What does Kawhi want?
This is the essential question that has occupied the Toronto Raptors since their bold trade for Kawhi Leonard last July. Leonard is one of the NBA’s most inscrutable superstars, a man of few words and little subtext.
He’s not uncommunicative, but he is quite literal. When he was asked after the Raptors’ Game 2 blowout road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, “Where do you go from here?” Leonard replied, “To Toronto for Game 3.” This isn’t a player interested in disseminating messages in the media to convey his feelings or leverage his power.
For NBA teams, trafficking in superstars is a two-part process — acquisition, then retention — and it’s that latter stage that presents the greatest challenge. Any front office with the requisite assets can trade for a superstar, but only one skilled at the art of persuasion can keep him. Up 2-1 against the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, the Raptors will soon shift their attention to the retention project they’ve been planning for nearly a year — signing Leonard to a long-term contract in free agency to remain in Toronto.
How do you sell someone not easily sold? How do you sculpt a pitch about external factors when the target of that pitch is someone so internally focused? What can you really offer that other leading NBA organizations can’t? How can the Raptors compensate for their geographic disadvantage to a team like the LA Clippers in recruiting a Southern Californian whose preference for temperate climes is well-known?
The Raptors executed the trade last summer with the belief that, when it came time to make their sale to Leonard, they’d be a strong incumbent with a track record of competence and achievement. This is the case Toronto can make to Leonard with confidence.
When we started crafting our pitch to you to make the Raptors your long-term home, we realized that the most important considerations aren’t necessarily the things we think we do well as an NBA franchise, but the things you believe are most important as an NBA superstar. This decision is about both your professional and personal lives, and it’s the first real opportunity you’ve had to choose a home with no restrictions.
Your honesty is one of the qualities we most admire in you, so in identifying the factors we feel at work in this decision, we’d be smart to take you at your word. We think about your introductory news conference from last September, when you were asked what you want most to accomplish in your NBA career.
You responded, “Just be able to be healthy. That’s my No. 1 goal — play a long, healthy career, be able to be dominant wherever I land. That’s about it. I want to win championships and get in those record books.”
You’re a rare breed — a player who is well-aware of his greatness, but who also appreciates the limitations of a human body against the grueling NBA schedule. That’s why when you arrived in Toronto, you clearly articulated your expectations: A commitment to your physical health was what you wanted from our organization this season, above all else. That meant a coordinated effort in which every stakeholder — you, our front office, our coaching staff, our medical team, those you trust to advise you — would work toward that common goal.
It’s fair to say that, over the past year, Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors together created a new template for the NBA. You know as we do that what was referred to casually — and often dismissively — in the media as “load management” was so much more than your finding rest on back-to-back stretches. It was a collaborative and thoughtful process befitting of an athlete who plays with uncommon magnitude and force, whose every movement on the court is a portrait of intention.
You teamed up with our director of sports science Alex McKechnie, physiotherapist Amanda Joaquim, as well as others in our organization, and methodically navigated your output to perfection. When you said in March that the NBA’s regular season was “82 practices,” we fully embraced that characterization, just as we endorsed your larger approach. McKechnie, for years, has been at the forefront of this performance movement, and we consider your partnership with him an achievement.
We’re a forward-thinking NBA franchise that understands that there are many reasons you’ve been the MVP of the 2019 playoffs — your talent, preparation, temperament. But there’s also your devotion to best practices. We look at an otherworldly superstar like James Harden and wonder had he not crossed the 3,000 minute threshold sometime during Game 4 of the Rockets’ first-round series — a multiyear pattern for him — whether we’d be facing Houston and not Golden State in the Finals.
There are stars, front offices and coaches who reject this thinking, who reside in an old-world sensibility where toughing it out in a “man’s league” is the dominant worldview. Not us. Like you, we appreciate that every small decision is part of a much larger whole. There’s no one game, single practice or individual workout that stands apart from the greater goal of winning a championship; every choice impacts the greater outcome.
Watching you go about your business on a daily basis has been a revelation to us. From the moment you arrive at the facility, it’s an exercise in machine-like efficiency: weights, shots, medical, film, practice, ice, and whatever else your preparation demands. Not a moment or movement wasted. And it’s not simply that we admire how you put in a day’s work — we’ve learned from it. You made us aware early on that you’re a player accustomed to structure, and we listened. As a result, we’re a better basketball operation today than when you arrived, something that has been borne out this spring.
Our head coach, Nick Nurse, has won at every level throughout his career — but more importantly, he’s a listener. When you asked questions about defensive rotations or coverage schemes, we explained that our principles of ball pressure and getting in gaps were less specific in their directives, but over the course of the regular season and playoffs, we melded our approaches. In doing so, we extinguished the East’s top-ranked offense, rendering it impotent in a six-game series.
On the other end, we installed an offense that both maximizes the collective intelligence and inherent unselfishness of our unit, but also empowers your exceptional individual skill set. We’ve worked with you to put you in the best position to succeed on a given possession by furnishing you with the brightest teammates who intuitively understand where, when and how you like the ball. While we respect that you’ll survey the field for other franchises with talent, we are steadfast in our belief that you will not find another roster with more professionalism, experience and unselfishness. Nor will you find a collection of teammates with a willingness to defer to your dominance at the biggest moments, while doing all the little things required for you to succeed in those moments.
We have veteran players who still have productive seasons ahead, and young players who are only going to get better, including Pascal Siakam, who is projected to walk away with the league’s Most Improved Player award in a landslide. We selected him with the 27th pick, just as we have overperformed with so many of our younger players: We stole Norman Powell from Milwaukee by sending out Greivis Vasquez, found OG Anunoby with the 23rd pick, and picked up off the scrap heap an undrafted Fred VanVleet, who has been crucial in helping you win the biggest games in Raptors franchise history.
We could tell you why we think Toronto is the greatest basketball city on the continent, how being the face of a truly national franchise is a privilege, but we also know that you might value the strengths of our market differently than others. We appreciate that peripherals aren’t as important to you, but we know that a professional workplace devoid of external noise is. And we present the events of the last 10 months as evidence that, in this respect, the Toronto Raptors are a perfect fit for Kawhi Leonard.
An NBA team with a pending free-agent superstar can be beset by intrigue and disruption, but despite the uncertainty about your future, our season together was devoid of high drama. That’s a testament both to your character and our commitment to doing things the right way: We didn’t succumb to distractions because, together, we simply wouldn’t allow it. If there’s an organization that has produced a more harmonious season of basketball in recent years with such uncertainty, we haven’t seen it. This wasn’t a fluke; we believe it is — and will be — a fundamental feature of the Toronto Raptors in a Kawhi Leonard Era.
But more than anything, our boldest selling point is you — specifically, our decision last summer to change the course of our franchise in an effort to make you a Toronto Raptor. Our rivals in the Eastern Conference had greater resources and assets necessary to acquire you. We can’t say why they didn’t. Perhaps they didn’t believe you could restore yourself to full health, or you weren’t worth their best prospects. Maybe they didn’t have sufficient faith that the overall quality of their organization would be enough to convince you to stay.
We took the risk they didn’t, not only because we were confident you’d find the conditions for both health and on-court success to be present in Toronto, but because we also understood that you would make us a better NBA franchise — you would make us the kind of organization that would be the best long-term home for Kawhi Leonard.
Coming soon: The case for the Clippers