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2018-19 Player Preview: Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptor

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Kawhi Leonard is a different kind of player than Toronto fans have ever seen. He’s worth being optimistic about.

NBA: Preseason-Toronto Raptors at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

For five years, while the Raptors have reached unprecedented on-court heights, they’ve been governed by an inescapable and harsh truth: a DeMar DeRozan-centric team was always going to have a cap on its success; not an NBA-style soft cap with wiggle room and loopholes, but a strict, non-negotiable one with no luxury to speak of.

Last year, as the Raptors charged to 59 wins and LeBron’s Cavs spent six months teasing East hopefuls with their bed wetting, you, or I, or insert national writer here might have had a real belief that last those Raptors were fundamentally different. But come on, even when we meant it, we did’t really mean it; it was a faux optimism, willfully blocking out the inconvenient and noisy harbingers of what was to come.

“DeMar’s better than ever! They don’t ISO anymore! The bad defensive numbers against good teams are just a fluke!”

In other words: “Everything is fine.”

Relatively speaking, that refrain was true. The Raptors were good — the envy of 25-plus other franchises around the league. They reached their ceiling; not many teams can say they did that at their peak. But if the ultimate goal was something more than an annual playoff round win and inevitable mid-May exit, then there was no way it was ever going to be “fine” with DeRozan being the team’s usage sponge. Any belief that the Raptors were different was always going to be flimsy and doomed.

Toronto fans don’t have to grasp at straws anymore. Kawhi Leonard is a Raptor now; and he’s a different kind of basketball player than this city’s ever seen. DeRozan and his Raptors were guided by ifs and coulds; Kawhi Leonard just is. Thanks to Leonard, “everything is fine,” won’t be a comforting lie anymore. For a year, at least, it’ll be a truth with which Raps fans can swaddle themselves.

“We’ve been doing the same thing for how many years? You can’t continue to do the same thing over and over again,” said a defensive Masai Ujiri after dealing a franchise icon for a guy with a murky future and past year shrouded in mystery.

“And when you get a chance to get a top five player, I think you have to jump on it.”

Rooting for Leonard, who despite his Fun Guy claims feels more mercenary than human at times, after having vicariously endured the same Toronto-bound rise, triumphs and plight as DeRozan, is going to feel a little dirty. Leonard will not be nearly as easy to relate to and root for as DeRozan was and will remain as a Spur. Unless he ends up here long-term, it’ll be hard to embrace him as one of Toronto’s own. Raptors fans are probably going to miss DeRozan’s graceful responses to all the usual questions that come moments after crummy losses; Kawhi will almost certainly be more reserved when the cameras are on. He’s not going to co-opt the Mr. I Am Toronto moniker; he’s apparently already bought a house, without the help of super fan Nav Bhatia. DeMar would never.

At times it’s gonna feel gross, even unsavoury to persistently compare Kawhi’s on-court stylings to those of DeMar DeRozan. Why piss on the grave of a franchise legend who only tried his damned best? It’s going to be unavoidable, though. With respect to Danny Green and Jakob Poeltl, this is essentially a one-for-one swap, the results of which illustrate the upgrade the Raptors’ new superstar represents with awkward clarity.

There’s going to be feeling out period between fan and player. You never want to seem to eager to move on from such a positive, long-term relationship. But the shit Kawhi does on the court is sexy as hell; it’s not going to take long for Raptors fans to swoon. The first time Kawhi swallows up a Kobe-poisoned, isolating Jayson Tatum and screams the other way to dunk the ball he’s just ripped from the infant’s hands, you’re just gonna know. At full health, Kawhi’s Raptors are going to bust through the ceiling DeRozan imposed.

There’s that one accompanying caveat. It wasn’t the loyalty or whatever it is we’re supposed to pretend exists between teams and players that made the DeRozan/Leonard deal so tough to digest for some; it was Leonard’s equally unclear future intentions and health. If Leonard bolts after a year, the trade won’t retroactively become a bad one. The prospect of having Kawhi for just one year was part of the calculus of the deal; the chance to give a top-five player a year-long sales pitch was worth what the Raptors gave up. If Leonard’s lingering (?) quad injury limits him at all this year, though, the evaluating the trade will get a little muddier.

There’s also a chance Leonard isn’t enough to get the Raptors to the Finals they so desperately want to lose to Golden State. Boston will be terrifying if they can reach a full hum. Though they boast no one with Leonard’s individual talent, the rest the Celtics roster is loaded with guys who are already developed to the point where the Raptors hope their young guys can get. Philly looms, too. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have the conference in their palms if they can learn how to keep the damn basketball there as well. Maybe Kyle Lowry’s decline begins in earnest; maybe Leonard’s timeline doesn’t quite sync up with Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. A third-straight second round loss is one of the three-most likely outcomes of this season.

But if it’s 2016-17, almost-MVP Kawhi Leonard they’re running out starting next Wednesday, the trump card the Raps have been beaten by three years running will be in Toronto’s hand. A fully-functioning Kawhi is the East’s new LeBron — the conference’s best player, capable of swinging a series on his own, who will expose and feast on those with DeRozan-like flaws.

The Raptors. With that player. On their team. Shit’s bonkers.

Judging Kawhi’s season in Toronto will be tricky. The free agency question will be a through-line that colours every outstanding performance, every failing, every tight-lipped interview and every cartoon villain laugh. If the Raptors make the Conference Finals, lose, and the allure of LA or wherever Jimmy Butler ends up pulls Kawhi away, it’ll feel like the Raptors took a roundabout route to the same ending. For some, anything less than a Finals appearance and five more years of Kawhi will deem the trade a failure.

There’s something to be said for taking a swing. Ujiri could have kept the bat on his shoulder, accepting a low-ceiling walk or embarrassing strikeout with the same DeRozan-led team. Dealing a beloved star for a enigmatic game changer was a big daddy hack with as much potential to herniate a disk as it has to launch the Raptors out of the confines their old core trapped them in.

Because of Ujiri’s gamble, Raptors fans are about to experience something brand new. For the first time in 24 years, Raptors fans don’t have to talk themselves into a false sense of hope. Leonard has opened up a lane to ultimate success the Raptors haven’t previously had access to. The Raptors didn’t just trade DeRozan, Poeltl and a first-round pick for Kawhi Leonard; they traded them for a ceiling that can’t be defined.