Raptors finally at centre of ring in NBA’s free-agency spectacle

NBA columnist Mitch Lawrence breaks down what the Raptors will do in order to keep Kawhi in Toronto.

Welcome to Basketball Christmas.

After nearly a year of build-up, arguably the most anticipated day on an NBA fan’s calendar has finally arrived.

The point where months of never-ending NBA gossip finally materializes into real things that really happen.

There’s nothing else like it; a slow-motion earthquake of fun that gives way to a volcano of news.

For Canadian hoops fans, a twist: after decades as a wallflower, hoping to get someone’s attention, the NBA champion Toronto Raptors are in the centre of the ring. They’re trying to fend off contenders on all sides for Kawhi Leonard, the most coveted free agent of them all, a two-time Finals MVP who holds the Raptors’ future in his massive claws and would change the future of whatever team he decides to join if he leaves.

In a sport where one player can alter the direction of a franchise and tilt the axis of a league, the free-agent deadline – which has been moved up this year to 6 pm EST on June 30th to make for better prime-time viewing than the traditional 12:01 July 1 tip-off – is the moment when the league’s present and future collide in an annual Big Bang.

And, like Christmas, sometimes it’s just too tempting to not open a few presents the night before, so on Saturday night came the hints and ‘sources’ and the whisper of moves all but finalized – Kemba Walker to the Boston Celtics; Kyrie Irving to the Brooklyn Nets and Jimmy Butler everywhere.

It’s fun. Essential theatre for even casual fans. It’s a formula other leagues would do well to emulate but never quite will.

Even the NBA got here much by accident. The league went through two work stoppages to rein in player costs and make it easier for teams – of all market sizes – to keep their own stars while also protecting owners from over-paying aging or injured players on deals that used to run eight, nine or 10 years or more.

But those victories came with some unintended consequences.

A cap on individual salaries meant that the league’s best players are paid under the market value – imagine Leonard’s actual worth in a world where the Lakers, Clippers, Raptors and Knicks were able to get in a bidding war – so money being largely equal, NBA stars prioritize things like the market they want to play in, the teammates they want to have and the coach they prefer rather than something as reductive as a paycheque, which is going to be largely the same wherever they go.

Meanwhile, the four- and five-year maximum contract lengths (five years for incumbent players; four years for players on the move) the NBA established in the 2012 lockout means a steady churn of stars closing in on a new deal and a new round of uncertainty.

In turn, teams are so conscious about not losing an itchy-footed superstar for nothing in free agency even players a year or two years removed from their contracts being up are part of the off-season mix, as Anthony Davis most recently proved in forcing his way from New Orleans to join LeBron James with the Lakers even though Davis doesn’t become a free agent until next summer.

The league’s salary cap – which provides more of a guide for team’s payrolls than a hard ceiling – means that, with clever management and planning, teams are somehow always able to position themselves to add elite talent, provided they are willing to pay the luxury taxes or cough up the draft picks or both in order to make the room in their salary budget.

It doesn’t hurt that revenues keep growing – the salary cap for next season is expected to be $109 million, compared to $63.1 million in 2014-15 – meaning teams can eventually recover from all but their worst mistakes.

Add in the fact that the league’s elite players are in constant communication so they can team up and challenge for titles, and the NBA seems like it is forever positioned to never be dull.

But, even by the league’s high standards for off-season intrigue, the summer of 2019 promises to be unusually riveting. It already has.

What will the Lakers do to leverage the final years of LeBron’s prime and make sure going all-in to acquire Davis won’t be in vain?

Can the Los Angeles Clippers force their way out of the Lakers’ shadow and become a superpower in their own right?

Will the small-market Milwaukee Bucks spend to maintain their core around all-everything Giannis Antetokounmpo or will the possibility of future payroll and luxury-tax commitments stretching into the billions (cumulatively) cause them to play it safe and lose their moment?

Can the Philadelphia 76ers return as an improved version of the hastily put together team that pushed the Raptors to the limit in the playoffs or will the forces of entropy mean The Process has already peaked?

There are stories all over. The Nets hoping to make the leap from plucky to talent-laded after five years in their self-imposed draft-pick hell might take a risk on Irving, an on-court savant who seems to carry the ‘does not play well with others’ label everywhere he goes.

The Celtics – who’ve stripped the Nets of so many future assets in that fateful trade so many years ago – seem to be moving on from Irving but are trying to prove that all of president Danny Ainge’s careful maneuvering doesn’t end up with them as just another good team, instead of a budding dynasty.

Will the New York Knicks be the Knicks and spend their carefully hoarded cap space – which was supposed to land them Irving and Kevin Durant, but won’t get them either, it seems – on bad contracts for mediocre players? Or will they be patient even as the best free agents wait to see if the Knicks’ new-found build-from-within strategy is anything more than a paper-thin veneer?

And what will Durant do? Never has the NBA seen a player of his calibre heading into free agency with such a major asterisk: due to his Achilles-tendon injury in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, he won’t be able to play wherever he signs until 2020-21. He’ll get paid nearly $40 million to go to physiotherapy. Will he ever return to form? Who knows? But the lesson won’t be cheap.

Meanwhile, reports are Klay Thompson, who tore his ACL in Game 6, will sign a five-year, $190-million deal to stay with the Golden State Warriors.

Greasing the wheels for all the action is the estimated $474-million in salary-cap space – more than what was on the table in the summers of 2017 and 2018 combined – available to sprinkle among more than 200 free agents.

And at the head of it, leading the parade, as it were?

Leonard, who will be a Raptor until 5:59 pm Sunday and who knows how much longer after that.

In any circumstance, a free agent of Leonard’s stature would represent a league-smashing domino, but this is a different order of magnitude.

If he stays in Toronto, the Raptors will likely keep their band together, add around the margins and enter 2019-20 as solid favourites to repeat. Internally, the Raptors remain cautiously optimistic. Even the noise around the Lakers meeting with Leonard is consistent with what Leonard’s camp told them would happen before he left Toronto.

The Raptors will get last crack at Leonard – likely on July 2 or 3 – and will only have to remind him of what he already knows: he won a title in Toronto, he was healthy and – in his words – it was the most fun he’s ever had in his career.

If that’s enough to keep Leonard, it would be a chance for every layer of the Canadian basketball firmament – from the grassroots to the tallest towers on Bay Street – to consolidate and build on the emerging story of the sport.

All the momentum that gathered over the course of the Raptors two-month playoff run could be captured, leveraged and multiplied.

The NBA would be different, but Canada even more so, potentially.

If Leonard leaves? He could join LeBron and Davis with the Lakers and form what might be the most talented three-headed monster the league has ever seen. The Lakers could win now and win for a while even as LeBron ages out – Davis and Leonard are just 26 and 28.

And the Raptors? Good but no longer great. The future would arrive in a hurry.

Wherever Leonard ends up will change the league.

The Raptors and Canada will be changed too.

We just don’t know how.

That’s the thing about Christmas – maybe Basketball Christmas especially. The hardest part is the waiting.

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