Bruce Arthur: Raptors unveil a smiling, happy Kawhi Leonard
|Toronto Star 24 Sep 2018 at 16:03|
In every moment a moment, in every moment a meme. Kawhi Leonard was finally unveiled as a Toronto Raptor on Monday. He smiled, did you see? He actually smiled. And that laugh! That creaking, awkward, charming laugh. On the other hand, sometimes he was expressionless, and Kawhi Leonard’s resting face mostly looks like that of a man contemplating the sea and the horizon, wondering whether he will ever escape this cursed island, or whether he is doomed.
“I’m a fun guy,” were Kawhi’s first public words as a Raptor. “Obviously, I love the game of basketball.” At the end of the next sentence, he laughed that laugh. Maybe it signalled he will leave at the end of one season in Toronto to join the Clippers; maybe it meant he will stay. It was hard to tell from the first day.
But that’s what we wanted to know, right? We want to skip to the end, where a city whose basketball team was long defined by the icons who left gets to find out whether one of the five best basketball players on the planet likes it well enough here to stay. So much is riding on that decision for the Raptors. With Kawhi Leonard, you can contend for championships, really contend. Without him, you start the search for greatness again.
He had no interest in Toronto before he was traded here. He wanted to play in L.A., and maybe a few other places. But he was traded here. So, there were questions.
“I want to play here,” said Leonard. “You know, as long as I have on a jersey I want to play basketball. I came here with an open mind. I want to do great things, so I’m going to make sure that I put my all effort on the court, each and every night, and by winning games this is how you get star-calibre players to want to come here and play.”
But what do you want, really? Like, from life and your career?
“Just being able to be healthy,” said Leonard. “That’s my No. 1 goal. Have a long-term career. To be able to be dominant wherever I land, and that’s about it. I want to win championships and get in those record books.”
So do you view it as a long-term thing? Maybe? Just give us a hint here, a little hint. Wink if you need to.
“I look at it as a day-to-day process. Like I said, my focus is on this year, this group that I have, and striving to get to a championship. We all want to win, and if you’re looking in the future you’re going to trip over the present. So what I’m focused on is this year, tomorrow, and just get going after that.”
These were all reasonable answers to questions that can’t really be answered right now. A season is a long time. People’s minds can change, and change again.
All you can say is so far it’s been fine. They didn’t do a Friday press conference to forestall media day being all about Kawhi because Raptors president Masai Ujiri was in New York for board of governors’ meetings. People in the organization have been impressed so far. Leonard was even as comfortable in his 20-minute podium and subsequent media one-on-ones as he ever is. He seems to be making the best of it. Limited sample size, clearly.
“For us, I’ve said it before: There’s not going to be any oversell,” said Ujiri, when he wasn’t passionately defending Toronto and ridiculing the city’s insecurity. “Kawhi is a superstar, Danny (Green) is a championship player and we have to be us. It’s left to the fans, it’s left to all of you to show these guys what a great city this is, what a great organization we think we have here and give them all the resources, give them the platform to win. I think hopefully that does show these these guys what kind of organization we have, shows Kawhi what kind organization this is. We’re extremely excited about it.”
The real question is what Leonard really wants, and whether it can be found in Toronto. According to sources familiar with Leonard and his closest representatives, the 27-year-old believes — correctly — that he is a generational basketball talent, a Hall of Famer in progress. And after being made to wear Tim Duncan’s aw-shucks superstar clothes in little San Antonio, he wants to be celebrated in a bigger way.
So according to those same sources, when he was on the market, the teams Leonard was theoretically willing to consider an extension with weren’t just the Lakers or the Clippers: they were also the Philadelphia 76ers, the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets. Not just warm-weather markets: big markets with big platforms, and a chance to be a titan.
Can Toronto give him that? It’s a huge market, but can it truly compare to U.S. cities for hype and glory? Can Toronto give him a better chance at titles than the Clippers or Knicks or Nets? If you really listened to Kawhi Leonard on Monday, you heard what he wants. He wants to do great things. Winning is how you get all-star calibre players to come here and play. He wants to win championships, and get in those record books.
The Raptors have kids with potential, and a rookie coach who talks about giving players freedom in the same way his favourite musicians had freedom between the notes. They have Kyle Lowry as the team’s second-best player, raring to go but still angry with the front office for trading his best friend. And they have a 59-win team and franchise that will try to convince one of the five best players in the world that this is a big enough market, a wide enough platform, and most of all, a team that can truly contend for a championship, now and in the future.