Will the Raptors finally defy the odds?

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

“If you’re looking to the future, you’re gonna trip over the present” - Kawhi Leonard.

Kawhi Leonard is different than any other player in the NBA. He rarely shows expression, doesn’t care about the money or stardom that comes with playing in the NBA (He still drives an old Chevrolet Tahoe) and could also become the first and only true superstar to choose to stay in Toronto next summer, which would make him even more unique in a sense.

Leonard’s contract situation, along with his future in Toronto, has been a lengthy topic of discussion around the NBA this season. It all began when he was traded from the NBA’s version of the New England Patriots over the last 20 years, the San Antonio Spurs, to the Toronto Raptors, a team that has the same amount of division titles as the Spurs do championships.

The Raptors have been a borderline laughing stock of the NBA since their inception in 1995. With 0 championships or conference titles, along with playing in a different country than the rest of the NBA, American news outlets hardly take the Raptors seriously. Colin Cowherd of Fox Sports One calls them the “baby dinosaurs”.

Many players don’t like going through customs on the way to Toronto, or the cold weather that sets in from October to April in some years. But the main reason that the Raptors haven’t been taken seriously: star players never choose Toronto in free agency. Why go to the Raptors when you could play in bigger markets like Los Angeles or New York or Boston? There’s also the lure of a lavish lifestyle in Miami, or joining forces with other superstars, which Paul George did this past summer, staying in Oklahoma City. Toronto just doesn’t appeal to the NBA’s elite as a place to live. The only superstars to play for the Raptors have been forced to play here, through a trade or the draft, and few actually wanted to stay.

Vince Carter, who some still regard as the best Raptor ever, is in the top 5 of numerous Raptors franchise records, including minutes played, field goals, blocks, free throws and points. He emerged as a star in Toronto in the early 2000’s after being acquired at the 1998 draft, but left amidst a trade request and a messy ending to his time in Toronto. Tracy Mcgrady was also drafted to the Raptors in 1997, but left for Orlando in 2000, going on to have a Hall of Fame career. Chris Bosh was drafted in 2003, and holds franchise records in total rebounds and blocks. However, he left the first chance that he got in free agency in 2010, when he chose to go to the sunny and luxurious city of Miami, where he won two championships with Lebron James and Dwyane Wade. Good for him. Of course, Demar DeRozan, the franchise leader in games, minutes played, points and field goals was traded this past summer to acquire none other than the man of the hour, Kawhi Leonard. Oh, did I forget Hakeem Olajuwon, one of just two former Raptors to be in the Hall of Fame? No, I didn’t forget. His Raptors career wasn’t exactly a spectacle, I’ll leave it at that.

There seems to be a clear trend here. Out of all the great players to play for the Raptors, just one has opted to resign instead of leaving for sunnier pastures, and he sure wasn’t a superstar. That would be DeRozan, who got rewarded for his loyalty by being traded this past summer without warning to the Spurs so that Toronto could acquire Kawhi Leonard. How’s that for loyalty?

That brings us to the elephant in the room. Leonard is on the last year of his 5 year, 94 million dollar contract that he signed in 2015, before he has the chance to exercise his player option and become a free agent, which he most certainly will do. He’s averaging 27.6 points per game this season, placing him 5th in the entire NBA. Over the last 4 seasons, including this one and excluding last season’s injury-riddled debacle in San Antonio, he’s averaged over 24 points per game. Not to mention his 2014 NBA Finals MVP honour as well as being named NBA Defensive Player of the Year twice, proving that Kawhi truly is a two way NBA superstar. He also has tons of playoff experience, 87 playoff games to be exact, from his time with the Spurs and his two NBA Finals appearances with them. Thus, he has the chance to become the best Raptor ever, if he decides to stay.

So, why would Kawhi Leonard stay? Why would he leave? Here are some reasons for both:

Why would Kawhi go somewhere else in 2019?

  • He has no affiliation with Toronto or Canada (Although he did buy a house in Toronto). 

  • He grew up in California, with palm trees and sunny beaches, along with watching the Kobe/Shaq Lakers dynasties growing up. 

  • He could join forces with another star, such as Kevin Durant, to form a superteam elsewhere, just like Chris Bosh did. 

  • It’s cold here (Apparently it matters, despite Toronto getting the same weather as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and any northern city in the US for most of the year). 

  • Canadian dollar exchange rate??? (It’s a stretch, but you never know).

Why would Kawhi stay in Toronto in 2019?

  • He could come to love the city of Toronto and all that it has to offer. 

  • It’s away from the American media storms that haunt Boston, New York and Los Angeles. * Plenty of Canadian endorsement deals (He recently signed a shoe contract with New Balance, who have 6 store locations in Toronto alone). Ask John Tavares and Auston Matthews about how lucrative Canadian endorsements can be, especially for superstar athletes. 

  • The team is young and talented, they could make the NBA Finals this season which would give him an opportunity to win, something that he continuously states that he wants to do. 

  • He can sign for more money with the Raptors than anywhere else, since he would be their own free agent. 

  • His own legacy: As mentioned, no superstars have chosen to stay in Toronto to play for the Raptors (Demar Derozan is not a superstar). Kawhi Leonard could carve his own unique path and transform the Raptors into a long standing dynasty, becoming the first true NBA superstar ever to do so. Is this something that he cares about? Raptors fans sure hope so.

Another aspect of this saga is, of course, the idea that the Raptors should be actively recruiting Kawhi all season long. Royce Young of ESPN detailed how Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder recruited Paul George all of last season, in which George was in a 

similar position to Kawhi this season. Instead of leaving the Thunder, as many anticipated, George decided to sign long term with the team. Was heavy recruitment the reason? Perhaps, but there’s usually more reasons than just recruitment for a player to commit long term to a team (as referenced in the lists above). Kyle Lowry, a key player on the Raptors sparked optimism among Raptors faithful with this interaction. Is this recruiting? It’s banter more than anything else, which occurs in every NBA locker room. As always, it’s hard to get a read on Kawhi in terms of what he’s thinking or feeling, so take this interaction with a grain of salt.

Ultimately, the best recruitment pitch that the Raptors can use is winning. Remember this: Kawhi came from the San Antonio Spurs, who have 5 championships and were a threat in the Western Conference for 2 decades. Show Kawhi that this team is for real and that the Raptors can be a championship contender in the NBA with him on the team. That way, the question can be posed to Kawhi: Do you wanna win? If so, this is one of your best opportunities. The upcoming playoffs play as much of a factor in the Kawhi Leonard saga as any Raptors player or team official does.

Nobody knows what Kawhi Leonard will decide to do in July of 2019. He rarely shows true expression when in front of the media and has not tipped his hand on whether or not he wants to stay long term. That’s the reason that pieces like this get written; it’s all a guessing game, since nobody can tell what Kawhi is thinking. Brian Windhorst of ESPN caused anxiety in Toronto when he released a story about how the LA Clippers are aggressively recruiting Kawhi by showing up to most Raptors games, (which most certainly, definitely, is in no way tampering).

For now, Raptors fans should take Kawhi’s advice and worry about the future later. This season has the looks of being a hell of a fun ride for Raptors fans. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

Here’s hoping Kawhi likes Tim Hortons and hockey as much as the rest of us do.