Toronto Raptors: No matter what, Kawhi Leonard gamble worth it

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images /

Forward Kawhi Leonard is demonstrating why the Toronto Raptors were right to swing for the fences with a franchise-altering trade last summer.

Still questioning if the Toronto Raptors made a mistake? Haven’t made up your mind on whether it was worth dealing franchise favorite DeMar DeRozan for a potential one-year wonder in Kawhi Leonard?

Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals should put those concerns to rest.

To put it simply, Leonard was superhuman on Saturday night. In a moment where past Raptors teams might have struggled to adjust to the big moment, Leonard embraced the pressure. The forward put up a postseason career-high 45 points on 16-of-23 shooting from the field. He also pulled down 11 rebounds and generated some awe-inducing defensive highlights for good measure.

Leonard validated a risky move made months ago to secure his services north of the border.

It’s no secret that the Raptors have never won an NBA title. They’ve never even made it to the NBA Finals, and have only won two games in the conference finals ever. The core needed a push only an external source could provide.

That’s not to insult DeRozan, whose positive reputation in the community was only sullied by a belief that he struggled when the lights shone brightest. It was just clear that a team led by him and Kyle Lowry had climbed as high as it would go — something had to change.

In the NBA — and professional sports — it’s now a common reaction to crater from near-contender to bottom-feeder as quickly as possible. The popular belief is that the best way to build a roster is to stock it up with young, affordable players who can slowly etch themselves into franchise lore.

Toronto’s Eastern Conference semifinals opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers, took that tact to the extreme before acquiring Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris during the season.

Masai Ujiri didn’t see that as the answer to his team’s woes. Instead, the team president decided to try to crack open the team’s championship window for one more year, understanding that there could be a major drop-off if Leonard chose to leave during the following summer, when he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Most fans would trade certainty of failure for a brief opportunity at success, especially the type of success a franchise has never before witnessed.

That’s why last summer’s trade was worth it. That’s why Ujiri would do it all over again if given the chance, despite no insight into Leonard’s future plans.

As for those plans, they remain mysterious to all, except perhaps to Leonard himself. He hasn’t said much about his intentions throughout the season, though the rumors linking him to one of the Los Angeles teams have remained persistent.

For now, the focus remains on the present. The Raptors still have to string together 11 more victories to claim the team’s first ever title. That won’t be easy, especially since they’re not even the top seed in their own conference.

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But these are the moments Kawhi Leonard was built for, the moments that will endear him to the Toronto Raptors faithful for the rest of time, and the moments that prove this gamble was worth the risk.