There will be an oversaturation of gossip in the days leading up to free agency, especially when it comes to the biggest name on the market in Kawhi Leonard.
Last Wednesday, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that the Toronto Raptors were running out of time to “close the gap” on the Los Angeles Clippers in the running for Leonard. But just four days later, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that Leonard was “seriously considering” re-signing with the Raptors, and that other teams were further down the pecking order. Wojnarowski also said Leonard would meet with the Philadelphia 76ers, while Cris Carter of Fox Sports (who shares an agent with Leonard) said the exact opposite.
It’s easy to get lost in all the conflicting reports, especially since the media feels so obliged to speak up for an otherwise muted Leonard. But if you really pay attention, Leonard has been rather upfront about his decision. No, he hasn’t come out and announced anything outright, but all this speculation over who and what Leonard wants is unnecessary because he spelled it out quite clearly.
At his introductory press conference last September, Leonard not only delivered his infamous laugh and branded himself as a “Fun Guy,” but he also laid out in plain terms what his goals were for the season and for the rest of his career. One would think that, more than anything else, is how he will approach free agency.
“Just be able to be healthy, that’s my No. 1 goal,” he said. “Play a long, healthy career (and) be able to be dominant, wherever I land. I wan to win championships and be in those record books.”
On both fronts, the Raptors have succeeded. Leonard talked at length (for his standards, anyway) about the virtues of load management, and he kept coming back to his miraculous journey, where he went from sitting out all but nine games to winning the championship. Toronto’s medical team, headed up by ace sports scientist Alex McKechnie, was able to keep Leonard healthy for the most important time of the season, and his teammates kept the Raptors competitive during the 22 games in which Leonard sat out to maintain home court advantage against all but one team. Toronto should feel very secure in fulfilling Leonard’s main wishes.
It was also revealed as the season went on that there was a breach of trust that led to Leonard wanting out of San Antonio. Dennis Robertson, who is both the uncle and the manager for Leonard, detailed very clearly as to why there was a falling out. They didn’t feel that the Spurs were acting in his best interest.
“They didn’t believe Kawhi couldn’t play and that caused a lack of trust in us and then us not believing in them,” Robertson told Haynes. “Any time a player says he’s not capable of playing, you should believe him. Why would Kawhi just stop playing all of a sudden? He’s a competitor. Sometimes you get these team doctors telling you what you can and cannot do, and Kawhi was just in too much pain to get out there. This was a serious issue. They didn’t believe him, and after that, the relationship couldn’t recover and we decided we had to move on.”
Toronto has been mindful and successful in winning Leonard’s trust. Not only was Leonard able to sit out every back-to-back on the schedule, but at one point during the winter, Leonard took off four straight games for load management, and nobody batted an eye. Even the local media shrugged it off, as everyone from fans to teammates understood that there was a bigger goal. Unlike in San Antonio, where there were constant leaks to the media as to Leonard’s ulterior motives, and a fateful ambush by teammates, there was none of that drama in Toronto.
"It's big. You've got to be able to play for people you trust and them be able to see what you feel. And you just go from there and try to get better together," Leonard told TSN in March.
Fast forward three months, and Leonard hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy in one hand and the Finals MVP in the other, and he was proven right on all accounts. Not only was Leonard back on the mountaintop — and this time as the clear-cut leader as compared to when he played a role for the Spurs in 2014 — but he was validated in prioritizing his own health. He took flack for wanting out of the most bulletproof organization in basketball, they said he couldn’t win elsewhere, his commitment to basketball was challenged and Leonard dispelled all of those narratives after landing in the perfect situation.
"I came to a team with a new coach whose mindset was the same as mine, trying to get that Larry O’B over there," Leonard told ESPN's Doris Burke at the championship presentation. "This is what I play basketball for, this is what I work out for all summer, during the season, and I'm happy that my hard work paid off."
After being showered with champagne, Leonard re-emerged from the locker room after Game 6 of the NBA Finals to conduct more interviews. Maybe he was just caught up in the moment, but there was also a palpable sense of truth and joy as he detailed his unforgettable first season with the Raptors on NBA TV.
“It was amazing,” Leonard said. “I had so much fun this season, probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a basketball season. Maybe it’s because I didn’t play last season, or because I wasn’t around too many people when I was rehabbing with doctors and stuff, but this year has been so fun. Just able to grow as a player, to be able to be part of a new team, with new teammates, and obviously a new country — they just embraced me and I thank them all for letting me become the player that I could be.”
just gonna leave this here for future reference ... pic.twitter.com/s095k3zdDL
— William Lou (@william_lou) June 24, 2019
Moments prior, in a separate sitdown with Rachel Nichols of ESPN, Leonard also confirmed that Toronto wasn’t his first choice last summer. At the time, his preference was to return home to California, and maybe that’s still his focus. But things change over time. Leonard said in that press conference, “I came here with an open mind,” and having recovered from his injury and won the title, there’s certainly room to revisit where his future lays. And if you truly listen to what Leonard has said about his decision, it’s pretty clear which way he’s leaning.
More Raptors coverage from Yahoo Sports