In the wake of the Toronto Raptors winning an NBA title and hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy on the back of Kawhi Leonard’s Herculean efforts, there was a nervous energy in the city. Raptors fans were concerned that the man they had just fallen in love with was about to leave them.
Torontonians did whatever they could to woo Leonard and keep him north of the border. They even began tracking the star’s every movement much like a jilted lover. We now know how it played out with Leonard choosing to play close to home for the Los Angeles Clippers but in retrospect, did Toronto overreact? Was the Klaw really the savior some believed him to be?
It feels blasphemous to write this, but these may not be such outlandish questions to ask. For context’s sake, know that asking for Leonard’s jersey to be retired and vouching for the erection of a statue outside the Scotiabank Arena are not fringe opinions.
Even though I still feel that the one year Leonard spent with the Raptors should be commemorated, it shouldn’t be remembered for more than it was.
How much did Kawhi Leonard change the Toronto Raptors’ fortunes?
In order to come to any sort of conclusive answer, let’s look at the details surrounding the 2018-19 season. The regular season was spectacular for the Raptors.
They won 58 games, an impressive total. That was good enough for the second-best record in the NBA trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks who finished with 60 wins. The Bucks also had the league’s Most Valuable Player on the court, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Raptors’ answer to the Greek Freak was the Fun Guy himself. Leonard played in 60 games and skipped 22 of them. The team was 41-19 when he played and when he didn’t they were 17-5. That means with Leonard in action, the Raptors won 68.3% of their games. When he sat, the team actually improved to winning 72% of contests.
There are other factors at play such as the quality of the opponent, but the point is that the Raps were still elite even without Leonard on the floor. It’s difficult to make the argument that Leonard carried the club to the playoffs when they were able to perform so well in his absence.
Leonard wasn’t the only Toronto Raptors player who played well.
In the postseason, Leonard went off. In the 24 games played, he averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.7 steals. He was incredible. However, let’s not forget that the cast around him was also blazing hot, allowing Leonard to work.
Pascal Siakam averaged 19 points per contest in those playoffs. He also had 7.1 boards, 2.8 dimes, and 1.0 steals per game. Kyle Lowry averaged 15 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and
1.3 steals. Even Marc Gasol became a pivotal player thanks to his rim protection and ability to get out and defend.
Along with 9.4 points per game, he averaged 6.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 0.9 steals, and 1.1 blocks. Let’s also not forget the brilliance of Nick Nurse, who used creative defensive schemes to shut down opponents.
In the season that followed the Raptors’ big win, Leonard teamed up with superstar Paul George. Together they led the Clips to the second-best record in the Western Conference. Then in the playoffs, the team imploded.
Despite Leonard averaging 28.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 5.5 assists, his club couldn’t get past the second round. The Clippers famously blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets who then went on to lose to the eventual champs, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers.
How valuable was Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors?
The answer to the question of whether Leonard was overrated is a little more nuanced. He is overrated by those who diminish the accomplishments of the team. The Raptors were an excellent unit, which needs to be acknowledged as a part of the conversation.
However, Leonard’s dominance on the court was undeniable. In fact, he was just the sixth player in NBA history to score north of 700 points. Leonard was elite and should be remembered as such.
For those who suggest that Leonard is the only reason why the Raptors have a banner hanging in their rafters, they’re unequivocally wrong. Leonard was vital to the victory but there is overwhelming evidence that he was with the right group of fellas to get that chip.
For those who suggest that Leonard wasn’t remarkable, they’re also wrong. His time with the Raptors was magical. Everything surrounding the team was electric, even attracting non-basketball fans to watch games. Leonard may not have been able to do it alone but there’s a good chance that the team couldn’t have gone as deep as they did without him.
It’s great being able to look back on the past and remember the exuberance the Raptors sparked. Hopefully, this team will do it all over again, capturing their second title in the not-so-distant future.