Ujiri confident Raptors can re-sign Leonard, will respect decision either way
Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, June 26, 2019 1:07AM EDT
Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri made his all-in push and it paid off with an NBA title. It will soon be time for Kawhi Leonard to lay his cards on the table.
The future of the soon-to-be free agent was one of the main talking points Tuesday at Ujiri's season-ending media availability.
Leonard helped anchor the team through the season and raised his level even higher when it mattered most. He delivered one of the strongest playoff performances in recent memory, putting the Raptors on his back at times en route to their first championship.
The long waiting game on his future will soon come to an end. Leonard has to decide whether he'll return to Toronto or explore options elsewhere.
It's a decision that will have an immeasurable effect on the franchise and will likely send a wave of other free-agent dominoes tumbling across the league.
"We continued to be us and I know he'll continue to be him," Ujiri said. "I know what we've built here, I'm confident. You see how these things go. I think we have to respect him for that decision that he has to make."
At 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, Leonard can begin negotiating with teams as a free agent. Players can't officially be signed until July 6, but news often leaks out during the negotiating period.
Leonard is expected to opt out of a US$21.3-million player option next season, part of a deal he signed with San Antonio before being traded to the Raptors last summer.
The Raptors can offer more money and term than other teams because of NBA rules.
Toronto can sign Leonard to a $190-million, five-year deal, about $50 million more than he could make on a four-year deal with another team. It's also possible he could work out a short-term deal with the Raptors and test free agency again down the road.
Interest is very high in Leonard, who turns 28 on Saturday, since he's a superstar forward in his prime and one of the best two-way players in the league.
Ujiri said he had "very good meetings" with Leonard over the last few days, but will keep those conversations private for now.
"For me they've been positive," Ujiri said. "He challenges me the same way that I challenge him. I think the goal is the same and I appreciate that."
Ujiri acquired Leonard and Danny Green last summer from the Spurs in a blockbuster deal that included franchise player and fan favourite DeMar DeRozan.
It was part of a significant retooling in the wake of another early playoff exit. Coach of the year Dwane Casey was let go and assistant Nick Nurse was promoted to replace him.
Ujiri was signalling that lasting a round or two in the playoffs wasn't good enough. He wanted to clear all the hurdles in 2019 and win that elusive conference title and NBA championship.
It was a big gamble since Leonard was signed for just one year and coming off a significant leg injury. But he proved to be a great fit and showed he was a big-time playoff performer.
Dealing DeRozan -- a team cornerstone and great friend of Raptors guard Kyle Lowry -- was one of the toughest decisions of Ujiri's career. Both players took the news hard.
Ujiri, who was in Kenya at the time, said he walked around his hotel for two hours in the middle of the night to "summon up the courage" to break the news to DeRozan.
"When San Antonio came here (this season), I've never said this to anybody, but something unbelievable happened," Ujiri said. "DeMar came into our locker room. To show you the class human being he is, he came up to me and he hugged me and he asked me how my family was doing."
The communication with Lowry, meanwhile, had its low points. Ujiri said their comfort level was noticeably off around the trade deadline, so they got together for a long discussion.
"I think I'll leave that between me and Kyle," Ujiri said. "The meeting lasted about two hours and it wasn't easy. It's always a difficult meeting when you're both direct and truthful to each other. Kyle is the same way that I am.
"It's funny, DeMar always used to say that. But we resolved it."
Ujiri delivered another whopper at the deadline by landing veteran centre Marc Gasol from Memphis in a multi-player swap that included Jonas Valanciunas.
Gasol soon found himself in a starting lineup that included Leonard, Lowry, Green and Pascal Siakam, the NBA's most improved player.
The team used a 'load management' system to build Leonard up over the campaign.
He quickly showed he could still be an impact player and took his game to a different level in the post-season. Thirty-point games were the norm and Leonard was a force at both ends of the court.
He truly shone in the big moments and delivered time and time again. His quiet confidence washed over the team and left players feeling strong even after stinging losses.
Leonard would simply take over some games, leaving opposing defences befuddled.
His body was banged up at times but he continued to be a force. The two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors had no answer for him and the Raptors in the final, dropping all three games at Oracle Arena to fall in six games.
It would be difficult for Toronto to make a stronger pitch for Leonard's return.
Leonard and his advisers have developed a trust with the Raptors. He has a strong rapport with his teammates and was adored by the fanbase. Steady victories kept everyone's spirits high.
Toronto won the Atlantic Division with a 58-24 record before dispatching Orlando, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and finally Golden State. Leonard was an easy choice as NBA Finals MVP.
He has earned the right to make his choice as a free agent. But things could not have gone much better in Toronto.
"We have to be ourselves and we were ourselves the whole year," Ujiri said. "I think he saw that. I think we built a trust there."
Two other key starters also have decisions to make. Gasol has a player option for next season and Green is an unrestricted free agent.
In addition, Lowry and Serge Ibaka are both entering the final season of their lucrative three-year contracts.
A Leonard return would likely make the Raptors the team to beat in the East. His departure could lead to a number of new starters in the lineup and a significant retooling process.
"Whenever they make up their mind, we'll be here," Ujiri said. "I know we'll be in touch with them. We've built a relationship with them where honestly, I texted with Kawhi last night, I talked to his uncle this morning.
"So for us, there's that trust regardless of wherever it goes. There will be constant communication."