It’s Friday July 5th, 2019, and Kawhi Leonard is a free agent. He is expected to make his decision tonight or tomorrow, and for all of us Raptors fans, it is crucial to be constantly refreshing our Twitter feed like maniacs. No matter what happens though, we’re champions. Our name is in the books forever, and no one will take that away from us. As Tristan Thompson said, the East still runs through us.
With just hours – possibly minutes – until the decision comes, Kawhi’s camp has been dead silent. Numerous Twitter personalities said to be affiliated with the Lakers have claimed that he is headed South to don purple and gold, however more reliable sources such as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, or The Athletic’s Shams Charania have stated otherwise. As per Brian Windhorst, reporters would share what they could, but right now they have nothing to report. The best sports intel in the world has no idea what is happening in Kawhi’s mind, so until you get that Twitter notification from Woj or Shams, leave the clout-chasing Redditors alone.
Without any facts or connections to the situation myself, let’s take a look at where the race stands.
We already know that Kawhi personally reached out to the Lakers’ former president, Magic Johnson, to ask him a few questions about the franchise. The conversation was later leaked – something that Kawhi would not have appreciated.
Kawhi asked Magic if the Lakers had tried to trade for him last summer. Magic answered that they did, but Popovich demanded four first round picks from the Lakers, which for any team is far too much to give up for one season of Kawhi. Uncle Dennis then asked for some clarity on what we have all been holding against the Lakers for the past few months: what was really happening between Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka, and Magic himself? “We had some issues, but we’re past that. I’m past that. We’re still a family, such as you fight with your brothers and sisters sometimes, well, I had somewhat of a disagreement with my sister. And Rob Pelinka, yes, I said he was a back-stabber, but that happened then. Now I want the Lakers to be a championship team. Having Kawhi here would do that,” Johnson said.
Despite the solid answers to some tough questions from Kawhi’s camp, the disparagement occurred after the call. The fact that the call happened getting leaked in the first place is bad enough, but then the exact details of what happened in the call coming out is despicable, and shows that nothing has changed. In contrast, no one has heard a peep out of the Raptors, or their media, which we know that Kawhi values. Not even the time, or date, that the two parties would meet was formally announced. All that was said, was that Kawhi would give the Raptors the honour of taking the last meeting with him. On the front of privacy, respect for a player, and organization within the front office, the Raptors probably rank 1st in the league, whereas the Lakers rank 30th.
As for his other option which we have heard a ton about – the Clippers. Dating back to last summer, Kawhi publicly said he wants to be traded to L.A., specifically to the Lakers. That was before all of the kerfuffle, and aforementioned nonsense occurred within their front office. If he was still set on living the Hollywood lifestyle, there was another option, with a billionaire owner, a great front office, and some nice pieces who know how to play well together already there. Not to mention that they have constructed their roster for the past several seasons to be able to tackle this 2019 free agent market, which to this point, they have struck out in. The Clippers have literally put all their chips on the table trying to lure Kawhi Leonard, even sending Lawrence Frank, their President of Basketball Operations, to almost every Toronto Raptors home game, trying to scout, and forge a relationship with Leonard. They seem like an optimal fit for the superstar, why wouldn’t he just go there?
The one answer would be competitiveness. Originally, if Kawhi signed with the Clips, part of their plan was to trade Gallinari so that they could free up another maximum contract slot, and allow Kawhi to bring someone else to come play with him. Unfortunately for them, anyone that he would have been interested in teaming up with is now off the market, so the Clippers went ahead and signed Patrick Beverley to a 3-year, $40M contract, eliminating any possibility of signing another star. With Kawhi and Jimmy Butler/Kyrie Irving/Kemba Walker/Kevin Durant, obviously the Clippers would be a favourite to take it all, but with a team of Kawhi Leonard, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Ivica Zubac, and others, there will be rumblings all year that they are good, but not great.
The quietest player in the league, staying with the quietest organization in the league, with the infrastructure already built around him to go win another championship in a wide-open Eastern Conference, that they have already proven they can do? Or going to a dysfunctional organization that has trouble keeping anything internal, after you have specifically insisted that you want to keep the situation lowkey? Or going to an organization with similarly built infrastructure to the Raptors – maybe a little bit inferior – in a tougher conference, where you have no proof that you can get as far as you did with the group waiting for you in the North?
In my mind, Kawhi’s most logical option would be to sign a 1+1 maximum contract with the Raptors, with a player option for next summer, when Masai and Bobby will finally have the cap space to rebuild the team around Kawhi, and he will face the same decision again with some more clarity this time, as both L.A. teams will surely be waiting for him: to stay, or to leave? Until midnight, we wait.