi Leonard era ended either — with a pair of bombshells delivered in the wee hours of the night:

First, that Leonard was signing with the Los Angeles Clippers and then that he was going to be teaming up with Paul George, who he recruited to join him as the Clippers orchestrated a massive trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The news was delivered by a few NBA Insiders in the early hours of Saturday morning as the NBA’s landscape had shifted once again.

And as a corollary: Raptors guard Danny Green – who came to Toronto with Leonard in the trade with San Antonio last summer – announced that he was signing with the Los Angeles Lakers on a reported two-year deal for $30 million.

The thunderbolts of news ended a frenzied six days of speculation about Leonard’s free agency plans that included the minute-by-minute tracking of private jets by Twitter sleuths and news helicopters following SUV convoys as Toronto and the NBA at-large waited for word from the man who says not much.

They also marked the official end of a spectacular 12-month ride for Raptors fans that was more thrilling than anyone reasonably could have been expecting.

Even as Leonard and the Raptors proved to be elite, it was difficult to imagine them actually winning a title – the field was deep, the Raptors were a newly-constructed team and Toronto had never done it before.

But Leonard wouldn’t be denied and carried his team, the city and — by the end of the playoff run – the entire country on his impossibly broad shoulders.

And now all at once Raptors fans have thrust upon them an almost existential challenge: to revel in the joy of a two-month march to the Raptors’ first NBA title even as they have to cope with the grief over losing the player most responsible for making it happen.

“It’s been a hell of a run, a hell of a year,” Green said on Instagram when announcing his own move. “[But] it’s been unfortunate how things have turned out for the city of Toronto and Canada [that] we couldn’t run it back.”

The hope was the perfect ending to Leonard’s season with the Raptors would be enough to convince him to stay, to make the California kid want to make Canada his basketball home after he returned to peak form under Toronto’s careful ‘load management’ strategy and won his second NBA championship.

“I always feel confident. Our organization feels confident. And we do feel confident that he will [re-sign],” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said at his season-ending media availability on June 25. “… I’m glad we got him for the year. I said this to you guys, we have to be ourselves. And we were ourselves the whole year. I think he saw that, I think we built a trust there …”

It was almost enough. Multiple sources close to the Raptors and the free-agency process said that, had the Clippers not acquired George, Leonard would have returned to Toronto and was leaning that way as of Thursday night.

When the Clippers agreed to send motherlode of assets – four future unprotected first-round picks, a protected first, the right to swap picks with the Clippers in two future drafts along with Danilo Gallinari and highly regarded Canadian second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – to the Thunder for George, Leonard’s path back to Los Angeles was clear.

The Clippers had stalked Leonard all season in Toronto to the point where the Raptors had to complain to the league about the passive-aggressive, borderline tampering-type tactics. The most surprising element may be that the Lakers – the franchise that always seemed to get what they want – were shut out.

Leonard didn’t leave Toronto for money – the reported four-year, $142-million contract he signed with the Clippers is less than the five-year, $190-million deal the Raptors could give him.

And he didn’t do it because he couldn’t win here: Leonard running it back in Toronto would likely provide a clearer path to the NBA Finals than in a more top-heavy Western Conference.

And he didn’t do it the easy way – instead of teaming up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis to form the next super team with the Lakers, Leonard will be sharing Staples Center with LA’s glamour franchise, trying to knock the Lakers off their pre-ordained perch.

But the urge to go home is one anyone can understand and hard to begrudge.

Leonard in LA had always seemed the natural order of things. It’s where he wanted the Spurs to trade him last summer. It’s where he’s from; it’s where superstars seem to go, when summoned, like moths to light.

But Ujiri interrupted that order. Ujiri and Leonard proved that the spotlight could shine on Toronto too. Ujiri said you could win a championship in Toronto, and with Leonard’s help, he was proven right.

Leonard leaving closes the chapter that began when Ujiri traded Raptors icon DeMar DeRozan, young big man Jakob Poeltl and the rights to Toronto’s first-round pick for Leonard, who was coming off an injury-plagued 2017-18 season that had limited him to nine games and precipitated his divorce from San Antonio.

