Kawhi Leonard leaves Raptors for LA Clippers
Published Saturday, July 6, 2019 3:19AM EDT Last Updated Saturday, July 6, 2019 5:31PM EDT
TORONTO -- The laugh. The load management. The shot. The NBA championship. The parade.
It was a heck of a season, but it appears that's all the Toronto Raptors are going to get from Kawhi Leonard. Won and done.
Less than a month after leading the Raptors to an historic first NBA title, with seemingly all of Canada cheering him on, the enigmatic free agent is heading home to Los Angeles where he'll play alongside Paul George for the Clippers.
Leonard ended nearly six days of frantic nail-biting by fans and massive speculation around the league when he finally decided to sign with L.A., doing so only after the Clippers swung their deal to land George from Oklahoma City. ESPN first reported the trade that saw the Thunder getting Hamilton native Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari from the Clippers.
Leonard's departure marks the first time a reigning NBA Finals MVP has changed teams before the next season. Leonard was also pursued by the Los Angeles Lakers and, of course, the Raptors.
Danny Green left Toronto on Leonard's heels, joining the Lakers.
"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," Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in a statement. "On behalf of the Raptors, I say a very heartfelt thank you to Kawhi and to Danny, and we send them and their families nothing but good wishes."
Arguably the most coveted prize in this year's free agency, Leonard reportedly agreed to a four-year US$142 million max contract.
Green signed a two-year, $30-million deal with the Lakers.
"It's been unfortunate how things turned out for everybody, and the city of Toronto and Canada that we couldn't run it back. Kawhi has made his decision. Seems like the announcement is out," Green said in a video he posted to his social media accounts. "It's time for me to make my announcement ... I will be teaming up with new teammates in LA, the Los Angeles Lakers.
"Had a fun time in the city of Toronto ... always have a great place in my heart, will never forget the historical run that we had," he added.
Raptors fans woke up Saturday to the news, ending months of speculation around the star. The angst had grown since free agency opened last Sunday.
But while fans were gutted, the mood was overwhelmingly one of appreciation for the player who arrived last summer in the blockbuster deal that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio.
Leonard produced one of the best playoff performances in league history to bring the NBA championship to Canada for the first time. He brought hope to a franchise that had known years of disappointment in ending the Raptors' 26-year drought.
He ignited a groundswell of support for NBA basketball in Canada that could be felt from coast to coast. And he left numerous iconic memories, including his thrilling buzzer-beater over Philly that bounced four times off the rim -- arguably the single most memorable moment of the post-season.
The top 10 Twitter trends in Toronto on Saturday morning were about the move, among them the hashtags: #ThankYouKawhi and #ThankYouDanny. Toronto Mayor John Tory tweeted: "Our #KawhiWatch has ended. #ThankYouKawhi for the NBA championship that you helped to bring to Toronto with your @Raptors teammates. #ThanksKawhi #WeTheNorth."
Leonard's sister, Miesha Slayton, posted several images on Instagram showing her brother in a Clippers jersey.
The notoriously tight-lipped Leonard, who has virtually no social media presence, remained mum.
Leonard is an eight-year NBA veteran, three-time all-star, two-time champion, and two-time Finals MVP.
"He's the best two-way player in the NBA," Ujiri said during the Finals.
His tenure in Toronto ended with a wild few days of free agency that included tracking trips to California by the plane owned by Raptors parent company Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, and Toronto news station CP24 following a black van by helicopter that may or may not have had Leonard in it.
Billboards encouraging Leonard to stay emerged in Toronto, with signs also popping up in Los Angeles calling on the star forward to return home.
When Leonard arrived in Toronto from the Spurs, his inevitable departure was considered to be a foregone conclusion by many. One season in Toronto and he would bolt for home, they believed.
But the Raptors made Leonard's decision a tough one. After he missed all but nine games the previous season in San Antonio with a serious quadriceps injury, he said health was his biggest concern heading into this campaign.
Toronto responded by treating the superstar, who turned 28 on Saturday, with kid gloves. They made "load management" part of the NBA lexicon, holding him out of back-to-back games for health maintenance.
It all paid off in the playoffs. He was magnificent on both sides of the ball as they dispatched Orlando, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and finally the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. He was rewarded with his second career Finals MVP award.
"Last year, a lot of people were doubting me," Leonard said at the post-game press conference, the goggles from the celebratory champagne shower still on his head.
"They thought I was either faking an injury or didn't want to play for a team. That was disappointing to me that that was out in the media, because I love the game of basketball."
ESPN reported that during Friday night's wild wheeling and dealing, the Thunder had tried to ship Russell Westbrook and his huge contract to the Raptors along with George. But the price was too steep.
And ultimately, the lure of home pulled Leonard back to L.A.
Leonard averaged 26.6 points on 49.6 per cent shooting, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals over 60 regular-season games with the Raptors in 2018-19. He took his game to an eye-popping level in the playoffs, averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals over 24 games.
He posted 14 games of 30 or more points. Only Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kobe Bryant had post-seasons with more 30-point games -- Jordan had 16 of them in 1992, Olajuwon had 16 in 1995 and Bryant had 15 in 2009.
The Raptors now face an uncertain future with a roster led by 33-year-old point guard Kyle Lowry. Only Norman Powell and OG Anunoby have contracts that extend past next season, and the Raptors will have a truckload of cap space -- possibly the most in the league at $90 million.
"As an organization, the Raptors will focus on the future and continue our pursuit of a second championship," Ujiri said in his statement.
No surprise, the odds of that happening any time soon took a nosedive with Saturday's news. The Clippers became Vegas's favourite to win next year's Larry O'Brien Trophy, while the Raptors' odds dropped from 7-to-1 to 16-to-1.