TORONTO — The championship has been won. The parade ended with a last laugh. Now comes the most excruciating epilogue.
In less than two weeks, Kawhi Leonard is expected to decline his 2019-20 player option and become an unrestricted free agent. From the moment he was traded to the Raptors last summer, this has always been the end game. A one-year bet on convincing a superstar who didn’t want to be here that this is the right place for him to plant his flag.
If the Raptors started this season without a chance at convincing Leonard to re-sign, then they have made up plenty of ground in what could be termed the perfect one-year pitch. It all started with building trust, which was important to Leonard and his uncle, Dennis Robertson, after their falling out with the San Antonio Spurs. Health was a main priority for Leonard coming into this season and the Raptors put together a load management plan that helped ease his burden in the regular season, and allowed Leonard to go on one of the greatest individual playoff runs in NBA history while leading the league in postseason minutes.
Even with the heavy lifting Leonard was doing in the playoffs, especially against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, Toronto also showed it had a championship-caliber supporting cast. Up and down the roster, everyone stepped up. When nobody could make a shot in Game 7 against the Sixers, it was Serge Ibaka who became the team’s second option. The four-bounce game-winning buzzer beater lives on in memory, but Toronto doesn’t make it out of the second round without Ibaka’s performance. You can point your fingers at everyone on this team. Kyle Lowry. Pascal Siakam. Danny Green. Marc Gasol. Fred VanVleet. Norman Powell. Everyone had their playoff moment.
Getting a superstar for one year also gives you the advantage of familiarity, with the front office and the coaching staff. Masai Ujiri didn’t need to prove himself to anybody this season, but he did make two big bets which paid off in spades: replacing Coach of the Year Dwane Casey with Nick Nurse, and making a trade deadline deal to acquire Gasol, who became the final piece on both ends of the floor, helping unlock the championship potential of this roster. Nurse showed during the postseason that he wasn’t going to be tactically outcoached in any series, and wasn’t afraid to make adjustments and call for box-and-one defenses in the NBA Finals.
There’s also the sentimental part of the one-year journey. Leonard didn’t know what to expect from the fanbase when he arrived. Toronto was a foreign place to him, as was the Raptors organization. It has been as painful as pulling teeth to get Leonard to acknowledge Toronto and the fanbase in any way, but that finally came to light during the playoffs, especially in the NBA Finals, when Leonard spoke about Jurassic Park and the fanbase. And that was before millions of people gathered at Nathan Phillips Square to serenade him with MVP and Stay chants at Monday’s championship parade.
From a basketball standpoint, the Raptors have made their case. On Monday, Leonard still wasn’t ready to talk about his upcoming free agency decision. “When it’s that time and it’s time to sit down, me and my group is going to sit down with each other and lay it all out,” Leonard told a group of reporters.
When he does sit down to think through this decision, here’s the potential future for Leonard in Toronto. He will cement his status as the most beloved athlete in this city, not only because he brought the Raptors their first championship, but because choosing to stay in Toronto will validate everything Ujiri and the Raptors have been building towards this decade. In Toronto, Leonard can be the superstar. You can put billboards up here and call yourself the King of the North. You can release Fun Guy shirts and have them sell out within minutes. Leonard will have an entire country behind him.
Maybe the sentimental pieces don’t really appeal to Leonard or affect his decision. Maybe it will strictly be a basketball decision. If that’s the case, given what we already know about the potential landscape for next season (Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are out for most of the year, Anthony Davis has already landed in Los Angeles with the Lakers), the Raptors as currently constructed would have to be considered favorites to return to the NBA Finals if Leonard comes back. If it is about building his basketball legacy, Toronto is the place to be. Imagine what Ujiri can do with the roster if he has Leonard secured long-term. The possibilities are there for the roster to be retooled to extend the championship window. It becomes a lot easier when you have the best two-way player in the world right now on the roster.
Throughout the regular season and into the playoffs, Leonard’s free agency has served as a backdrop, a subplot that has been simmering all year. After winning the championship, it has now moved to the forefront as the main topic of conversation for the next few weeks. Monday’s parade was also centered around Leonard’s impending decision. At one point during the parade, fans started chanting “one more year.” Lowry, who was on the same bus as Leonard, grabbed his teammate by the shoulder and started chanting “five more years.” Perhaps a playful moment, or perhaps teammates already have an inkling that he is returning and feel more comfortable joking about it in public.
Leonard was also presented with a key to the city by mayor John Tory. A fan also delivered a plant to Leonard as a housewarming gift. When Ujiri was introduced on stage, Robertson made a point to get out of his seat and applaud him. All of these hints are impossible to read. It could mean everything. It could mean nothing. We won’t know until the final decision has been made. For the next two weeks, there will be plenty of speculation and reading of the tea leaves. The Raptors can offer more money than anyone else. But perhaps none of it matters because Leonard simply wants to go home.
“It was a good experience,” Leonard said of his first season in Toronto on Monday. “Experiencing mother nature, all four seasons. Man, it was a great experience. Everybody off the court was great. The fans. Just meeting people in Canada.”
Watching all of the parade scenes on Monday, it’s hard to imagine Leonard getting to experience the same kind of joy and adulation as he will here. Despite all of this, and a dream season with the Raptors, it might not matter and Leonard might just decide to pack his bags and go home in a few weeks.
The 2018-19 season was always about two things for the Raptors: winning a championship and convincing Leonard to re-sign. Both seemed improbable at the start of the season. Now, the Raptors have succeeded on the first, and have to hope that will put them in position to have another celebration in July.
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