Raptors' organizational excellence vital in player power era

Kawhi Leonard speaks during a press conference on July 24, 2019. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP/Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard speaks during a press conference on July 24, 2019. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP/Getty Images)

Training camp is just about a week away and the NBA is set to resume after the craziest free agency period the league’s ever experienced.

All the behind the scenes of Team X landing Player Y appear to be out of the way and so this seems as good a time as any to reflect on everything that’s happened ahead of the new season.

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To summarize, Kawhi Leonard wanted to go home, as did Kyrie Irving. Kevin Durant made enough Rolodex additions in Silicon Valley and realized the Warriors legacy was being enhanced more than his. Anthony Davis has always looked like a big boy but wanted to play at the high stakes table, too.

We’ve learned that teams across the NBA are in a somewhat helpless position when it comes to players determining their futures and shorter contracts have only further helped expedite that process. Even still, Paul George re-upping with the Oklahoma City Thunder just last summer and two surgically repaired shoulders did little to deter his freedom of movement, while Jimmy Butler’s free agency was dictated by where he wanted to go rather than who had the money to get him and so the cap-space-less Miami Heat came calling.

What does it all mean for the Toronto Raptors, though?

The fact that Leonard became the first ever Finals MVP to immediately leave the team he won a championship will be remembered for some time to come, but it certainly shouldn’t be as an indictment of Toronto as a city nor the Raptors as an organization. By all accounts across the league, they controlled the controllables as well as they possibly could.

Leonard’s departure, like LeBron James leaving Cleveland the first time, has powerful ramifications league-wide and the Raptors just happened to be on the other side of it. Just as the Akron native made it okay for top tier talents to relocate as they saw fit, Leonard has altered the theory of the “legacy team” forever and that’s a good thing for the Raptors, in spite of him leaving.

Players aren’t tempted by adding to the Celtics’ 17 championships or the Lakers’ 16 anymore. Leonard, when asked about having to compete with the Lakers’ storied history simply remarked that the Clippers have been better from a basketball standpoint the last few years. Next season will not be about whether the Raptors can defend their title, but rather, can Kawhi defend his Larry O.B.? This is the conversation the NBA has brought to the forefront, so, now, you can do everything right and there’s a chance it won’t make a difference. Not just if you’re the Raptors, if you’re any team.

Superstars understand how their legacies are defined, and after James showed that making business decisions for rings bring them into the conversations they crave, Durant’s decision to join the Warriors and the end result being the death of the super team has shown that the narrative of how you do it matters, too.

In a world where the news cycle is shrinking at an exponential rate, history means little. That levelling of the playing field is crucial for the Raptors going forward. Can you show players that you currently have a platform where players can make their own history?

Masai Ujiri and the Raptors organization, per Joe Vardon of The Athletic, had been privately upset while publicly saying the right things. Nick Nurse’s first reaction, per Jackie MacMullan of ESPN, to seeing Leonard’s text, “I’m going home,” was to curse, before exhaling. (For what it’s worth, his time in England makes me lean towards picturing that word being bullocks.) But the truth is Ujiri cashed in the brownie points DeMar DeRozan and Dwane Casey helped earn for a championship knowing full well what could happen after. There is no bad guy.

Instead, they should take heart in the fact that the team that whisked Leonard away, like them, invested the time to build up equity that matters today. The Clippers built a legitimate front office around Jerry West and Lawrence Frank, with Doc Rivers’ pristine reputation as a player’s coach also holding significant weight. The franchise has reached the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons and narrowly missed out in 2017-18. They could have let go of the rope after the Tobias Harris trade knowing full well they would lose their draft pick to the Celtics with a postseason appearance and didn’t. They showed plenty of grit and determination in the 2019 playoffs, and still, even with all that, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times reported that Leonard wasn’t going to be convinced without George.

Vince Carter made the point on a conference call ahead of the Jr. NBA Global Championships about the advantage a team has if they can offer the best of both worlds in terms of what a team can accomplish on the court and how comfortable a player can be off it.

“The highlighting thing I took from his (Leonard’s) speech is that he wanted to play at home,” Carter said. “Kyrie is from the [Brooklyn] area so that’s kind of killing two birds with one stone. The same thing can be said with the Clippers.”

If a player can get the best of both worlds, that’s something tough to compete with. That’s why this summer saw the choices of the Clippers ahead of the Lakers, and the Nets instead of the Knicks. With the influx of Canadian talent in the league, Toronto should, in time, be able to reap the benefits of players wanting to be home themselves. The key is continuing to maintain their status as one of the league’s premier organizations in all the ways that matter now.

When Toronto acquired Leonard, Ujiri promised on behalf of the organization that they would stay true to who they’ve been. Now, with Leonard gone and the league ushering in an unprecedented era of player power that’s clearly here to stay, all the Raptors can really do is be their best selves.

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