In a very short period of time, Kawhi Leonard’s “load management” may have become the Toronto Raptors’ last line of defence, their one golden ticket in a league of high-stakes poker where superstars, cap space and future first-round picks are the buy-in.
The Raptors are light on cap space and picks as the league’s high-limit players belly up to the table between now and Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline which – when it passes – will only offer a brief reprieve from an even higher stakes game of Texas hold ‘em that will unfold around the June draft and the free agent signing period which kicks off July 1.
By that time, odds are, the Golden State Warriors will be champions again. If everything in Toronto works out as planned, the Raptors could be the team in the Finals trying to prevent the Dubs from winning their third straight title and fourth in five years. Whatever happens, win or lose, getting there would mark a high point for the most successful era the Raptors have ever had.
But regardless of how things shake out in June, it feels like that will mark the end of the NBA as we’ve known it the past five seasons and the beginning of a new era that will shape the league’s destiny for the next half decade or more.
Where will the Raptors place be in that new universe?
After six years of Raptors president Masai Ujiri guiding the franchise’s growing relevance in the league that serves stars and glamour first, it could all come undone quickly.
Should Leonard leave for nothing in free agency along with sidekick Danny Green (also a free agent), and Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka a year older and heading into the final year of their deals, the Raptors could be forced into a rapid rebuild.
Events league-wide haven’t made life easier for Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster.
Hours after the Raptors enjoyed one of their most impressive wins in weeks – a hard-fought road win in Philadelphia where they got important contributions from every segment of their roster and with the prospect of injured centre Jonas Valanciunas returning after a 31-game absence – the ground shifted underneath their feet.
Sixers fans who were heckling Elton Brand while the Raptors were building up an 18-point first-half lead woke up to learn that the rookie Philadelphia general manager had acquired Tobias Harris, an all-star calibre wing from the Los Angeles Clippers, as the centerpiece of a blockbuster deal that also netted the Sixers quality role players Boban Marjanovich – the only player in the league bigger than the Sixers’ Joel Embiid – and Mike Scott, who gave the Raptors fits in the playoffs when he was coming off the bench for the Washington Wizards.
The Sixers made the move without giving up any significant pieces from their current roster.
How much better did the deal make the 76ers – already projected as a top-four team in the improving Eastern Conference – on paper?
"A lot" was the assessment of one Raptors insider.
More concerning? The deal positions the Los Angeles Clippers as an even more attractive destination for free agents next summer. That’s a problem given – as Clippers owner Steve Ballmer’s presence courtside at Scotiabank Arena Sunday would seem to confirm – the NBA’s “other” Los Angeles franchise wants to hitch their star to Leonard.
In the deal, the Clippers acquired two future first-round picks – one an increasingly valuable unprotected 2021 pick belonging to the Miami Heat – and some expiring contracts. They also punted on the playoffs this year, which means they will keep their own lottery protected first-rounder this summer rather than have it flip to Boston, weakening the Celtics’ hand in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes. Now that they are in tank mode, the Clippers will likely listen to offers on the likes of valuable veterans Patrick Beverly, Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams, gathering more assets.
The benefit? Any of those moves would help the Clippers get in position to be able to sign two max free agents this summer or blow past the competition and trade to acquire the jewel of available NBA talent: Anthony Davis.
In any scenario, they will be able to say to Leonard this summer: “Come to L.A., we’ll get you all the help you need in the form of Davis or another of one of the deepest free-agent class the league has seen in years.”
What will the Raptors be able to say to that?
By the 3 p.m. deadline on Thursday, they may well be able to tell Leonard they’re willing to make moves to help improve a deep, quality roster that could use some upgrades in terms of three-point shooting and secondary play-making. One benefit of Davis looking to force his way out of New Orleans, the Clippers going all-in on next summer and the Memphis Grizzlies tearing down is there are some quality veteran role players that should be available.
After a day of speculation Wednesday that the Raptors were considering trading both Lowry and Valanciunas to Memphis for Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, the idea of Toronto doing something sweeping seems to have passed. However, a move around the periphery is still in play, according to sources.
But the Raptors’ ultimate appeal to Leonard may be the most straight forward: they can pay him the most and for the longest – five years and $191 million, compared to the four years and $141 million he can be offered by other teams as a free agent.
How important is an extra year and $50 million to Leonard? We’re going to find out soon enough. Which brings us back to “load management,” the term the Raptors use when they sit Leonard out for one half of back-to-back games as they have every opportunity this season, or when they give him a four-game break as they did just two weeks ago.
For all the intrigue about the injury that limited him to nine games and precipitated his divorce from the San Antonio Spurs this past off season – there has never been a public documentation of exactly what it is – the explanation may well be right in front of our eyes.
It could be as simple as the reality that Leonard has a condition that allows him to play at an MVP level when he’s rested and fit but requires careful monitoring to make sure he doesn’t push beyond certain thresholds in terms of fatigue or discomfort. “Load management” may be exactly what it sounds like, rather than some kind of euphemism.
Why could this work in the Raptors favour as the league’s make-up shifts and teams position themselves to make a run at their prize asset? Remember Leonard’s introductory press conference, the one that generated the laughing meme?
Here is how Lenoard answered a question about his career goals: "Just to be healthy," he said. "That’s my No. 1 goal. Play a long and healthy career."
Coming off a nine-game season and in the midst of one where he’s only on pace to play 61 games, does that sound like an athlete who is taking his health and long-term security for granted?
When LeBron James and Kevin Durant take short-term deals and leave guaranteed money on the table, they do it from positions of strength, with recent records of largely uninterrupted good health and while sitting on massive off-court financial portfolios. It allows them – even requires them – to prioritize getting into the precisely correct situation rather than locking themselves down to a long-term contract.
Leonard isn’t in that situation. He has no significant off-court revenues to fall back on. He’s already lost nearly a full season to what seems to be a chronic condition and has had to carefully manage it this year. A regular sight on the road is Leonard going through an extensive and deliberate “pre-hab” routine with Raptors director of sport sciences Alex McKechnie before every game. Nothing is left to chance. When in doubt, he sits.
Does that sit well with his teammates? It may or may not, but Leonard may not have a choice.
In that context, maybe the Raptors’ best chance to stay at the NBA’s big-boy table beyond this season is for Leonard to accept the added money and term only they can offer, and ride out the current cycle they are in with Lowry, Ibaka and Valanciunas all under contract though the 2019-20 season.
Maybe they even do it with a gentleman’s agreement that if things aren’t trending in the direction Leonard prefers, they will move him to a mutually aggreegable team at some point during his deal – an understanding it’s believed the Oklahoma City Thunder made with both Russell Westbrook and Paul George in retaining them on long-term deals.
It would be or could be win-win: the Raptors get more than one season to contend with Leonard and if they have to pivot to a rebuild they have in him as valuable an asset as would exist in the league, while Leonard gets money, security and the option to move on if the Raptors can’t get over the hump.
With the NBA’s tectonic plates heaving by the hour, Leonard’s “load management” and what it represents might be the Raptors’ best opportunity to find their place in the league’s increasingly uncertain future.