LAS VEGAS — If it makes anyone feel any better, the Los Angeles Clippers thought Kawhi Leonard was going to run it back too.
After a year spent hovering around Scotiabank Arena in a transparent recruiting process that likely didn’t matter to Leonard until the Clippers were able to pull off the stunning trade for Paul George to give him his preferred running mate in his preferred place of work, the Clippers thought it had all gone for naught.
They saw Leonard’s sheer joy in winning the NBA championship in his one season in Toronto, saw the parade through the downtown streets and saw the iconic images of Leonard gazing out over what he had wrought — the crowd reflected in his sunglasses — and figured the gig was up.
"The Raptors did everything right," a Clippers official told me. "We saw the parade, saw those pictures and figured that was it. We were done."
They weren’t. Far from it.
Thanks to their ability and willingness to load up a Brinks trunk of assets to acquire George from the Oklahoma City Thunder — after Leonard reportedly met with George and asked him to ask for a trade from OKC to join him in L.A. — they were able to meet the Thunder’s price and give Leonard the superstar co-star he wanted in pursuing title No. 3 while returning home to sunny Southern California.
The Raptors were left out in the cold only two weeks after their parade to celebrate their first NBA championship.
How close did the Raptors come to keeping Leonard? Maybe not as close as the Clippers thought the Raptors were but internally the Raptors believed a perfect season — Leonard’s spectacular return to health, a run to the title and the overall environment — would be enough to convince him to stay.
"I think with these things you’re always confident with what you’re doing," Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in his first public comments since Leonard announced he was leaving Toronto to sign as a free agent with the Clippers. "In our talks and just communication I was confident. But I understand how free agency is too. You base things on some of the things we’ve done and you’re biased a little bit. We won a championship, it went well, blah, blah, blah. But I know, I’m not naive to think that in free agency it doesn’t change."
When did it change?
We may never know, given the principals involved, but the Raptors’ initial optimism began to dwindle as the process dragged on, with Leonard eventually making his decision on July 5 — nearly six days after free agency opened.
And by the time Leonard was on an MLSE executive jet to Toronto from Los Angeles on Wednesday, July 3 — and a pair of SUVs carrying Leonard’s party was tracked by a news helicopter on their way from the airport to a meeting at a downtown Toronto hotel — there was a feeling that things might not be breaking the Raptors way.
The demands from those around Leonard got more difficult to meet, the communication less consistent. At a certain point you just know that you’re not someone’s top priority, was how one person close to the talks put it.
The Raptors’ contact with Oklahoma City in the final hours before Leonard announced his decision may have been somewhat exaggerated. The Raptors weren’t working the phones until the final minutes. Instead it was evident early that the Thunder were playing the Raptors off against the Clippers — as has been reported — and seeing on the writing on the wall, the Raptors tapped out.
No hard feelings though. Leonard came, conquered and left the Raptors with a championship.
"I do want to say that he [Leonard] definitely has our blessings," said Ujiri. "He gave it everything while he was with us and we really appreciated that. I communicated with him afterwards and it was very good."
"I think we got a great deal out of this. We won a championship so we’re happy. And honestly it’s on to the next. This is the NBA and this is how it works," Ujiri added. "I always say there’s no time to go out and cry. You can’t hide under the table and cry. Honestly, I’ve lost no sleep, I’m not disappointed. It’s on to what’s next. I’m telling Raptors fans and everybody, don’t lose one day of sleep, one second of sleep. We’re going to be just fine. We’re going to be alright."
Often championships are won after leveraging a franchise’s future, but the Raptors don’t have that issue. They have all their own picks. They have some good young talent. This week in Las Vegas they will begin meetings aimed at securing a long-term future with the Raptors for Pascal Siakam, an emerging star who could be in line for a five-year extension worth about $168-million. OG Anunoby is just scratching the surface of his considerable talent. The coaching situation looks solid and positive.
Besides, what choice does Ujiri have but to look back and say thanks? If Leonard proved to be the same mercenary ninja off the court he was on the floor, the Raptors are in no position to cry foul.
Lamenting Leonard’s departure is to ignore the manner in which he arrived.
The idea that Leonard should somehow be faulted for being calculating in seeking out his best option for his next contract, for pushing Ujiri to enter trade discussions that would have meant jettisoning teammates he had just celebrated winning a title with, or allow the Raptors to be used as leverage to push the Clippers into making the deal that landed George is willful ignorance.
Leonard only arrived in Toronto after Ujiri was equally bloodless. It was in the same summer league corridors of the Thomas & Mack Center 12 months ago that Raptors icon DeMar DeRozan believed Ujiri had assured him that he wouldn’t be traded from the only team he had ever known. It was that brief conversation that led DeRozan and his camp to believe Ujiri had betrayed him to acquire Leonard.
Ujiri is adamant that he never made any concrete pledge and only went so far as telling DeRozan that there wasn’t anything imminent.
A year later the details are almost unimportant and the facts speak for themselves. In order for Ujiri to get the Raptors to where they needed to go he felt compelled to trade the L.A. kid who swore his allegiance to Toronto the moment he arrived — and never wavered — but couldn’t deliver in the playoffs, for another L.A. product who delivered a championship but clearly only ever wanted to leave.
The Raptors title followed by Leonard’s determined exit was merely a case of the Raptors swimming in the same shark-filled waters they emerged from unscathed a year ago. The difference is this time they lost a limb.
But what’s done is done. The Raptors have their rings, Leonard has made his way home. Time to move on.