It all felt eerily familiar.
Media converged in Los Angeles by the hundreds — a similar scene to last fall when Kawhi Leonard was introduced to the Toronto Raptors during media day at Scotiabank Arena.
It was a story told over the span of almost exactly one year — a year plus a week, to be exact. That’s when Leonard was traded to Toronto from San Antonio, igniting the most thrilling year for the Raptors and their fans, culminating in an unthinkable championship run.
On Wednesday, as Leonard was introduced to the public by his newest team, the Los Angeles Clippers, it was hard to ignore some of the parallels as one story came to an end and another began.
“As much as we liked our team last year, we knew we needed elite talent to compete at the next level,” said Clippers GM Lawrence Frank while explaining his team’s pursuit of the now two-time Finals MVP.
Where have we heard that before?
Leonard, when it came his turn to speak, talked about his desire to help the team win and how he relished the opportunity to help make history for a team that has never reached the Finals. Sound familiar?
Obviously still adjusting to his new team, he even referred to the Clippers as “they” throughout the press conference, just as he had when he arrived in Toronto.
Of course, some things had changed this time around. Many questions, for example, surrounding Leonard’s health and ability to return to the form that earned him 2014 Finals MVP honours when he guarded and outplayed LeBron James — or 2017 when we all agreed he was a top-three player in the league — had been answered thanks to an utterly dominant 2019 playoff run.
And Leonard himself appeared different — much more relaxed, almost vindicated. And why not? It’s hard to imagine things working out better for him. He catapulted to the top of the NBA’s hierarchy, establishing himself as the league’s alpha dog, on and off the court, and delivered the Larry O’Brien Trophy to Toronto while capturing the imagination of an entire nation.
He also seemed far more at ease behind a microphone addressing a large crowd, cementing the feeling that we watched Leonard break out of his shell last season. He arrived in Toronto with an unfair reputation as a mute and was visibly uncomfortable when greeting the Toronto media. He left cracking jokes to a crowd of millions at the championship parade, the “best parade ever,” he stated on Wednesday.
"Best parade ever."
Kawhi thanks the city of Toronto and the @Raptors organization for an amazing season.
He also thanks Toronto restaurants for Ka'wine & Dine. "Took advantage of that." pic.twitter.com/t5NThMtui6
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 24, 2019
There’s no question his one-year stint with the Raptors was a smash success for everybody involved. And given the storybook ending to the season — Leonard, having played every game in the playoffs, hoisting the championship trophy he and his teammates fought so hard for — it seemed like there just might be a chance that the organization and city had done enough to run it back with Leonard.
Did Leonard ever really consider a return to Toronto? We don’t know. Following his press conference, Leonard told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that it was a “real close” decision between the Clippers, Raptors, and Los Angeles Lakers. But we don’t really know.
We do know that it was never his call to play for the Raptors; he reportedly asked to be traded to the Lakers originally, and has been eying a return to his hometown for quite some time.
He didn’t choose Toronto, but the way he went about handled his situation last season was admirable. In a situation where countless pro athletes have pouted, he showed up, put his head down, and focused on the work. The rest would come later.
And here it is.
Leonard has moved on, surrounded by a new team in the city he wanted to be in all along. Surrounded by family and flanked by an old friend and fellow top-10 player in Paul George. Surrounded by the lights and cameras he doesn’t care about. Surrounded by an owner, front office, and coaching staff that know — and could hardly stop smiling ear-to-ear throughout the press conference knowing that, like in Toronto, Leonard’s arrival signals an immediate step into contender status.
Meanwhile, in Raptorland, things are eerily quiet as the team embarks on an unknown future.
After losing Leonard, the team’s roster now features core players on expiring contracts (Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Marc Gasol), an emerging star in Pascal Siakam, young players about to be thrust into bigger roles (OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, Patrick McCaw), and, in Leonard’s position at small forward, a pair of reclamation projects in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
Needless to say, things will feel a lot different in Toronto next season.
Leonard will get a hardy cheer upon his return — it’s kind of hard to hold a grudge when you got a title out of the deal. He’ll forever be remembered as a hero in Toronto and the man who delivered the city its first NBA championship.
And as he sat on the stage in Los Angeles on Wednesday, a year’s worth of images played on a loop through the minds of Raptors fans.
It was a similar scene to a year ago. Similar words. Different details, sure, but a similar story: Star arrives, transforms team, and captures the hopes of a franchise.
In the process, another takes a step back. Last year, it was the San Antonio Spurs. Now, it’s the Raptors as a wild, unforgettable, plot-altering chapter comes to a close.
And another page turns.