- Kawhi Leonard holds all the cards. At once he controls how far the Raptors will go in these NBA playoffs and what decisions they might make this summer.
In hindsight, the Raptors trade for Kawhi Leonard in July 2018 was a no-brainer. Toronto went from paper tiger to legitimate Finals contender over the course of 10 months, now tied 2–2 with the 76ers as the Eastern Conference semifinals return to Toronto on Tuesday night. Leonard has been downright spectacular in the postseason, averaging 32.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 58.7% shooting. Sunday’s 39-point, 14-rebound effort was another masterpiece. Yet Leonard’s brilliant performance in a losing effort illuminated Toronto’s tenuous future. The Raptors may need to reach the Finals to retain Leonard in free agency, but they won’t sniff the East crown unless their star forward continues his run of superhuman performances. Losing to Philadelphia could send the most talented player in franchise history out the door.
There’s little sense in projecting the exact destination Leonard will settle on in July, though its safe to say a second-round exit can’t help Toronto’s offseason chances. Postseason success is likely the lone advantage the Raptors can hold over the Clippers, Lakers, Knicks and others. Four wins over Orlando won’t satisfy the requirements. Selling a pre-Finals exit as unfinished business is unlikely to get the job done, either. The pitch made sense for Paul George and Oklahoma City. It’s unlikely to do the same for Leonard north of the border. George’s bond with Westbrook is significant. There’s no dynamic duo of note in Toronto. Leonard's closest connection in Toronto is with another free agent, Danny Green.
The future will be as bright as ever in The Six if Leonard sticks around. The Raptors will have a top-flight superstar surrounded by a combination of battle-tested veterans and young talent, able to act prudently toward the future without a ticking clock on their franchise star. Pascal Siakam will be able to grow without a star’s burden, while Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol will age gracefully with their flaws masked by the 2014 Finals MVP. If Leonard stays, Masai Ujiri’s deal will go down as one of the greatest in recent memory.
Earning a long-term commitment from Leonard has been a critical objective for Toronto all season. A failure to retain his services would create a messy future, with a rebuild on the way in the very near future, which would spell the end of six straight playoff appearances. So what does a Kawhi-less future look like? The picture isn’t pretty.
Toronto’s first question would come in the frontcourt with a decision largely out of its control. Marc Gasol will face a player option of $25.6 million, a hefty payday for an aging center. If it’s a matter of money, expect Big Spain to quickly opt in. Another year of Gasol could create a one-year contention window even without Leonard. Both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka come off the books following the 2019-20 season, likely spurring a wholesale rebuild in two summers. In the meantime, Toronto could look to nurture Siakam as a lead option as the veteran trio scraps for a middling seed in the East playoff race. The scenario is far from the most sexy option, though it will allow Toronto a year to fully prepare for the next decade while logging another playoff appearance. A shred of competence will earn at least the eight seed in the East.
The Raptors could also embrace the nuclear option if Leonard leaves, and complete destruction may be the prudent move. Lowry, Ibaka and Gasol don’t represent the franchise's future, especially so if Kawhi heads to a larger locale. Landing draft assets and young talent for the veteran trio can provide a quality war chest for Ujiri as Siakam, OG Anunoby and Norman Powell develop. Perhaps Fred VanVleet regains his regular-season form after a dismal playoffs. The Raptors' ceiling post Leonard is clearly limited given its current roster. Better to begin the rebuild one year too early than one year too late.
It’s frankly a touch depressing discussing Toronto’s future with Leonard’s brilliance currently on full display. He’s now at the height of his powers, arguably more dominant than during his pre-Zaza Pachulia injury in the 2017 playoffs. There’s no spot Leonard can’t bully his way to; nearly every look is clean. Only Kevin Durant generates such easy jumpers inside the arc. Leonard has an argument against Giannis as the best player in the East, and a run to the Finals could make Leonard the best player alive.
Whomever snags Leonard in the offseason will have their fortunes changed for the foreseeable future, immediately vaulted into the Finals discussion. DeMar DeRozan was never going to win the East. Even one year of Leonard is worth the deal. There’s not much left for Ujiri to do with Leonard firmly in control of Toronto’s future. The Raptors’ best chance to keep their star lie with the man himself, as Leonard aims to carry the franchise to its first-ever Finals. Anything short of the East crown will likely spell a reset in the next decade.