The clock hit zero. An entire country threw their hands up in the air. Jubilation and disbelief all in one. The Larry O’Brien trophy is coming north of the border for the very first time.
On Thursday, June 13, 2019, Toronto became the centre of the NBA universe, at least for a couple days. All the wonderful stories on the 2019 Raptors’ roster came to fruition. Kyle Lowry gets his first ring at the age of 33 on his third team. He was finally able to get over the hump after so many playoff disappointments in Toronto over the years. Raptors GM Masai Ujiri went from an unpaid scout with Orlando to a mastermind at the helm of the Champs. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard get their second rings, after both winning prior in 2014 in San Antonio. Kawhi also gets his second NBA Finals MVP trophy, and the Raptors finally got one of the best players in the world performing on their team. This ain’t no Hakeem Olajuwon situation (which was a gongshow, just look it up).
But remember, the sports world moves fast. The other 29 NBA teams are already looking for ways to grab the 2020 NBA title. The Raptors will be doing the same thing. This brings the main topic into view: Where’s Kawhi going?
Decision time is quickly approaching for Mr Leonard. He has until June 29 to opt into his $21.3 million dollar player option, or he’ll hit the free agent market. Nearly everybody expects the latter. As the celebratory champagne bubbles slowly fade away, this is a good reminder to enjoy this moment right now, Raptors fans. The energy could be a lot different in a few weeks if Kawhi leaves.
How should the Raptors handle the most important task of their offseason?
Honestly, Toronto has done a fantastic job with impressing Kawhi. They’ve given him extensive medical attention in the name of load management which he’s very grateful for. “If we didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here right now for sure” Kawhi said to Rachel Nichols of ESPN. They’ll be able to give him more money, 5 years at $190 million as opposed to what any other team can offer, 4 years at $141 million.
He’d have statues built in Toronto if he stays, and a whole nation behind him. Leonard reportedly just bought a second home in Toronto and has essentially been given free food for life in the form of the ‘Kawhine and Dine’ promotion. Personally, I believe that Kawhine and Dine actually matters to Kawhi. In 2016, his free Wingstop affliction was documented by Lee Jenkins, then of Sports Illustrated:
“He is happy to sponsor Wingstop, which sends him coupons for free wings, so he can feed his Mango Habanero addiction. This winter, after his $94 million contract kicked in, he panicked when he lost his coupons. Wingstop generously replenished his supply.”
Perhaps, out of all the incentive that Toronto can offer, the free food oddly enough appeals to Kawhi the most. Either way, he just gave Toronto their first title and won a Finals MVP here, both of which will forever be entrenched in Canadian basketball lore. You can’t put a price on the iconic moment that Kawhi just lead the Raptors to. He may very well have schools named after him one day. The Raptors offer the Board Man a lot of great things: more money, free food, a chance to win again, and a legacy unlike any NBA player ever: The superstar who brought a championship to Canada, and fell in love with the country while doing it.
Alas, despite all of the perks that Toronto can offer, there’s no guarantee that Mr Leonard decides to stick around. Adrian Wojnarowski reported today on ESPN’s ‘Get Up’ that Kawhi is focused on Los Angeles, but with the Clippers rather than the Lakers. After all, LA is home for him. He grew up there, wanted to be traded there last year, and has many ties to the area. It’s looking more and more that it’ll be a decision between the Raptors and Clippers for Kawhi, with a team like Brooklyn possibly getting a meeting with him.
The one thing that the Raptors have instilled in Kawhi is trust. There’s mutual trust between him and Head Coach Nick Nurse. He trusts Masai’s ability to build a championship roster, as he just witnessed it firsthand. He trusts the Director of Sports Science and assistant coach Alex Mckechnie, who helped engineer the plan for Kawhi to remain healthy all year, which clearly worked. Does he trust the Clippers as much? How important is trust in an organization to Kawhi? Those are questions that only the man himself can answer.
What If Kawhi leaves?
Whether Kawhi chooses to stay in Toronto or leave for sunnier pastures, Masai’s gamble certainly paid off. At the end of the day, the Raptors are World Champions. Nobody can ever take that away from them. After all, winning a championship is the sole motivator behind an organization’s decisions. Thus, the decision to trade longtime Raptor Demar Derozan for one year of Kawhi has been a grand slam for Masai Ujiri. The icing on the cake will be if he can convince the Board Man to stick around.
Also, if Kawhi leaves Toronto, how much does it hurt after winning a chip? He brought the city and the country everything that they ever wanted. Perhaps that at least softens the blow for a little while; the feeling of being champions is a great one, and lasts for a while. In the meantime, if Mr Leonard leaves it’s obvious that the Raptors should build around the young core of Siakam-VanVleet-Anunoby, and begin to offload older pieces to supplement the younger yet experienced possible core.
At this point, reports are coming out everyday about Kawhi’s upcoming free agency. Just don’t get too caught up in them. Kawhi Leonard is his own person, and one who’s very difficult to read. Maybe if the Wingstop on Clarence Square in Toronto offers Kawhi free food, that’s all it’ll take. The guessing game won’t end until the Board Man finally gets paid.