Regardless of whether Kawhi Leonard stays or leaves in a year, the Raptors will have learned about themselves and the path they need to take.
In the NBA, if you’re stuck in the middle, you might as well be in purgatory.
Before pulling the trigger on the trade for Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors weren’t exactly a mediocre, middling team. What they were, however, was a team that had hit their ceiling with their core group.
Winning a franchise-record 59 games this past season – and doing it by overhauling their style of play to become more modern – was a commendable achievement, but another sweep at the hands of LeBron James in the playoffs, especially when the two other East team took him to seven games, was the last straw.
As fresh as the Raptors felt all season long, the way they finished instantly made them stale again. They needed at least one major change to the roster this summer to push them in one of two directions: towards contention by significantly improving, or into a rebuild mode by deconstructing the core.
The beauty of the Leonard trade for Toronto is it allows them to pursue both avenues at the same time next season, before knowing their definitive road in a year’s time.
If Leonard enjoys his new surroundings and decides to stay – and, health permitting, returns to his old self as a player – the Raptors will have the best player in the conference and a team that is built to be a constant challenger for the Finals.
If he bolts after a lone season, Toronto will have cleared essential cap space, essentially giving them a cleaner canvas to work with.
It’s not as if there’s no risk involved. If Leonard is only a one-year rental, then Raptors are postponing an inevitable rebuild instead of ripping the band aid off immediately. That’s hardly a sacrifice though when you can potentially compete for a championship in that year window.
If Leonard is fully healthy and engaged, Toronto have the potential to field one of the best and most versatile defences, while once again wielding enviable depth off the bench. They have all the tools to finish near the top of the conference again in the regular season before clashing with Boston or Philadelphia in the playoffs. And if they reach the Finals to meet Golden State, they’ll now have one of the very best weapons in the league against the Warriors.
What the Raptors are truly risking with this trade is learning a hard truth about themselves, the organisation as a whole and the market they play in. Like Oklahoma City attempted with Paul George and ultimately succeeded in, Toronto will try to appeal to Leonard and convince him to stay.
Leonard appears to be entering the situation not nearly as open-minded than George was, but there has been enough noise surrounding his desires that he may not definitely know what he wants, which means the door is ajar for the Raptors.
And general manager Masai Ujiri seems confident the franchise and the city can win him over – or at least come close. And what’s not to like? Toronto doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, but it’s both a metropolitan and cosmopolitan city, situated in one of the biggest markets in the NBA. The team itself is good enough to compete for a title and the fan base is rabid.
If the Raptors can’t, at the bare minimum, make Leonard think long and hard about leaving next summer, that will be more disappointing than the ramifications of actually losing him.
That doesn’t mean other stars will feel the same way about Toronto – they just traded one away who was committed to the city and actually made it his home, despite hailing from the Los Angeles area. But they are gambling on themselves as much as Leonard, and no team wants to be made to feel they’re undesirable.
Still, it was time for the Raptors to raise the stakes and introduce more variance to the equation. It may not work out exactly how they hope, but in this case, even failure gets you further.