Why Kawhi Leonard might actually stay in Toronto
The NBA-champion Raptors have a lot to offer the Finals MVP
As NBA free agency approaches, we're getting closer to finding out the answer to The Big Question: Will the man who delivered the Raptors' improbable and unforgettable title run stick around? Will Kawhi Leonard stay?
A definitive answer is coming likely sometime after 6 p.m. ET on Sunday. That's when free agency opens. Sometime before that, the NBA Finals MVP will exercise his option to terminate the last year of his contract (it's for $21.3 million US — a boatload of money, yes, but a lowball for one of the NBA's very best players). Then, once the gates open, Kawhi is free to start negotiating with any team he likes. He reportedly already has plans to meet with the Los Angeles Clippers on July 2.
The Raptors and their fans have been sweating this moment since roughly five seconds after Leonard was acquired in a blockbuster trade with San Antonio last July. He became available in part because his contract expires at the end of this season, and he was thought to have his heart set on playing for a team in his native Southern California. The Clippers have spent the last couple of years preparing for this summer's star-studded class of free agents, and they're the co-favourites (along with Toronto) to sign Kawhi. Other high-profile teams are in the mix too.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri hit the jackpot with his calculated gamble to trade his best scorer, DeMar DeRozan, for Kawhi. The Raptors winning the NBA title this year was the outer limit of everyone's wildest imagination. Even if Leonard leaves, this was an unqualified success. The dream came true. But the fate of the franchise now depends on Kawhi's decision. If he stays, the Raptors are title contenders again next season. If he leaves, they'll need to land another superstar to avoid backsliding to irrelevance. That's very hard to do in the NBA.
Leonard hasn't said a word publicly that would tip his hand. That's very on-brand for one of the quietest and most mysterious superstars in sports. So jittery Raptors fans have spent the season parsing every quote, every report, every rumour for clues about his state of mind: Does he like it here? Is he getting along with everyone? Is he having fun? Is it too cold? It's definitely too cold. Is he warm enough in that coat?
For most of the past year, it didn't look good. Kawhi reportedly wasn't happy about going to Toronto (and its cold weather) when he first heard about the trade. In January, he reportedly bought a $13-million mansion in San Diego. Most NBA-connected media people seemed to believe his mind was already made up. Even as the Raptors put together an excellent season, and really hit their stride during the playoffs, the smart money was still on Leonard leaving Toronto for the Clippers this summer.
Now? Not so much. There's suddenly a lot more optimism that Kawhi will re-sign with Toronto. A history-making title run will do that. And there are actually several good reasons to believe he'll stay. Such as:
Toronto can give Kawhi more of it than anyone else. That's because the NBA's contract rules are designed to help teams re-sign their own players. Toronto is allowed to offer Kawhi a maximum five-year deal worth around $190 million US (that's $38 million per year). Other teams can only go up to four years and about $140 million ($35 million per).
Yes, that's a difference of "only" $3 million per year, and it's doubtful this will be Kawhi's last contract, so he should be able to make up that extra year on the back end if he leaves. But an extra $49 million guaranteed might be tempting for a guy who missed all but nine games of the 2017-18 season with a quad injury.
They say it's the key to happiness. Kawhi learned this first-hand last year when that quad injury cost him nearly a full season and threatened his future. He didn't like how the Spurs handled it, nor how they seemed reluctant to offer him a max contract extension. So he wanted out.
Knowing this, the Raptors have bent over backwards to earn Leonard's trust. All season, they gave him nights off whenever he wanted them to protect his health. He played only 60 of 82 regular-season games. Leonard has the leverage now to demand a similar arrangement with whoever he wants, and smart suitors will be sure to make their medical staff a centrepiece of their recruiting pitch. But Kawhi knows he has a good thing going with the Raptors and their director of sports science, Alex McKechnie. He's the guy who designed and executed the program for keeping Leonard healthy and rested this season. The name for it even became an NBA buzzword: "load management."
Kawhi will be treated like a star wherever he goes. But in Toronto, he's a comic-book hero. People are offering him free food, drinks… even a penthouse if he stays. He's witnessed first-hand how passionate the Raptors' fan base is. It's got to be tempting to spend a little more time in a city where you're treated like a god.
If winning more rings is a priority for Kawhi, Toronto might be his best option. He has the ultimate proof now that this is a championship-calibre team, and almost all the Raptors' other key players are in position to return for next season Danny Green is the top pending free agent among them, and Marc Gasol would likely exercise his player option for next year if Kawhi stays.
Leonard is capable of turning any team he joins into a contender, but the Clippers et al would have more work to do to build a truly great team around him. There's no guarantee they can pull that off. Plus, the Eastern Conference offers an easier road to the Finals than the West. Relocating to L.A. might make for a great lifestyle, but staying in Toronto might be the better career move.
For a long time, everyone assumed Leonard would sign a long-term, max deal with the team of his choice this summer. But lately, an alternate idea has surfaced: What if Kawhi re-signs with Toronto for one year, plus a player option for a second? It actually makes a lot of sense.
It's rare for a superstar to ditch his team right after leading it to a championship. But, fine, maybe Kawhi still isn't completely sold on Toronto. With the so-called one-and-one deal, he gets it all: he can defend his title with the Raptors, and still have the option of making a long-term move a year from now.
At that point, this Raptors team will be at the end of its natural life cycle: key supporting-cast members Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Gasol are all scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2020. Leonard can see who's sticking around or who he might be able to recruit to replace them. If he doesn't like the lay of the land, he can decline the option year and bolt. But he can do so with a clear conscience, knowing he saw this squad right to the end.
And if Kawhi plays out that second-year option, there's another benefit: After that season, he would have 10 years of service time in the NBA, making him eligible for a higher maximum salary. That should be worth an extra few million per year, assuming the salary cap keeps going up (it's tied to league revenue, which continues to grow).
The risk here is if Leonard suffers another major injury before he's able to land a max contract. But even if that happens, within reason, he'd probably still get paid. Look at Warriors star Kevin Durant: there's a chance he misses all of next season after tearing his Achilles in Game 5 of the Finals, and multiple teams are still reportedly prepared to give him a max deal in free agency.
LeBron James pioneered the one-and-one deal during his time in Cleveland. It allowed him to make the maximum salary each season while also keeping the Cavaliers' management on its toes because he could bail if they didn't do what he wanted. That's real power. As long as you don't mind rolling the dice a bit, it's the best of both worlds.
So that's the sales pitch for Toronto. Now it's up to Kawhi to make his move.
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