With the Toronto Raptors just two Ws away from an NBA championship, the looming spectre of both other-worldly jubilation and nail-biting trepidation is hanging over the club.
This is because while it’s obviously an exciting prospect to be within arm’s reach of a title, it also means the subplot that has cast a shadow over the Raptors since they first traded for Kawhi Leonard will quickly become the team’s main plot: Will Kawhi stay?
It’s still impossible to say what Leonard might be thinking in regards to his pending free agency but the one common talking point heard all year long has been the prospect of signing a long-term deal with the Raptors or any of the other potential suitors such as the Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets.
A long-term deal would make a fair bit of sense for Leonard as he’s stated repeatedly how important being healthy is to him, and in locking up guaranteed dollars over a longer period of time any risk to his potential future earnings due to injury would be neutralized.
On the other hand, why can’t a short, one- or two-year deal to remain with Toronto work, as well?
As much as it makes sense for Leonard to be attracted to guaranteed money (who isn’t, really?), he’s proven in the past he’s not afraid to pass it up, either, while he was with the San Antonio Spurs.
So then, if you’re Leonard, why not just re-sign with the Raptors on a short-term deal? This is a city and team that’s completely enamoured with him, so sticking around just a little longer would be the ultimate good-will move in addition to some of the very real personal benefits that would come with it all.
Here’s a look at three personally beneficial reasons why it makes sense for Leonard to sign a short-term deal with the Raptors.
Greater earning potential
Chief among all other reasons is this one mainly because of the stature of player Leonard re-built his image to be during this remarkable post-season run.
Leonard is once again on the shortlist of being one of the three to five best basketball players on the planet and as such he should be able to leverage his ability into similar deals as his elite peers like LeBron James and Kevin Durant have done in the past: One- and two-year contracts with player options attached for a second or third year as a security blanket.
Players of Leonard’s calibre need not worry about one big pay day from a longer deal because their talents are so extraordinary that, no matter what, they will command maximum money.
As such, it’s in Leonard’s best interest to try to hit free agency as often as possible to maximize his future earning potential because he should always be among the most highly sought-after players in the NBA.
Remember, maximum salaries are tied to and determined by both the NBA’s salary cap and a player’s service time in the league. And so, by understanding this, we can forecast what a one-year deal plus a player option might look like for Leonard for next season.
This season is Leonard’s eighth in the league so he will command a maximum salary worth 30 per cent of a team’s salary cap, meaning Leonard can earn $32.7 million for the 2019-20 season if the cap jumps to the projected $109 million that was reported before this season began.
It’s important to take note of that eight-year mark as it means Leonard will have to wait until the summer of 2021, when he would have completed 10 years of service time, for his maximum salary to increase to 35 per cent of a team’s salary cap.
This is a big incentive for Leonard to sign short-term deals until at least the summer of 2021 because it allows Leonard to maximize his salary until he is able to reach that next tier.
Leonard could’ve hit that 35 per cent threshold had he signed a “super-max” extension with the Spurs last summer, but obviously there was far more than money at play with that situation. Still he left a ton of money on the table, but now he has a means to recoup some of his losses with short-term contracts mainly because the salary cap keeps going up with no signs of it levelling out any time soon.
Look at it this way: If Leonard were to sign a five-year deal to remain with the Raptors, he would be in line for something in the range of a contract worth $190 million because the first year of the deal would be $32.7 million and then eight per cent raises (an additional $2.6 million) every year as he’d be signed with the Bird rights the Raptors have on him (which add the fifth additional year and the eight per cent annual raises).
And if he were to sign a full-length contract with a team other than the Raptors, his deal would probably come in at about four years, $140 million because a team would be signing him without the advantage of having his Bird rights, meaning they could only offer him a max four-year deal with annual raises of only five per cent.
In both cases, Leonard wouldn’t be hitting that 35 per cent cap number that he would be able to command as early as he possibly could and, to reiterate, the cap is only climbing. The projected salary cap for the 2020-21 season, according to the story linked above, is $118 million.
It just makes more sense financially for Leonard to go on short-term contracts at least until 2021, and even then it might be even more logical to just keep doing it, especially if he’s just doing it with the Raptors.
Again, the fact the Raptors own Leonard’s Bird rights is huge for this scenario because of those eight per cent annual raises.
If for some reason Leonard’s injury luck were to take a bad turn again or if his level of play were to suddenly drop off dramatically and he knew he wouldn’t be able to command max money anymore on his next contract, that player option for the last year on whatever deal might be made is a huge incentive for the Raptors to give him because they can offer him the comfiest security blanket of any team.
There really isn’t a good enough reason for Leonard not to sign short-term with the Raptors.
Can align with Raptors’ apparent competitive window
Now that we’ve got all the technicality of financials out of the way, the other big reason Leonard should sign a short-term deal with Toronto is the fact it would align with the Raptors’ apparent window.
Additionally, it gives both him and the team a built-in bailout option if things were to go sour while still keeping good will among the fan base.
The summer of 2020 will be a monumental one for the Raptors because the only player who will actually be under contract for the 2020-21 season is Norman Powell. Everyone else will either be an unrestricted free agent or restricted free agent.
Therefore, the Raptors will, essentially, only have one more season to take another kick at this championship can and will immediately have the option to shake things up.
This is an attractive situation for Leonard because if he does only do a one-year deal with a second-year option, he can determine what the direction of the team is and if he doesn’t like it can request a trade or easily walk away, scenarios that wouldn’t really hurt the Raptors much since they’ve seemingly already been preparing for this.
Better yet, unlike past stars who have left the Raptors like Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, should Leonard sign a short-term deal this summer and then get traded or leave as soon as possible, the very symbol of him re-upping with Toronto after the legendary post-season run he’s been enjoying should be so strong he would be fondly remembered, like past Toronto sports mercenary icons such as Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart.
Build on evident trusting relationship with Raptors management and medical staff
“Just to be able to be healthy, that’s my No. 1 goal. Play a long, healthy career and be able to be dominant wherever I land.”
That was Leonard during his introductory press conference before the season began when he was asked about his career goals. As the season has played out, it appears to remain among the most telling statements Leonard’s made all season long.
Leonard only played 60 regular season games in 2018-19 as part of a load management program that had been outlined by Alex McKechnie and the Raptors’ medical staff. It’s a program that has paid remarkable dividends for Leonard and the Raptors and, to borrow his words, allowed him to dominate in ways that he’s never done before.
It’s clear Leonard cares a great deal about his long-term health and his ability to play NBA basketball at the highest-level possible for a prolonged period of time and to do so he has to be able to trust what a team’s training staff is doing for him.
In one season with the Raptors, it looks like it’s so far, so good on that front and you’d have to think Leonard would be open to trying things out again with the Raptors, if only at least for one more year based on the results he’s seen from this season.
If things go south with Raptors’ management staff and their medical staff in this second-year trial for Leonard, so be it. It’s still just one season, and maybe even less if he were to get traded.