In the wee hours of July 6, Kawhi Leonard set new coordinates for three different franchises in one fell swoop, but sealed the fate of only one of them. There is still much to find out about the Clippers, who landed the crown jewel of free agency by executing one of the most unexpected trades in league history, and the Lakers, who, through it all, still have two of the seven best players on their team. Caught with the short shrift are the Raptors, who, without a franchise-changing talent, find themselves staring down a potential transition season. It hasn’t even been a month since the Raptors were anointed. For longtime fans, this is par for the course.
Three weeks ago, I found myself among friends at a Filipino restaurant called Boodle Fight in Toronto’s Danforth neighborhood, eating communally with our bare hands in customary kamayan fashion. A primal meal befitting of the primal joy of ultimate victory. It was days before the parade celebrating the Raptors’ Finals win, which brought more than a million spectators to celebrate Toronto’s first major professional sports title in 26 years. We sat by the front-facing windows; one friend, clad in a Marc Gasol jersey—custom-made at the New York City NBA Store the day Gasol was traded to Toronto—had his back facing the street. A cluster of children soon formed right outside the restaurant, having just gotten out of class at nearby Wilkinson Junior Public School. We heard oohs and ahhs through the glass. Wow, Marc Gasol! For all those kids knew, that could have actually been Gasol in their midst.
I was surrounded at the lunch table by fans, each with more than two decades of Raptors joy and misery under their belts; it’s possible that no one on the other side of the window could recall a losing season. Everyone around me contemplated that level of privilege with a mix of jadedness and jealousy. Civic fandom had, for so long, been defined by a sense of inadequacy and fatalism. The kids outside had a different vantage. They were born of a different paradigm of Raptors basketball. But less than a month removed from euphoria came the crash. The kids are about to learn a powerful lesson: You don’t know what you got till it’s gone. My sympathies go to the families trying to explain to their young ones why Kawhi isn’t on the Raptors anymore, even after winning a championship—they’re probably struggling to explain it to themselves, first.
Leonard’s decision, through the prism of the past decade of NBA star agency, makes complete sense. The Clippers offered an intoxicating combination of rock-solid ownership, a forward-thinking front office, assets galore, and the opportunity for Leonard to put his fingerprints on the team-building process instead of being a cog in some other machine. But the ways in which the NBA’s power structures have changed since LeBron James’s Decision also highlight just how much of an anomaly Kawhi is. Considering the dogged history of the Clippers, Leonard just made one of the most unorthodox decisions an NBA player can make. But, then again, he won a championship with the Raptors in his first and only season with the team. He’s earned the right to make these types of decisions, just as the city has earned the right to bask in their season’s glory for the rest of the year.
Unfortunately for Toronto, now comes the waiting game. The Raptors are bound to take a few steps back in the upcoming season. A core of Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet is good enough to make the playoffs, but not necessarily an imposing foursome. The team is capped out, even with Leonard’s departure, and any progress we see from the Raptors won’t be seen in the standings, but in the margins. Toronto saw Siakam at his best and worst in the playoffs; they’d envisioned him being the second star to stand alongside Kawhi for the long term. His name was tossed out as the centerpiece of trades for players like Anthony Davis and Paul George. The Raptors will soon find out just how much the 25-year-old Cameroonian has left to grow, and how much weight he can bear on his shoulders as a true centerpiece. They’ll see if the magic is still left to be mined from VanVleet’s unconscionable postseason hot streak. They’ll find themselves with a fully healthy and fully engaged OG Anunoby, a wild card who could create unforeseen avenues of success much like Siakam did last season. Less than 12 hours after Kawhi’s decision was announced, the team reached an agreement with Stanley Johnson on a two-year deal in hopes of salvaging whatever is left of the once highly touted 2015 lottery pick. The Raptors, in essence, will go back to their roots by developing young talents into well-rounded supporting cast members. But the road back to championship contention is murky for a team forced to run it all back without their game-changing catalyst.
2020 and 2021 offer glimpses of hope, especially for a team overseen by Masai Ujiri, an accomplished tradesmith and big-picture thinker. The Raptors will have only two players (Anunoby, Norman Powell) under contract come next summer, which suggests a world of flexibility before factoring in the inevitable long-term deals that will likely be doled out to Siakam (a restricted free agent) and VanVleet (unrestricted). The Raptors have plenty of expiring contracts to possibly deal with in the interim, but the most attractive ones range from $23 million (Serge Ibaka) to $35 million (Lowry)—more than most teams would be able (or willing) to chew. Toronto’s next step is still in the air, but its front office has earned the benefit of the doubt. Acquiring Leonard last summer was an incredible gamble from Ujiri which simultaneously brought in a top-five NBA talent and cleared up cap logistics for future considerations. One year later, the Raptors aren’t necessarily on their brightest timeline having lost Kawhi, but they aren’t too far from it either. In the interim, perhaps it’s worth marveling at what the Raptors have done in the grander scheme of the league.
History shows that champions are almost always in it for the long haul, and are almost always given an opportunity to either defend or avenge a Finals win or loss. Twenty different NBA franchises have won a championship, but only three champions—the Baltimore Bullets, the Rochester Royals, and the Toronto Raptors—have just one Finals appearance. Baltimore won its championship in 1948 when the eight-team league was still known as the Basketball Association of America; Rochester won its title three years later, in 1951, in an 11-team league. Seven decades and countless expansions and rule changes separate the accomplishments of those relics of professional basketball antiquity and what the Raptors did last month. In that sense, Toronto could very well have claim to the most confounding championship run in NBA history, all thanks to one of the most confounding stars in NBA history.
The trivia doesn’t make the title trivial for the franchise and its fan base, though. The city will have the 2018-19 NBA championship to keep it warm through the coming decades. Kawhi will have his jersey retired; he should probably get a statue. He is, by far, the best player in the team’s history. The four-bounce affair, the dunk on Giannis Antetokounmpo, the walk-off laugh at the championship parade—Leonard is responsible for the franchise’s three greatest moments. It might be easy to slump back into the kind of insecurity that befell fans after young stars like Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh all left the coop, but those departures were made before the Raptors molded an identity for themselves, one that has seemingly extended far beyond basketball. If Kawhi were a card-giving type, perhaps the handwritten message would be:
Don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that it happened. [Insert Klaw logo here]
Leonard gave the Raptors a life-changing, one-year rendezvous that righted their posture and boosted their self-esteem. That’s not nothing. How the Raptors navigated the season, catering to Kawhi’s whims and acquiring the necessary pieces to surround him, will not go unnoticed by the league at large. Every star is governed by a different code; Kawhi’s just happened to be indecipherable for most of the general public. For other players, however, it might be hard to deny the adulation of an entire nation, and the lengths to which a competent front office would move heaven and earth to make sure your needs are met. Kawhi might not have been the savior who was promised, but Toronto sure put on one hell of a show for whoever that might be in the future.