Things are getting weird.
Just a day before the official start of free agency around dinner time on Sunday, Kawhi Leonard conjecture is on a wave. All season long, “two-team race” has been the term of choice for most source-havers when summing up the Leonard pursuit. Any other suitors have been painted as pretenders.
Of course, things change fast in this beautifully dumb league. In the two days since the Lakers figured out their self-imposed salary cap hell and opened a max salary slot by trading three humps, the Leonard-to-Lakers noise has gone from a joke to something slightly more real... maybe? First there was the Magic Johnson, Tamperer-in-Chief talk that circulated Friday afternoon. Then in the wee hours of Saturday morning, Marc Stein had himself this mini tweet storm, that seemed to paint the Clippers’ chances of catching their big fish as kind of slim.
Things change fast in #thisleague: With free agency a day and change away, it's the Lakers who have convinced Las Vegas -- and an increasing number of league insiders -- that they are LA's true threat to limiting Kawhi Leonard's Raptors career to a single season. Not the Clippers— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) June 29, 2019
How high is the bar for the Clippers now? They might not only have to beat out Toronto … they might have to convince Kevin Durant to choose the Clippers to then convince Kawhi to choose the Clippers over the Lakers. League sources insist that the Laker threat is that significant— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) June 29, 2019
The next week is going to absolutely fascinating on the Kawhi front alone. The Clippers have to beat out the newly minted champions and the lords of Los Angeles. The Lakers, meanwhile, firmly believe they've got Toronto (and anyone else) beat in the Kawhi Sweepstakes. #madness— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) June 29, 2019
That’s a lot to digest!
First off, a reminder, and this is very important: by all accounts, no one actually has jack shit in terms of information from Kawhi or his close circle of people. There’s not an insider in the league with a direct line to Leonard; every bit of reporting about him is coming from somewhere else, with all the ulterior motives of whomever is talking baked into whatever comes out in 280 character form. It’s possible, even likely, that the blustery confidence about the Lakers’ chances is coming from people directly inside the Lakers, the most hubris-afflicted operation in all of pro sports.
There’s a reason Leonard was painted as the villain during his final season in San Antonio. He doesn’t talk, the Spurs did, thus the coverage had a pro-Spurs lean. A year and a Kevin Durant torn Achilles later, Kawhi looks absolutely correct in taking his time to make sure he was healthy in spite of the Spurs’ medical team’s insistence that he was fine, and the Spurs are silent. Access journalism is a scourge.
So who the hell knows how real the Lakers are as a threat. On the surface, their candidacy seems flimsy. They have the LeBron-AD tandem, sure. But what else? This is the team that let Alex McKechnie walk because they didn’t want to pay him during the last lockout, clearing the path for the Raptors’ doctor in chief to make Kawhi feel like this all season:
Outside of wanting to win, and his desire for a medical team he can entrust with his health, we’re left to infer what it is Kawhi actually wants in the team he plays for. He’s proven he can win a title as a solo star surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Does being a third banana to LeBron James and Anthony Davis really sound like something that would appeal to him? How much does the draw of living in LA actually matter to him? Does the fact that everything New Balance posts to its site sells out in Canada in 30 seconds have any sway? Maybe he really was touched to receive the key to the city from Toronto’s lame ass mayor. We have no goddamned clue, because Kawhi is his own man, and doesn’t play the game of leaks. The result is a lot of hearsay, and a lot of folks who would directly benefit from a Kawhi-to-Lakers result passing off scuttlebutt as deeply sourced and reported fact. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t think the bulk of people at ESPN, an NBA rights holder, aren’t rooting for Kawhi to land on the Lakers.
With the Lakers now apparently in the mix, and the most lopsided super team ever assembled now a possibility, the stakes are pretty damn high right now.
What’s comforting, though, is that those stakes aren’t nearly as high for the Raptors as they are for any of the other key players involved. Relatively speaking, Raptors fans can chill as free agency looms. Losing Kawhi Leonard to one of the LA teams would hurt, no duh, but in the grand scheme of the 2019 off-season, Toronto cannot possibly lose.
If Kawhi stays in Toronto, that’s an obvious super duper mega win. Depending on whether the Lakers can coerce a different third star into signing, the Raptors would go into the 2019-20 season as — at worst — favourites to make the Finals, if not win the whole damn thing again. Pretty simple. But it’s the title Toronto just won that has them immunized against complete dejection this summer in the event that Leonard walks.
Lawrence Frank hiding behind Scotiabank Arena garbage cans, Magic Johnson bending the laws of employment and tampering — these are desperate, thirsty actions by the Lakers and Clippers, all taken in an effort to sign Leonard and do the thing the Raptors have already done.
The one-year Kawhi-in-Toronto experiment was flawless. The Raptors could not have possibly made a better pitch to the Finals MVP. If he leaves, he was always leaving, and that’s totally fine. There will be no regrets, only a ring ceremony and a newly introduced grace period within which Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster can work to realign things. Winning it all opened a release valve for all the tension accrued over 24 years of despair. For at least a couple years, the Raptors have a whole mess of leeway in the event Leonard makes like Fievel. Toronto is no longer ramming its head against a concrete ceiling. It’s busted through, and now sits pointing and laughing at the panicky peasants below. Stress over the team’s play shouldn’t even enter fans’ brains next season if Kawhi’s not around.
Marc Gasol has already opted in. He’ll join Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka as the team’s trio of lovable olds who will usher Toronto through its Kawhi-less title defense. Maybe Danny Green joins them, maybe not. Pascal Siakam will definitely be there, though, and he’s a treasure. Watching the Most Improved Player’s attempt to ascend to All Star and All NBA status as the top option wouldn’t quite be as satisfying as a title run, but it’d be a pretty damn swell consolation prize. OG Anunoby would probably get his starting job back, and have a shot to bounce back from a season from hell. He’d be the easiest guy to root for on a team of darlings. Fred VanVleet would still be around to bury hilarious threes with one on the shot clock. The Finals-winning roster, minus Leonard and Green, plus some low-end free agent adds and another year of development from Siakam and OG is at worst in the hunt for home court in the first round of the East playoffs. It would be an all-time fun, low-leverage season — we’re talking 2013-14 fun.
If it’s the Clippers who snare Leonard’s services, Toronto fans have a ready made second team to cheer for. Leonard will forever be a hero in these parts. Rooting for him to dethrone his Staples Center building mates, flanked by Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, would be eminently palatable. Only the Memphis Bizarro Raptors would have more appeal to fans north of the border.
If it’s the Lakers, that would suck, yeah. A Kawhi-LeBron-AD team walks to a title with ease, especially with the Warriors depleted by cataclysmic injuries. Not even Rob Pelinka’s buffoonery could derail that trio. The Lakers landing Leonard would be the latest blow to the very idea of meritocracy, and it would cancel the wide open NBA season we were supposed to be subject to in 2019-20. But if there’s any team that doesn’t need to stress in the face of a new super team, it’s the one that won the title the year before said juggernaut’s inception.
Toronto’s historic title has left the Raptors and their fans in the most enviable position imaginable. Fretting over parity and title windows and the plight of the have-nots is reserved for teams not shrouded in a post-championship glow.
So relax, enjoy the lunacy of the off-season, maybe re-watch the four-bouncer a dozen times, and indulge with some alcohol and desserts. Kawhi Leonard doesn’t have to stay in Toronto for Raptors fans to feel celebratory.