Kawhi Leonard is in the midst of a magnificent playoff run, a showing that’s reminded basketball fans who forgot during his lost season in San Antonio that he’s in the conversation as the best basketball player in the world.
His performance that’s included one of the greatest shots in basketball history and a schooling of league MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference finals has been the centerpiece of a catharsis for a basketball-mad city reveling in the first NBA Finals appearance in Toronto Raptors history.
General manager Masai Ujiri is rightly being lauded for the vision of his massive offseason gamble that sent franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs for what had the potential to be a one-year rental for Leonard, who’s set to become a free agent this summer.
Will playoff run sway Leonard to stay?
Even if he leaves during the offseason, the reward of Ujiri’s risk has already paid off handsomely as the Raptors have reached heights they’ve never achieved and most assuredly wouldn’t have without the Leonard deal.
But the frenzy of the Raptors’ playoff ascension has many in basketball and Toronto believing that Leonard will be compelled to stay, especially if they manage to upset the Warriors in the upcoming NBA Finals.
What’s happening with the Raptors feels so good. There’s no way Kawhi could leave, right?
Vegas believes he’ll leave
Las Vegas isn’t convinced. Bleacher Report published odds provided by Caesar’s Palace of Leonard’s likely landing spots in free agency. And Toronto doesn’t lead the list.
The Los Angeles Clippers are the favored destination by a significant margin with -200 odds while the Raptors land in second place at +125. The New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors follow with the Los Angeles Lakers slated as a fifth-place long shot at +900.
These odds speak to a few things, most notably that Leonard is not your typical professional basketball player or NBA personality.
Kawhi does what Kawhi wants
Conventional wisdom states that something special is brewing in Toronto, and it’s just getting started. Leonard is a fierce competitor and has found himself in a winning basketball situation in a cosmopolitan city playing in front of a rabid fan base. There’s a lot to like.
But Leonard has bucked convention before. Sitting on the throne abdicated by Tim Duncan and David Robinson before him, Leonard was the centerpiece of a celebrated championship franchise led by arguably the greatest coach of his generation in Gregg Popovich.
Leonard had won a championship in San Antonio and was in position to compete for more while securing his legacy as one of the all-time greats on an iconic franchise.
That did not matter to him. When tensions rose over how to handle his recovery from a lingering quad injury, Leonard leveraged his way out of town, eschewing the legacy he could have built as a Spur. Leonard thinks independently from convention and makes decisions as he sees fit.
He’s also famously tight-lipped, leaving what’s going on in his head as a mystery to most. But Vegas is clearly considering his independent mindset as it lays odds.
Other factors in Clippers’ favor
Of course, that’s not the only item at play here. Leonard grew up in Southern California and played college ball at San Diego State. While Toronto is a world-class city, it’s also one that’s in a foreign country in a cold-weather climate.
It’s a far cry from the appeal that is the SoCal lifestyle that Leonard is accustomed to. And while the Raptors present basketball opportunity for Leonard, so do the Clippers.
With Lou Williams, Danillo Gallinari and Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers have a strong core of role players that made the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference despite dealing their best player to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Tobias Harris trade.
That deal helped clear cap space to lure prime free agents like Leonard and put the team in a favorable position to compete over the long term. Possessing a player-friendly championship coach in Doc Rivers is another appeal.
Concern will linger through Finals
It all adds up to concern for the Raptors and their fans as they embark on the most exciting period in team history. Will he stay or will he go? It’s a conversation that will linger throughout the Finals and won’t be resolved until Leonard signs a new deal in the offseason.
But for now, it’s a secondary focus. The primary concern remains the Golden State Warriors and Larry O’Brien Trophy. Any successful efforts on that front can only bolster Toronto’s case to tamp down the lure of Los Angeles for Leonard.
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