And just like that, the Raptors’ title defense is over before it even got started. In the absence of Kawhi Leonard, now departing to the Los Angeles Clippers, there’s little chance Toronto can go all the way again. We saw what it took for the team to get there, to win it all; and we know what part Leonard had to play in that journey. Past all the immense joy the Raptors’ championship has brought to the team and the city, it’s hard not to be just a tiny bit annoyed by this turn of events, if only because all the cynics were right. Kawhi was just passing through Toronto.
All season we had a mantra: Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor. Every time we said it, it felt like a little affirmation. Yes, this was happening, it was real. We were watching Kawhi make spectacular plays, win games, and lead Toronto all the way through the playoffs to the championship. The footage exists, the photos are right there. Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor. To use the present tense now rings as delusional — he’s gone, and we have to come to terms with that — but that doesn’t change what happened. And it doesn’t take away Kawhi’s accomplishments, and those of the Raptors.
Still, the final outcome feels almost unbelievable now, the absurdity cutting two ways at the same time. Before the start of the 2018-19 season, the news was that Kawhi did not want to come to Toronto. At one point there was even (far-fetched) chatter that he wouldn’t even show up north of the border. Having missed most of the previous year, it was unclear what kind of play the Raptors would get — could get — from Leonard in their one season to convince him to stay in Toronto. That he was able to integrate himself with the rest of the Raptors, with stalwart Kyle Lowry, up-and-comer Pascal Siakam, proud Serge Ibaka, late-arriving Marc Gasol, and the rest of the squad is a testament to both Kawhi’s abilities, and that of the team’s.
To see Leonard hoisting the championship trophy and Finals MVP was to believe he’d have to return to the Raptors. For team president Masai Ujiri to gamble as he did, to go all-in for a championship and then actually get one, should have sent the clearest message: Toronto is a winner. Setting aside load management and all the care that went into making Kawhi comfortable in this city, no player of his magnitude has left a team in that golden situation — save perhaps Michael Jordan’s first retirement. It would be unprecedented for Leonard to leave, unthinkable, impossible. But of course, there’s that second cut: as he showed all season, nothing about Kawhi is normal. He does his own thing, calls his own shot, controls his own destiny. Toronto was taken on the ride of its life, and then Kawhi made the move he wanted to make.
As the story is told now, it’s comical to consider how much power Leonard had, the fates of three or four franchises held in his massive hands. The only recent comparison is to LeBron James, his return to Cleveland followed by a flurry of transactions to bring the team up to his level. For the Clippers to hook Kawhi, they had to be willing to sell everything but the furniture to get a second star. Their years-long plan of asset assembly worked, the stars aligned, and they pulled it off. But it’s a fun thought experiment to imagine what would have happened if the Oklahoma City Thunder decided not to trade Paul George; more fun still to imagine both the Clippers and Lakers ending their pursuit of Leonard empty-handed. What a world that would have been.
Except that alternate dimension doesn’t exist. Like our “Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor” sentiment, we have to let it go. Fortunately, as he did all year, Kawhi instructed us on how best to carry ourselves through both the ups and downs of the season and this exact eventual fallout. Whenever he was asked about the next thing, the occasion down the line, or even the setbacks of the past, there was only now, this moment right here. Sure, it was just another professional athlete refusing to be introspective, but it was also a perfectly zen way to be. Even in the face of supposed certain defeat, like being down 2-0 against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, Leonard was content in the knowledge that there was still a game to play and win, still something within his control. Beyond his superstar play, it was this imperturbable spirit that powered the Raptors all the way to the title.
And when it was over, when the city had won and threw itself into a delirious days-long celebration — one that should last all summer and beyond — Leonard had another, similar lesson for us: enjoy the moment, have fun with it, and, left unsaid, don’t worry about what comes next. It’s impossible to know what Leonard was thinking throughout, if he already knew what his plan would be — meeting with the Los Angeles teams, convincing Paul George, forcing the Thunder’s hand. We can’t dwell on all of that now. We can only recall the smiles and cheers in the moment, the genuine sense of joy that emanated from Kawhi and his teammates in the wake of their achievement, that long bus ride to the stage in Nathan Phillips Square, that last iconic laugh. A-ha ha ha. Ha.
In the weeks of uncertainty after Toronto’s championship, there was a joke floating around that Kawhi would become like one of those wandering ronin from Japanese samurai tales of old. Every season he could go to a new team and win that city a title. If you watch something like Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo it’s possible to make the connection. In that film, which opens with actor Toshiro Mifune tossing a stick in the air to decide his next direction, a samurai wanders into a village, plays both sides in a callous conflict against each other, wins the day, and changes everything for the townsfolk therein. And then, as easily as he entered into everyone’s lives there, he leaves without looking back; the samurai’s last words a simple, “See ya around.”
Yes, it would have been nice for Kawhi to re-sign with the Raptors, to run it back, to try it all again. But it’s hard to envision a more correct ending for Kawhi in Toronto than what we just witnessed. Like Yojimbo, the effect of the whole experience narrows to singular, powerful point — satisfying, unprecedented, and irrefutable. Now in the wake of Leonard’s departure, there’s nothing really left to add, except of course that thing we’ve been saying all year, that sentiment that has changed our lives forever.
Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor.