Alas, Kawhi, We Hardly Knew Ye
The blessing and the curse of capturing lightning in a bottle.
The news landed with an apocalyptic shudder on an otherwise beautiful Saturday morning. Just 23 days after the Raptors handily dispatched the Golden State Warriors in six games, the enigmatic Kawhi Leonard announced he had signed a four year, $142 million deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. Predictably, the interstitial period became #KawhiWatch for fans of NBA basketball around the world. Nowhere more so than in Canada. Over the course of a single season, for Canadians, Leonard went from ‘say who?’ to being the leading candidate for pope if the position suddenly came available. We just couldn’t get enough of Kawhi which included, embarrassingly, chasing a lookalike in a black SUV through the streets of Toronto with a news helicopter. We were collectively transformed from diffident admirer to deranged stalker over the course of a little more than a week.
There are those who will argue it was our very un-Canadian lack of self control which scared off the famously taciturn and frustratingly private Leonard. Hardly. The move home for Leonard could have been predicted just as certainly as his ability to tilt the court in his favour in the games in which he plays. For supporting evidence, look no further than the newspaper write-ups from his high school and college days in Southern California. The household name NCAA basketball programs for which Leonard could have easily played were left in the waiting room trying to decipher the internal guidance to which only Leonard knew the code. Back then, he chose to go with the suboptimal San Diego State University because he “wanted to go with who loved me first”. It’s only a head-scratcher if you take it any way other than absolutely literally.
When Kawhi steadfastly refused to say anything about staying with the Raptors after the once-in-a-lifetime season, he wasn’t toying with the affections of the team or the fans. He simply didn’t feel the need to talk about plans which did not exist. For Canadians, that’s the part we find most difficult to understand. Just when we were being so charming. But it was to be Shakespearean, unrequited love—we were dreaming of a future which included Kawhi and, it turns out, he was thinking only of how long he had to hang around so as not to appear rude when he bolted for the door.
It might have been different if, instead of The Shot going in after four bounces on the rim in the seventh game against the 76ers, it had bounced out and the Raptors had gone on to the defeat more than a few talking heads had predicted. Embiid would have been consoling Gasol instead of the other way ‘round. But The Shot went in, of course. After that unparalleled moment and while it was never easy for the Raptors, the eventual outcome of the subsequent series with the Bucks and the NBA Finals with Golden State seemed more certain. It was easier to believe that an eventual NBA title might be within reach for the Raptors.
Yet another loss in the playoffs after a very promising season, perversely, might have been the incentive Kawhi Leonard would have needed to kick around for another year or two until finally being able to add the double notches of another NBA title and the Most Valuable Player to his collection. But having achieved all that in year one with the Raptors, he might as well move on to the next summit. What better way to cement your legacy as one of the best, if not the best to ever play the game than by adding a third title and a third MVP with yet another team?
The tantalizing hint as to the nature of the only two branches in Kawhi’s decision tree came by way of his trade mate from the Spurs, Danny Green. It was in Danny’s social media announcement—apparently made from a wine cellar—that he had signed his own two year deal with the Lakers, subsequently reported at $30 million. Right at the beginning of Danny’s video, he says “Kawhi has made his decision, [it] seems like the announcement is out, it’s time for me to make my announcement”. Of course these are just words spoken in proximity to alcohol, but if taken literally it certainly sounds like there was some sort of interlock between the two star players respective decisions. All of these variations on “if he stays, I stay, if he goes, then I go”. Maybe Danny’s conversation with the Lakers went exactly like that. I’ll come and play for you but only if I’m not playing for the Raptors with Kawhi. Once Kawhi made the move to the Clippers, who already had a Danny Green in the person of Paul George, the real Danny could sign with whoever he wanted. What better destination than the crosstown rival, so that he could routinely serve up a heapin’ helpin’ of whoop-ass to his former teammate alongside some guy called LeBron James and some other guy called Anthony Davis.
As a relative newcomer to NBA basketball fandom, I am at a disadvantage to those of greater experience, expertise and more years watching the game—which is just about everybody. At a disadvantage in every way except, perhaps, being able to look at the game objectively based on the facts in front of me. It will make those more qualified than me bristle, but basketball is much less of a team sport than it first appears. A single star who is healthy along with a really good wingman and a fairly strong supporting cast has a real chance of winning championships. Backing up this assertion is the fact that top players are eligible ato eventually take home as much as 35% of the overall team salary budget.
Based on this, doing whatever the star asks above and beyond simply paying him his market value, just makes sense. In Kawhi’s case, while he was with Toronto, it was about the team respecting his need to fully recuperate from the thigh injury he sustained when he was with the Spurs and of which the team seemed skeptical was as bad as Kawhi claimed. With the Raptors organization having ticked that vitally important box, I’ll reward you with a championship, Kawhi might have subconsciously thought.
