As Kawhi Leonard departed from the Toronto Raptors, it became clear that they were just a small part of Leonard’s story. Even so, they’ll take it.
“Sometimes you think you’re living out one story, but the truth turns out to be something else entirely.” The words of Ted Mosby (from CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother) rang truer than ever when Kawhi Leonard agreed to sign with the LA Clippers on July 6, just less than 12 months after the Toronto Raptors acquired him.
For Raptors fans, Leonard’s impending free agency lingered throughout the team’s magical 2018-19 season, which culminated with the franchise winning its first ever NBA championship last month.
Fans watched Masai Ujiri insist in September that “the narrative of not wanting to come to [Toronto] is gone.” They watched the team gradually find its footing, despite Leonard and Kyle Lowry each missing several regular-season games and not quite gelling at first. They pieced together little hints and encouraging signs that Leonard would, against all odds, end up staying in Toronto despite initial reports that he was determined to play in Los Angeles. They watched Leonard and the Raptors peak at the right moment, as the superstar put together one of the greatest individual postseason runs ever.
And, after all that – the celebrations, the parade, the “five more years!” chants – Leonard still left.
According to the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur, Leonard’s focus on playing in Los Angeles never really wavered, even during the championship run. Sure, the Raptors “closed the gap,” according to a few different reports, but if everything they had – a forward-thinking load management plan, a top-notch front office, a big market that helped build his New Balance brand, a world-class city, a whole country behind him, and an NBA championship – wasn’t enough for Leonard, it appears that Toronto never really stood a chance.
That’s understandable. At age 28, Leonard was a free agent with his first chance to decide where he wanted to play. This was his decision to make. He fought through multiple injuries during the playoffs when he didn’t need to, even while knowing that he was almost certainly on his way out.
Leonard gave Toronto his all, which amounted to more than Raptors fans had ever dared to dream. He didn’t owe the team or the city anything more. And for all he did, Leonard will be a sports legend in Toronto – and Canada – forever.
Who could blame Leonard for signing close to home? For teaming up with a friend and fellow star in Paul George? For joining a well-run organization in the Clippers? Certainly not Raptors coach Nick Nurse, who thanked Leonard and said that he understood the decision.
After winning the championship, Leonard’s departure can’t sting too badly. In the end, the team reached its ultimate goal.
But for Raptors fans, it still must hurt a little to think of what could’ve been. To have finally had a superstar – not just an All-Star but a superstar — commit to staying in Toronto, would have obliterated any doubts about stars wanting to play in Canada.
Now, that narrative will continue to persist. So be it. Ujiri will rally; Siakam will soon be an All-Star; the Raptors will have a ridiculous amount of cap space and flexibility over the next two summers. It would be far more desirable to aim for a repeat with Leonard on the roster, but the team is by no means in shambles.
As it turns out, Raptors fans saw this season from the wrong perspective. To this fanbase, the 2018-19 season was the story of a bold front office that took some massive risks, a team that rallied together, and an improbable championship run that will be remembered in the city forever. Toronto viewed its own team as the protagonists, as any fanbase would.
In the bigger picture, however, the Toronto Raptors were just a small part of the legend of Leonard. This was the story of one of the greatest basketball players ever coming into a new city, a new situation, after essentially a season-long absence.
It was the story of that player re-establishing himself, pushing himself and his team to another level, making one of the most iconic shots in NBA history, and leading that team to its first title – and his second one. It was the story of Leonard becoming one of three players in league history to win Finals MVPs for two different franchises, joining LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
And once it was all said and done, Leonard put his own twist on his story. He became the first Finals MVP ever to sign with another team before the following season. And he agreed to the signing just 22 days after winning the award. You could say it was expected all along, but sometimes, simply meeting expectations can be shocking.
Leonard has proven to be as smart and calculated as possibly any NBA superstar ever. He’s brought two franchises success at the highest level. Now, he’s looking to make history again – to be the first superstar to lead three different franchises to a championship.
The Toronto Raptors’ title run will be only a tiny chapter in NBA history, a fraction of Leonard’s story. All along, the real protagonist was Leonard – a strangely quiet, incredibly talented basketball player who chose his own path and made a brief pit stop along the way.
That pit stop saw the Larry O’Brien trophy land in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for the first time. In this story, Raptors fans will accept being tertiary characters.