Has there been a more tender wooing than the Toronto Raptors’ pursuit of Kawhi Leonard, their presumptive star? Perhaps Prince Harry pitched a sweeter song to his intended Meghan Markle. But were the chocolates and flowers from the palace more passionate and pleading than the Raptors’ entreaties to their meal ticket to stay in Toronto?
I doubt it.
To soothe Leonard from the rigours of the National Basketball Association’s regular season, the team has given him nights off to rest and rehab from various hurts. “Load management,” they call it.
Granted, Leonard suffered a series of injuries last season with San Antonio that caused him to miss much of his last campaign with the Spurs.
Last week saw another hearts-and-flowers session from the Raps in the direction of Leonard. He was a force in the lineup as the Raptors hammered their rival Boston Celtics on Tuesday. But by Sunday, it was back to the bench in the overtime loss to Detroit.
Fans of the team call it a load of something else.
The end game in this Leonard love is to convince him to stay in Toronto past this year, when his contract expires. The betting around the NBA is he won’t stay, preferring to go to his native southern California. Leonard isn’t letting on.
Were this an exceptional circumstance for Leonard, people might understand. But the skilled small forward has long exhibited self interest of a special type. In San Antonio, Leonard struggled with injures to his shoulder and right leg. When Spurs doctors told him he was healthy enough to play, Leonard sought a second opinion.
His teammates held a meeting to declare that they thought that Leonard should get his butt back on court pronto. But Leonard refused and didn’t play another game the rest of the 2018-19 season.
To say there was bitterness when the Spurs lost in the playoffs without their transcendent star would be an understatement.
So no one was surprised when the Spurs unburdened themselves of Leonard in the summer. The real surprise was in Leonard’s landing spot, in Canada with the Raptors. Few saw Toronto being that aggressive. But with LeBron James taking his talents to L.A., the Eastern Conference looked open to the management of the Raptors.
Leonard could be the Raptors’ equivalent of the Toronto Blue Jays’ acquisition of David Price, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin. Just what they needed to jump-start a playoff run and a possible trip to the finals for slaughter at the hands of Golden State.
No matter, the deal was a shocker. Toronto has been in the NBA since 1995 but to many players it might as well be Mars for its attraction to free agents.
This time, Toronto was sure it could make Leonard love the shores of Lake Ontario in a hockey town.
The deal cost the Raptors dearly as much-loved star DeMar DeRozan was packaged off to San Antonio for Leonard. So it would not be an exaggeration to say that the franchise had pushed all its chips to the centre of the table in bringing Leonard to Canada.
Fans looking for Leonard to embrace the city after the trade were disabused of the notion over the off-season. There was no welcome to Toronto press conference, no round of media availabilities at the Scotiabank Arena, no pictures of Leonard in a Toronto jersey until he grudgingly showed up for his contracted appliances at training camp.
When the pre-season started and Leonard wasn’t in the lineup, fans contented themselves with the idea that his energies were being marshalled for the long regular season ahead. When his load management plan kicked in during the early season, they told themselves he was being saved for the stretch run and post-season.
But when Leonard was missing in losses as recently as Sunday that his talent could have changed, the feeling among fans was less philosophical. If Leonard is indeed flying the coop, the thinking goes, why are we not getting everything we can out of him? If we’re to see DeRozan star long term in San Antonio, our compensation should be Leonard playing full time in the short term in Toronto.
Leonard is saying nothing abut his state of mind. When he does play, he’s worth the price of admission. When he doesn’t, the results are annoying for fans.
Meanwhile, the NBA roils with possible destinations for Leonard. And none of those destinations start with T and end with O.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.