Job done. Favour repaid. Next.
Masai Ujiri went all-in with the off-season Leonard and Green trade, and took a lot of heat for it. He took still more heat for a coaching change and yet more heat again before the deadline when he traded for Marc Gasol. Ujiri had better know what he’s doing, we all thought, didn’t we? However, as the Larry O’Brien trophy landed in Toronto, all was forgiven by the two million fans who showed up for the victory parade and the millions more across the country who watched on TV. At least some of the Raptors fans’ rapture was predicated on their belief that Kawhi couldn’t possibly leave Toronto after this experience, could he? This wasn’t just the culmination of 24 years of effort but also the beginning of a dynasty where Kawhi would play out his days in Canada helping the Raptors win championship after championship. Heck, maybe he would even move here permanently, buy a home, and check out a Leafs game from time-to-time? Even become a citizen, perhaps?
We were all naïve. It was never going to be. Not in a million years.
To be considered as a team for which Kawhi would play next, first be willing to go out and get whatever players he wants as team mates. For Kawhi, it was, is and always will be about championships and setting records which are progressively further and further out of reach for lesser players. Next, of course, pay him something close to his market value. That’s a given. But then again, it was never about the money because Kawhi already has more than he can spend in several lifetimes. Particularly lifetimes like his where he was rumoured to have applied for a loyalty card at The Hudsons Bay Company, kept driving his ’97 Tahoe even after signing a $94 million contract with the Spurs and where his preference for dining out is Wingstop. Which, significantly, we don’t have in Canada. Finally, and this is the big one, home court needs be less than 90 minutes drive from Kawhi’s beloved childhood home of Moreno Valley, California.
It’s on that last, unticked box where #WeTheNorth absolutely, positively never had a chance.
The characters in this drama for whom we might feel a deeper empathy are the rest of the Toronto Raptors. Not that those who do what they love for a living, and get paid a bundle, should be the objects of any sort of pity—and they surely wouldn’t want any—but they are still sentient human beings after all. Kyle Lowry, Fred Vanvleet and Norm Powell—just to name a few—ably demonstrated their ability to predictably win games on Kawhi’s rest days. Yet they seem to get lost in the breathless chatter about Kawhi. Even Danny Green had to laugh off The Other Guy moniker given to him at the first press conference. But here’s the cold, hard truth. Kawhi is gone. Danny is gone. The rest of these guys are still here. I’m not sure there is an action item in all of this, but let’s not pretend that life after Kawhi is nothing but a yawning black abyss. We might all be surprised by what the other two-thirds of the salary budget buys.
With the 2019 free-agency-a-palooza already all but over, a legitimate question is what rabbit Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster will pull out of their collective hat now. The big names have all found a home already. This would seem to leave the Raptors to pick up one of the few remaining wallflowers to try and fill those Leonard and Green-sized shoes. One of the Raptors’ goals for a championship season, if it is to have any currency beyond the start of training camp, was to legitimize the NBA’s one and only international destination as a place a great player would actually want to play. On that score, mission accomplished. Given that, there are three types of player to whom that opportunity will appeal:
The first are international players, which is to say not from the United States. The Raptors have done a fantastic job of incorporating amazing players from all around the world into their lineup. This includes Camaroon, Congo, England, Spain and, of course, Canada. The Great White North, at least in some cases, might be seen as being a less ‘complicated’ place to officially live and work than the United States. Admittedly, that would be more a matter of principle than practicality given half the season is played in the United States anyway. But at the very least there would be free and pretty decent health care.
The second group are the current players emerging as newly-minted, we-spotted-them-before-anybody-else superstars. Pascal Siakam definitely fits this description. Chris Boucher, with 20 pounds more muscle, might fit it too. Careful, patient development of their careers could pay off in a big way if the breathtaking progress of Siakam, for example, is any guide as to the quality of the Raptors’ development program. The catch with employing this build-from-within strategy is the payoff just may not come next year, or even the year after. Or the year after that. But eventually, it’s a distinct possibility.
Finally, there is a faint hope for a franchise player looking to drop into a pretty effective organization and knock off a championship of their own, Kawhi-style. Only in the NBA, where star players are also de facto general managers of the teams where they choose to play, is this something which could even be contemplated. Getting the likes of Steph Curry or Russell Westbrook to blow a cob and demand to be traded is tricky soil to till. Even then, in one last bitter irony, it would also likely come at the cost to the Raptors of the most-likely-to-succeed Siakam, and then some.
Is that blockbuster trade worth it? It all depends when you want the next championship: maybe now or maybe later. For those who think that either is an obvious choice, let’s talk again after the first three game losing streak. Patience is usually not the crowd’s strong suit.
©2019 Terence C. Gannon