As the Toronto Raptors begin what is both the most hopeful and potentially fraught season in their history, it helps to reflect on Jimmy Butler.
Butler is the Minnesota Timberwolves wantaway star. He hasn’t been traded yet, and isn’t happy about it.
After boycotting most of the preseason, Butler finally showed up at practice this week like Peter O’Toole stumbling onto the stage after a bender.
Butler subbed himself into scrimmages, rubbished the other stars, trash-talked his general manager and – worst of all – put himself on a practice team of scrubs and completely dominated the starters.
“Everybody leads in different ways,” Butler told ESPN afterward. “That’s how I show I’m here for you.”
He means that as a threat.
Butler may not have any control over his situation, but he understands his power. When you are an elite player in the NBA, you can make life hell for other people and they will tug a forelock and thank you for it.
That’s what Kawhi Leonard could have done, but hasn’t.
Nobody asked Leonard if he wanted to be traded to Toronto. He wasn’t part of the negotiations. He found out the deal was done the same way the rest of us did.
Had it gone down this way with any of Leonard’s half-dozen peers in the game – the LeBrons of the world – there’d have been blood on the media room floor. But this process occurred without demur.
Once it hit the news, the man going the other way, DeMar DeRozan, turned it into a cross-platform pityfest. In the soggy part of the off-season when nothing happens, it turned into spectacle – the exact thing Leonard hates most. But he didn’t say or do anything.
Though the usual way of treating stars – especially ones who aren’t under long-term contract – is to consult them on every little club decision, the Raptors didn’t do that with Leonard. They did their business in Toronto, and he did his in California.
Many superstars would also expect the team to plant a squad of FBI crisis communicators in their driveway, to help them pick out furniture swatches and arrange to have their cars helicoptered north.
Leonard handled his own domestic arrangements. The Raptors didn’t receive advance notice that he was showing up in Toronto during mid-summer. He just did.
So while this hasn’t been a perfect process – you’d prefer to sign your best player, not agree to take him hot-potato-style in a forced trade – it could have been much worse.
The Leonard deal, the 2018-19 Raptors season and whatever comes afterward, boil down to one key metric – faith.
There is no objective reason to believe this team is championship calibre because there is no evidence to build that case on. The star is new. The coach is new. The supporting cast is in flux, with young, secondary players becoming young, primary players. Somewhere in there you have Kyle Lowry floating around – Loki to Leonard’s Thor – itching to be disruptive for the sake of it.
The whole thing is a promising shemozzle.
Though he is fully fit, Leonard hasn’t played much in the NBA’s (mercifully short) preseason. There haven’t been any viral highlights. He’s been good, but not great (which is what preseason is for).
He doesn’t enjoy talking, hasn’t done much of it and, when he does, says nothing of substance. Between Leonard and OG Anunoby, this team is becoming an outfit of crossfit Benedictine monks.
The other new arrival from San Antonio, Danny Green, has taken Leonard’s speaking proxy. According to Green, Leonard is, at 27, starting to come into himself.
“He’s definitely more vocal than he’s ever been, on and off the court,” Green said this week. “It looks like he feels at home.”
Is that true? Who knows? What’s poor Danny Green supposed to say – ‘I think he hates it here. Wait until he has to start shovelling the sidewalk’?
Of course, he’s going to say Leonard likes it. You have to trust that that’s actually the case.
We can predict with some assurance of accuracy how the regular season will go: well.
If not the class of the Eastern Conference, the Raptors are close to it. They’ll win in the neighbourhood of 50 or 55 games. They’ll finish somewhere between first and third. They’ll have to get through Boston to advance to an NBA final.
A lot of things have to go right for that to happen, but that’s how it should play out if nothing goes badly wrong.
The rough math here is that the Raptors have one undeniable superstar (Leonard) and one near-superstar (Lowry) to Boston’s three near-superstars (Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford).
Historically, the team with the best player wins – the Cleveland Rule. But who knows? Maybe depth will out. Or maybe Irving elevates this season. Or maybe Leonard sprains an ankle tripping over the mascot during the introductions to Game 7 and Fred VanVleet goes Michael Jordan for one game.
The one thing you can control in the NBA is talent – how much of it have you got? Because there is no game scheme to overcome that lack.
Thanks to Leonard, this Raptors roster is the most talented in team history. Also thanks to him, it is embedded with an auto-destruct sequence. This group has one year to get something done. After that, the roster is due to implode.
Will that sense of urgency translate into accomplishment? After a year off, will Leonard be better, worse or the same? Is Anunoby/VanVleet/Pascal Siakam the incipient near-star who tips the balance? Will Lowry play angry or just be angry?
Some sports outcomes are predictable, some uncertain, but all have a range of possibility. The goal is to set that range as high as possible from the outset, then push the team downhill and let it roll for seven or eight months.
On paper and in October, this year’s Raptors are the best they’ve ever been.
Now they have to trust that having done the fans all these good deeds, they aren’t going to be punished for them.