When It Comes to Kawhi Leonard’s Impact in Toronto, It’s About More Than a Championship
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I know what it looks like. Just like every other star player that’s ever played for the Toronto Raptors (other than DeMar DeRozan who was traded from the team kicking and screaming), Kawhi Leonard has chosen to leave for a U.S. market.
And, like so many superstars in today’s NBA, Kawhi has left to join forces with another high-caliber player.
The L.A. Clippers’ signing of the reigning finals MVP was announced along with a bombshell acquisition of Paul George, which was almost entirely orchestrated by Leonard himself. (The two reportedly met with before signing.) It was also reported that Kawhi attempted to recruit Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving before the pair decided to join forces in Brooklyn.
As grateful as many Toronto fans are to Leonard, I’m betting he still hears a mixture of boos and cheers when he visits Toronto as a Clipper next season, not because he left, but because of the behind-the-scenes way he orchestrated it.
But we probably should have expected it. Leonard operated in free agency in much the same way he had in Toronto both on and off the court — quietly and effectively.
Besides, Raptors’ management knew when they traded for Kawhi in 2018, that a one-year rental was a distinct possibility. How he left the Raptors has no bearing on where it leaves the organization. Now it’s all about what he leaves behind. The two-month playoff run, “the shot,” the championship, the historic parade, they’ll all be remembered in Toronto sports lore but they also make up a larger shift in narrative around the Toronto Raptors’ organization.
When Leonard was first shipped to Toronto, the team’s reputation was such that many doubted he would even report to the team. Despite having strung together multiple winning season and multiple playoff appearances over the years, outside of Canada, the Raptors were irrelevant. Teams like the L.A. Lakers, who found themselves at the bottom of the league in recent years, still remained a viable landing spot for superstars because of their history as a dynasty.
The Raptors’ history, on the other hand, had very few bright spots. For new NBA fans, they were the team LeBron James trounced in the playoffs every year. For older fans, they were the team that drafted all-time NBA flops like Rafael Araújo and Andrea Bargnani, let Tracy McGrady go and traded superstar Vince Carter away for bench players, draft picks and Alonzo Mourning, who refused to report to the team.
So when Kawhi was traded to a destination he reportedly had no interest in, Raptors’ fans held their breath. Then, when he actually showed up, they waited and even looked for signs of wavering commitment from the superstar, griping about his load management program and scoffing at his assertion that the regular season amounted to “82 practices.”
But as the playoffs rolled around, Leonard proved the doubters wrong. Playing through pain at times from a lingering injury, he put together one of the most spectacular playoff performances in NBA history, virtually willing his team to victory. His commitment, albeit for a just one year, was beyond reproach.
In that one championship run, Leonard put the Toronto Raptors on the international stage like they had never been before, not only proving that a star can win in Toronto, but that winning in “The North” is an experience like no other.
Despite that unforgettable year, the Raptors were unable to compete with the allure of home — and not to mention, the addition of another superstar.
As for what’s left talent wise, it isn’t doomsday in Toronto. They have veteran leadership in players like Kyle Lowry, a rising star in Pascal Siakam and young pieces like OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet, all of whom — thanks to Kawhi — have championship experience that isn’t easy to come by in a dynasty-driven league.
All they need now is another superstar, this time one who will have plenty of reasons to choose Toronto for himself. And maybe stay a while.