Raptors roll the dice in deal for Leonard
Ujiri banking that one of league’s best players is sound of mind and body
The Toronto Raptors have never had a player quite like Kawhi Leonard before, assuming they have him now at all.
That’s just the beginning of the great unknown to be unveiled here over time. That’s the roll of the dice for Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster. Exactly who and what the Raptors acquired in parting with franchise favourite DeMar DeRozan is open to interpretation. And frankly, more than interpretation, it’s all a matter of guessing and second-guessing.
Because, frankly, we don’t know. They don’t know. And considering that Kawhi Leonard shares his feelings with almost no one for public consumption, maybe he doesn’t know what the future holds for the NBA forward, now and going forward.
Here’s what we do know. The Raptors traded away a player who didn’t want to be traded and was apparently promised that he wouldn’t be traded for a player who didn’t want to be traded to Toronto. That’s complicated. DeRozan didn’t want to leave. Leonard may not want to stay or even show up. All of this being a one-year gamble of sorts in the maiden voyage of head coach Nick Nurse, with Ujiri taking one hard calculated run at winning the Eastern Conference championship — and then scrambling to begin re-filling his roster.
It’s a one-year shot if Leonard shows up and plays but for now there is no assurance he will do either of those things. He is a storied NBA player for so young a man. He has played for a championship team in San Antonio, was the playoffs MVP, was twice NBA defensive player of the year, was four times an NBA All-Defensive player and twice on the first All- Star team at small forward. At the beginning of last season, the Washington Post rated him the third best player in the NBA, behind only LeBron James and Kevin Durant. At the same time, Sports Illustrated had him sixth in the NBA, arguing in print it couldn’t distinguish much between him and Steph Curry, rating him ahead of MVP James Harden.
That’s the kind of player the Raptors brought in Wednesday. That’s the kind of pedigree this franchise has been historically lacking in. It’s a one year shot with Ujiri having 11 months to convince Leonard this is the best place for his future.
But does the Leonard of Ujiri’s dreams even exist for the Raptors? This isn’t likely a case of trading for Hakeem Olajuwon at the wrong age. This isn’t likely a case of signing an injured DeMarre Carroll, and expensively whiffing on free agency. There are those out there who believe the Raptors have been suckered here, but for now, we’ll give Ujiri the benefit of the doubt that there is an end game here that matters.
It all starts with Leonard, though, and whether he ever warms to the notion of being a Raptor, living here, playing here, caring, being a difference-maker here. He played a lot of games with the Spurs last season, just most of them weren’t on the floor where he showed up only nine times. By the time the season ended, illness led to the trade to Toronto. The Spurs were sick of him and he was sick of them.
They thought he would be ready to start last season. He wasn’t. They kept scheduling his return and talking about his return and planning his return until they stopped talking about it — and the dressing room moved in all directions — and nobody can really give you a straight answer on how bad Leonard’s quadriceps injury is, was or will be. Leonard wanted to be traded, asked to be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Some other teams kicked tires on him, just not very hard.
The Raptors offered up a regular season star in DeRozan, a solid backup big man in Jakub Poeltl and a sheltered first round pick and it was enough to entice the Spurs to do the deal. We do know this much: DeRozan will report to San Antonio and be the pro he has always been. That’s who he is, what he does. Gregg Popovich will make him better because great coaches do that.
But with Leonard, there are clouds and mystery and very little noise. He seems surrounded by a posse of those who may not have his best interests in mind. What if he shows up and goes through the motions? What if his heart isn’t in being here and he undermines the Raptors season just as he undermined the Spurs 47-win season last season. (The 47 wins were the least in Leonard’s time in San Antonio. In the other six seasons, the team averaged 60 wins a season).
What if he doesn’t show up at all?
The Raptors have traded away their best scorer, their leading salesman, Mr. I Am Toronto, for what? A hope. A guess. A special player.
Truth is: Maybe only Kawhi Leonard can answer that and, as usual, he’s not talking.