Anyone who thinks Kawhi Leonard will stay with the Toronto Raptors this summer because of that mind-blowing, buzzer-beating, game-winning jumper at the end of Game 7 on Sunday doesn’t really understand Leonard that well. Leonard is a legend in spite of going completely off script as a superstar. No matter what happens this season in Toronto, it’s always been the case that Leonard is going to do what Leonard wants to do this summer, whether that’s stay in the North, move to Los Angeles, or whatever.
What that incredible shot to vanquish the Sixers did is prove that even if this only lasts until the Raptors are eliminated or win the 2019 championship (whichever comes first), the risk was worth it.
Toronto had a perfectly adequate team before general manager Masai Ujiri traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a pick to the Spurs for Leonard and Danny Green. Given that LeBron James slid over the Western Conference early in free agency, the Raptors would have been justified in running it back. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry had proven they could carry a team deep in the playoffs, and their primary NBA Finals obstacle had removed himself from the situation.
Hasn’t patience proven to be a powerful tool in the NBA this season, after all? Consider the closely fought series to produce the second conference finalist in the West. The Blazers were swept out of the first round by a No. 6 seed last year. The Nuggets didn’t even make the playoffs. Neither team made major changes to their roster last offseason. And here they were, worthy competitors fighting to the last moment for a spot in the conference finals. Patience paid off for them.
Ujiri and the Raptors opted to roll the dice instead, trying to create something greater at risk of conceding stability for the longterm. DeRozan was around for the long run; Leonard could have been a destabilizing rental. (He still could be.) But in that one season guaranteed with Leonard, the Raptors could be great. They could destroy the demons. They could do something more.
And here they were. The bet paid off.
It’s true that the Raptors under DeRozan and Lowry also made the Eastern Conference finals. That incredible shot by Leonard — one that will anchor every Raptors hype video for the near and longterm future, barring a sequel in the next round — aside, Toronto hasn’t actually accomplished anything more than the last version of the team.
Yet thanks to where the Raptors are now, even if a familiar place, the bet on Leonard feels justified. It feels as though the way Toronto got to this point — against a worthy foe in an ultra-close series, with a Raptors’ hero making one of the greatest shots of the millennium — makes whatever happens in July acceptable.
Of course, the Raptors would love for that shot to cement mutual and long-lasting love between Leonard and the people of Toronto. Maybe it will. Maybe Leonard loves warm weather and Doc Rivers a little bit more. We’ll see. But even if Toronto ends up back in the lottery next season because Leonard has fled, for this moment — this rare moment that so few NBA fans experience — it will have been worth it.
These fleeting moments of unbridled joy and unfathomable hope are why anyone gives so much of themselves to be a fan. You stick through the painful losses and the memes and the jokes and the daggers for moments like this. You risk getting burned for that rare opportunity to explode with happiness. Vulnerability is a prerequisite for what Toronto experienced Sunday evening.
Trading for Leonard with no guarantees for next season made the Raptors more vulnerable than ever. At least the DeRozan and Lowry duo for sure wanted to be in Toronto. But the vulnerability created by Leonard’s uncertain future and Raptors fans’ belief in him made Sunday more special. You can’t win big without risking a little. The Raptors did that by betting they could bring Leonard back into the spotlight. It worked.
Now we see if it’s enough to get the Raptors somewhere they’ve never been before: the NBA Finals.