Raptors fans woke up Saturday morning to some tough news: the Kawhi Leonard era in Toronto is over.
The long and suspenseful wait for the most coveted free agent in basketball to make up his mind came to an end overnight as Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that the superstar had chosen his hometown Los Angeles Clippers – agreeing to a max four-year, US $142-million deal – leaving the Raptors to defend its NBA Championship without him.
Leonard will be joined in L.A. by another superstar and California native. The Clippers also acquired Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, four unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick and two pick swaps, according to ESPN.
It was a bombshell move by the Clippers to keep Leonard from joining the Lakers and teaming up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. According to Wojnarowski, Leonard had spent the past week or so lobbying George to join him by demanding a trade from the Thunder. Reportedly the Thunder were also in trade talks with the Raptors for George, but without a guarantee Leonard would join him in Toronto. The Thunder also wanted young star Pascal Siakam in return.
The departure of the NBA Finals MVP from Canada changes the Raptors from a favourite to repeat as champions to a franchise at a crossroads. Raptors president Masai Ujiri said last week the team had a Plan B if Leonard left. The coming months will see it unfold.
On Saturday the Raptors also lost Danny Green, Leonard’s closest teammate who came along with him from the Spurs last year, to the Lakers.
Ujiri released a statement on Saturday afternoon.
“We are very thankful for the year that Kawhi and Danny played with us here in Toronto, and I know the city and the entire country of Canada are grateful for everything they did to help us to win our first NBA Championship," he said. "On behalf of the Raptors, I say a very heartfelt thank you to Kawhi and Danny, and we send them and their families nothing but good wishes. As an organization, the Raptors will focus on the future and continue our pursuit of a second championship.”
Leonard’s franchise-changing decision has had fans across Canada and throughout the NBA on pins and needles, glued to news reports and social media accounts, coining witticisms about KaWhere he would go and KaWhy his choice was taking so long? The enigmatic talent was undaunted by the fact that most marquee players agreed to deals just minutes and hours after the market opened at 6 p.m. on June 30.
But on the Friday night of the Fourth of July weekend, shortly before midnight, the news trickled out. Leonard’s camp had remained characteristically silent throughout the process, even as various NBA insiders reported at different times that he was leaning toward the Raptors or Lakers, the two other teams in the running. The Clippers however, had always been Leonard’s first choice.
Reaction poured forth from across the city, the country and the league, virtually all of it heartfelt.
“We still love you, but there’s going to be no mercy when you come back here and play our Raptors,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said on Twitter.
After the Raptors released Ujiri’s statement, the team began posting highlight videos and thank you messages to Leonard and Green on its Instagram account.
What had become known on social media as #KawhiWatch reached a fever pitch this week. A local Toronto news station broadcast live as its news helicopter followed the journey of a black SUV across city highways as it carried some unidentified passengers who arrived at Pearson Airport on the private plane of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the Raptors’ ownership group. The charter had landed from Los Angeles, causing speculation that Leonard could be aboard. The live journey caused a crowd to gather at the vehicle’s final destination – a downtown hotel. But cameras never saw Leonard publicly emerge from there.
Reports of another flight plan emerged Friday – one that purportedly had an MLSE plane flying from Toronto to San Diego (where Leonard has a home).
Leonard’s decision ends what has been a full year of speculation since the Raps acquired him from San Antonio for just one guaranteed season, in a trade that packaged away long-time Raptor DeMar DeRozan.
In his single season as a Raptor, Leonard produced career highs in points (26.6) and rebounds (7.3). He was named an All-Star for the third time, and hoisted both the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the Bill Russell Finals MVP Trophy for the second time in his career.
The intensely private star had played just nine games the previous season for the Spurs, and they struggled to resolve his injury there. In Toronto, the medical staff devised a load management program through the regular season to help him achieve maximum Kawhi in the playoffs.
The two-way standout will be remembered in Toronto for many things, from the quirky laugh he unleashed at his introductory press conference to the time he uttered “F--- that, let’s get ‘em both” when it was suggested the Raptors would try to get a win at Golden State’s Oracle Arena in Game 3 of the Finals. He was at the forefront of some of the most iconic moments the franchise had ever experienced, like his four-bounce, heart-thumping, series-clinching three-point dagger in Game 7 versus the Philadelphia 76ers that became a mural in downtown Toronto.
The best season in Raptors history won’t soon be forgotten, and nor will Leonard.