The Toronto Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Clippers, and while that stinks on some level, it’s also OK. The Raptors got everything they wanted out of their year-long stint with 2019’s best player, and they’re set to rebuild for the future.
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri made one of the gutsiest calls in recent league history when he shipped out a fan-favorite All-Star and fired the Coach of the Year following a 59-win season. Losing DeMar DeRozan for a version of Leonard we didn’t know was healthy and handing the team over to assistant coach Nick Nurse could have been unforgivable if it failed.
Instead, 2018-19 will be remember as the best year in Canadian basketball history, and Ujiri is forever a legend. Stories of the four bounces on Leonard’s shot to beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals will be passed down for years. Memories from the team’s first-ever championship parade will live on. Toronto basketball has never lived a higher high, all made possible by Leonard’s heroic efforts throughout the entire playoffs. This is what Toronto wanted, and it got it.
All didn’t go perfectly, of course: the honeymoon would’ve been Leonard’s long-term commitment to winning multiple titles in Toronto. But Ujiri has the Raptors covered to retool in myriad ways. Keeping Leonard was never assumed, nor was it a boom-or-bust scenario for the franchise.
First, the Raptors are good enough to stay in playoff contention this season, and that can’t be said for all franchises who lose a cornerstone. Kyle Lowry is still one of the league’s best point guards, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka make for some of the best center depth in the league, and Pascal Siakam is a budding All-Star on a discount rookie salary. That core can crack the top-8 in the East.
But the Raptors can reboot almost entirely and clear the books if it chooses next season, too. Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Gasol will all become unrestricted free agents, while the team can make Siakam, the league’s Most Improved Player, a restricted free agent. In the summer of 2020, the Raptors can decide who makes sense for their next title run, and clear the rest of their roster to create cap space to pursue whoever they wish in free agency. Norman Powell’s $10 million is the only contract definitively on the books through the 2020-21 season.
The luxury isn’t just in the cap availability either. The Raptors kept all of their first-round picks while building their powerhouse team, doling out just their 2021, 2022, and 2024 second-round picks to get present talent. If free agency is a bummer, rebuilding is on the table, too. So is trading for another superstar to team with Siakam
The Toronto Raptors aren’t likely to join the conversation for back-to-back titles without Leonard, but they could be back soon enough. Ujiri’s risks were calculated to keep the franchise afloat even if the Leonard experience flunked.
The best part is that it didn’t flunk.