The Raptors' year-long Kawhi Leonard gamble is going swimmingly, but could fall apart for the simplest reasons

  • The Toronto Raptors’ one-year gamble on Kawhi Leonard is going about as well as possible.
  • But the Raptors’ looking like potential contenders, Leonard’s return to All-Star form, and the team’s recruiting efforts, might not matter.
  • According to a report, Leonard’s choice in free agency this summer might come down to the Raptors or his hometown Los Angeles Clippers.
  • According to the report, Leonard might not be able to pass up being close to home and playing in a warm climate, two things the Raptors have no say in, regardless of how well their recruitment goes this season.

The Toronto Raptors’ recruitment of Kawhi Leonard has gone about as well as possible nearly halfway through the 2018-19 season.

The Raptors have a league-best 28 wins and are just half a game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for first place in the East. They’re deep, malleable, and top-10 offensive and defensive unit.

Leonard has slid into the Raptors’ system seamlessly. He has regained his All-NBA form, averaging 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists per game while providing his usual stellar defence. He’s given the Raptors the type of game-closer they lacked in previous years and is a borderline MVP candidate.

The East (because of LeBron James’ departure) and maybe the NBA (because of the Warriors’ malaise) look winnable, and the Raptors are an early championship contender.

As ESPN’s Tim Bontemps laid out, the team’s recruiting efforts have been solid. Their medical staff seems to have won over Leonard as he’s returned from missing nearly an entire season with tendinopathy in his left quad. Toronto itself is a big, diverse city, and Leonard seems to be embracing it.

In return, Leonard, according to Bontemps, has been friendly, engaged, and receptive with his teammates and the organisation.

The Raptors’ gamble on Leonard seems to be paying off. And yet there’s a chance none of it matters.

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According to Bontemps and other reports, the Los Angeles Clippers are said to be one of the front-runners to land Leonard in free agency. He is from Southern California, the Clippers have a deep roster, cap space, and the benefits on not being James’ team. Leonard’s desire to land in Los Angeles was well-known when he was still with the Spurs.

Bontemps reported that people in the NBA believe Leonard’s choice will come down to the Raptors and the Clippers, and there’s a chance the Clippers win for the simplest of seasons.

“There are two things that Toronto, no matter how hard it tries, can’t provide Leonard: being at home and year-round warm weather.

“If it comes down to those two teams, the chance for Leonard to come home and to stay away from snow could be the Clippers’ strongest argument.”

It is Leonard’s right, of course, to choose what makes him happiest. He could love Toronto, but ultimately decide to move to Los Angeles, to be closer to his family, and to enjoy a better climate.

“But it’s just cold. You know, I came from California, and I moved to San Antonio, and there’s no snow in either city,” Leonard told ESPN of Toronto. “It’s my first experience having Christmas with snow on the ground and just seeing snow throughout the year for the first time.”

From a basketball perspective, the Clippers and Raptors might not be so different. Both situations, without Leonard, might be about equal. Both teams have talented young players, proven veterans, and future flexibility.

Could winning a championship this season potentially be so enticing that Leonard simply can’t leave? Maybe.

But Leonard won a championship with the San Antonio Spurs. When star players win that elusive championship early on, they seem to feel more comfortable doing what makes them happiest, regardless of the championship potential. So, for Leonard, it might come down off-the-court items, things the Raptors can’t control.

The Raptors’ gamble might be worthwhile, regardless of whether Leonard stays or leaves. They couldn’t go on with their previous core, and a shot at a championship with Leonard could make the cost of acquiring him worthwhile, even if it’s a one-year rental.

Their recruiting efforts, including the on-court product, might not simply be enough and there’s very little they could do about it.

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