There was mystery then as well: Would Leonard even report to Toronto? Would he be healthy enough to play?

Would he use his season here merely to prove he was healthy only to shut it down and await free agency?

Over the course of the season the concerns melted away and Leonard emerged as one of the best players in the NBA again.

In leading the Raptors to their championship and earning his second Finals MVP award, Leonard proved himself as quite possibly the best.

He put together a playoff run for the ages, leading the post-season tournament in total minutes played, points, rebounds and steals while averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 3.9 assists and shooting 49 per cent from the floor.

Not the most talkative type, Leonard proved his commitment and his priorities on the floor.

His list of signature plays was long and varied, but perhaps no moment was more significant than an off day between Games 3 and 4 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Down 0-2 against the Bucks, Leonard willed himself to a career-high 52 minutes in a must-win Game 3, including 22 straight in the fourth quarter and through two over-time periods. He clinched the win by scoring eight of his 36 points in the second overtime.

But he was labouring, twice seeming to favour his knee and his leg.

It wasn’t clear he’d be available for an equally important Game 4 in less than 40 hours but Leonard laid that to rest with a text to Ujiri early on the off day insisting that he would play in Game 4, and he did as the Raptors went on to win four straight against the top-seeded Bucks.

Otherwise, there were almost too many highlights to count.

His four-bounce series-clinching shot against Philadelphia was the first walk-off Game 7 winner in NBA history and it instantly entered the league’s pantheon of unforgettable moments.

His flying left-handed dunk over Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in the fourth quarter of Game 6 in the Eastern Conference Finals helped clinched the Raptors’ first NBA Finals appearance and unleashed 24 years of pent-up joy.

When Raptors head coach Nick Nurse tried to encourage his team after they dropped Game 2 at home in the Finals against the Golden State Warriors, he told them all they needed to do was go to Oakland and win one game to get home court advantage back. Leonard famously replied: “F*** that, let’s get both.”

And then Leonard led the Raptors into Oracle Arena and averaged 33 points, 9.5 rebounds and three steals on 51 per cent shooting over two games as the Raptors did just that.

His brilliance and the Raptors success unleashed a passion and celebration almost like nothing Toronto or Canada has ever seen around sports, let alone around basketball.

The television ratings were staggering – 15.9-million Canadians watched some of the Raptors championship-clinching win in Game 6 and an average of 7.7-million watched the game at any moment. It was the most-watched broadcast of any kind in Canada in more than four years and the 11th most-watched of all time. The 10 ahead of it? Eight from various Olympics; Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and the 2015 Super Bowl.

The championship parade through downtown Toronto on June 17 was another jaw dropper, with two million or more people estimated to have jammed city streets, nearly overwhelming the parade itself and almost pushing the city to its breaking point.

Leonard stole the show there too with his walk-off “Ha, ha, ha” laugh, a play on the memes that sprung up over his awkward laugh at his first press conference, the one where he told the world he was a ‘fun guy’ in his trademark deadpan.

If Leonard landing in Los Angeles always had an air of inevitability to it, it is fair to wonder if the Raptors truly ever had a chance.

Was Leonard wearing a Toronto Blue Jays jersey on vacation just a tease?

One day, we may find out but league sources said that the Raptors did believe they were in the driver’s seat until late in the process, which would seem consistent with Leonard using MLSE’s executive jet to fly from Los Angeles to Toronto on Wednesday for his meeting with Ujiri and Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. He remained in Toronto until Thursday night, according to sources, and put some time in with Drake as well.

And then he went home, with the news of his decision finally coming out in the wee hours of the morning as Leonard texted his Raptors teammates to let them know:

He was gone.

His record in Toronto will forever remain perfect, and likely unmatched: one season, one title.

Enough memories for a lifetime.

Now all that’s left to do is for the Raptors to retire No.2. To hang it from the rafters.

Out front at Scotiabank Arena they should build the man a statue, but make sure he’s smiling, reflecting the millions of smiles he put on millions of faces over the course of a season no one can say they saw coming.

It may be over, but it was as fun as it gets.

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