Kawhi Leonard brought the Toronto Raptors a dream season. He very well may usher in a nightmare summer if he chooses to depart in free agency.
From here on out, the Raptors will always be able to say that they’re NBA champions. Leonard will always be able to say he delivered Toronto its first NBA title. Even if it wasn’t painfully obvious how much Leonard carried this team — and for the most part, it was — his Finals MVP trophy validated his role on the roster.
Nobody will ever be able to take that away from them.
Forces have been conspiring to pull Leonard out of Toronto since the day he arrived, however. This summer, Leonard will have the option to sign with any team he pleases for as much money as he likes. Despite numerous rumors and smokescreens. there’s never been any indication from Leonard that he would reject his right to exercise that freedom and re-sign immediately with the Raptors.
Frankly, we know as little about his intentions as the day he signed his rental agreement with the Raptors almost a year ago. He may re-up for one year, or longer. He may go to try and restore the New York Knicks’ luster. He may go bask in the Los Angeles sun, either with the Los Angeles Clippers or with the newly formed super-team that is the Los Angeles Lakers. Who knows?
The Raptors front office has to be prepared for any scenario. They would love nothing more than to bring back Leonard and begin to build a perennial contender around him. Contingency plans will be in place if Leonard decides not to play along, though.
The easiest thing for the Raptors to do would be nothing at all. Most of the team is under contract for next season, with the exception of Leonard and Danny Green. Green is an essential 3-and-D player, but there will be prospects late in the draft who may be able to pick up that role quickly. Meanwhile, Pascal Siakam could step into the role of superstar leader.
After a championship season, however, standing pat in today’s climate would be akin to accepting the title as a one-year blip.
Therefore, the most likely course of action is to try to draw in some mid-level free agents who are willing to accept less than the max, but can still fit a competitive roster. Toronto isn’t going to be a big player for the likes of Kemba Walker, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, barring something unforeseen.
There’s another option: the nuclear one. If the trade for Leonard proved anything, it’s that teams are willing to go all-in to chase one ring. By all indications, that’s what the Lakers are doing, although they have designs on competing for at least a couple more years if everything falls into place.
If Leonard leaves, the best move (unfortunately) may be to blow it up, rather than try to compete in a landscape where a title is not impossible, but not extremely likely either.
The value of a player is never higher than when they help deliver a championship. It would be radically unpopular, but the trade values of Fred VanVleet and Siakam — all right, he’s not going anywhere — are skyrocketing.
The decision would be an almost impossible one to make, but that’s the job. Just ask DeMar DeRozan about how feelings intersect with business in the NBA.
Ultimately, Raptors fans hope first and foremost that Leonard decides to return for a contract of at least a few years. That will unquestionably keep the title window open for some time.
If he chooses not to do so, the most likely outcome for the Raptors is a middle-ground approach, where they sign mid-level free agents and role players who best fit Nick Nurse’s scheme and the team’s ideology, prying open the window of contention for as long as possible.
But hopefully Kawhi Leonard stays.