clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Inside the Raptors’ big bet on Kawhi Leonard loving their culture

New, comments

The Raptors’ preseason has been quiet, hard, and fun — just the way they like it

VANCOUVER — In front of a capacity-crowd at the Rogers Arena for the Toronto Raptors’ first preseason game, the anxieties attached to the biggest season in franchise history fell away.

Jonas Valanciunas, who was just getting the hang of dribble hand-offs last season, secured a rebound and launched an outlet pass to Kyle Lowry. The ball didn’t even hit the ground before Lowry shuffled a behind-the-back touch-pass to new addition Kawhi Leonard. Leonard gave it back and Lowry got fouled before trying one last wrap-around pass, a split-second short of putting a bow on the play.

The whistle was irrelevant, for what materialized was far more important than a lost preseason bucket: Lowry and Leonard, over-passing, smiling, and high-fiving at the dead ball. After the questions facing the Raptors all summer — the tenability of rookie coach Nick Nurse’s try-anything-once ethos, Leonard’s health and dedication, Lowry’s mood after his best friend DeMar DeRozan was traded — the moment was a portrait of a team-wide realization: man, this could be special.

At training camp, the excitement Leonard expressed about his teammates, his new coach, and the Raptors’ ceiling allowed the season’s massive stakes — a one-year trial run to convince Leonard to stay once his contract expires — to recede into the background.

“I look at it as a day-to-day process,” Leonard said on media day. “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 into the future you’re going to trip over the present.”

As a result, despite the pressure to deliver never being higher, the process reigned supreme. Hell, elastic 6’9 forward Pascal Siakam got as much play as Leonard. On Serge Ibaka’s new cooking show, where he subjects loved ones to sparingly seasoned soft torture, Siakam said if the game was on the line, he’d shake and bake and try to find Fred VanVleet for an open shot. On two different occasions in that preseason opener, Siakam galloped up the floor in transition, penetrated into the middle and kicked the ball to VanVleet for three.

”We flipped over,” VanVleet said. “You’ll see a lot more of him bringing it up and me shooting.”

The Raptors made a big gamble this offseason in trading DeRozan for Leonard. As they begin the 2018-19 season, they have all they could have asked for at this stage: a healthy, engaged Leonard and the right to control their own destiny by sweating the small stuff.

In lieu of huddling at the end of every training camp practice, the players lined up in a circle at mid-court. Not a huddle. A circle.

Huddles lend themselves to hierarchies. Only the tallest go unseen as players cram into the middle, where one guy usually does all the talking. A circle, which guarantees eye contact and mutual attention, is an “open forum,” according to Nurse.

At the end, a member of the coaching staff hopped into the middle, sometimes to impart a lesson or two, or to give away prizes to the day’s leader in a chosen category — steals, deflections, one-on-one play, or something else. On the second day, for example, VanVleet secured assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren’s WWE belt for winning a two-on-two competition.

“I think it’s turning into a moment they all look forward to to see what’s gonna happen,” Nurse said.

“September” by Earth, Wind & Fire opened every practice and a sense of levity — a mood generally reserved for teams ailing from losing their stars and no longer facing championship expectations, not acquiring one — lingered through the air.

Danny Green, who arrived with Leonard in the blockbuster trade with the Spurs, said this atmosphere is lighter and more collaborative than San Antonio’s. The coaching staff has already solicited his input on defensive coverages.

“He’s super smart, super veteran player,” Nurse said. “You’d be silly not to listen to him.”

NBA: Preseason-Melbourne United at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

In Lowry and Leonard, the Raptors have two quieter players atop the roster, but they’re armed elsewhere with heady communicators in Green, VanVleet, and C.J. Miles. VanVleet in particular emerged as a natural leader last season, the rare role player who commanded the attention of both Lowry and DeRozan.

Nurse’s collective approach could end up being a necessary salve against the risk of a leadership vacuum developing, especially when conflict, in a season where the uncertainty of Leonard’s contract status governs the season, is an inevitability.

The Raptors will go to Los Angeles twice, where speculation will run abound about Leonard’s future. Occasional rumors about his ‘preferred destination’ will have to be addressed while the front office embarks on the tricky balance of accommodating Leonard without appearing as though they’re giving him special treatment.

All the while, Nurse’s experimental bent — trading continuity for creativity — could shake up the starting lineup and bench. Nurse wants to imbue his players with the confidence to make their own decisions, but they’ll have to see the court to do that. The fact that there are only so many minutes for a hoard of swingmen in OG Anunoby, Green, Miles, Norman Powell, and Delon Wright is a good problem for now. When the experiments cease and the concrete thickens, it’ll lead to tough conversations with competitive, prideful guys, many of whom are chomping at the bit to reclaim their mantle after individual and personal disappointments last year.

On media day, flanked by Green and Leonard, team president Masai Ujiri decided reporters asked one too many questions about Toronto’s viability as an attractive market for a superstar.

“The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone,” he announced. “I think that’s old and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourself. We have a privilege and an opportunity to be one of the NBA teams here. It’s our jobs to try and sell it to these players here, but we’re proud of who we are, we’re proud to have these guys.”

He sounded frustrated with a city that reacted to his big offseason bet by implying he thought too highly of Toronto, but that feeling ends at the locker-room entrance. The Raptors are filled to the brim with people who have shattered so many limits they no longer believe they exist. That includes Ujiri, who immigrated from Nigeria and became one of the world’s top sports executives.

VanVleet grew up in America’s most crime-ridden cities, went undrafted in 2016, and signed an $18-million contract last season. Powell, who grew up rationing lunch money, signed a four-year extension last year despite being the 46th pick in the NBA draft. This offseason, his coaches had to insist he take two vacations, lest he wear himself down.

Valanciunas, in violation of every probability, became a three-point shooting, passing big man last year. This year, he wants to snap outlet passes, improve his decision-making skills, and improve his lateral quickness. Siakam, born in a village in Cameroon, entered the league as a rim-runner; he could lead the break and switch defensively onto all five positions this year.

NBA: Preseason-Melbourne United at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors have quietly assembled a team of serious, unassuming toilers, where the staff never worries about tracking anybody down to watch extra tape. Theirs is an ethos of constant self-improvement shared by the two newcomers — Green, who was cut twice, playing in the D-League and overseas before finding a consistent NBA home, and Leonard, a mere defensive stopper when he entered the league.

Training camp caveats notwithstanding, the former Spurs have both fit in like gloves. That shouldn’t be surprising, as the Raptors have slowly built this button-up professionalism for years. For all the criticism about the media ignoring them, they don’t seek out much attention.

It has all culminated to give the Raptors the air of a self-contained experiment that will soon be unleashed to the world. They have the infrastructure: the state-of-the-art practice facility, the G-League team, one of the league’s best medical staffs, a bold leader, and maybe even a bolder coach. They might even have the market.

Now, they have the player who will put it all to the test. It will come down, as everything for the past five years has, to the work.