“Enjoy this moment, and have fun with it.”
That was Kawhi Leonard’s advice to Raptors fans at the team’s first championship parade in mid-June. It ended up doubling as his farewell.
In the weeks that followed, Leonard would meet with Toronto, the Lakers and Clippers to decide his future. The Finals MVP on Saturday morning agreed to join the Clippers, where he will team up with Paul George. (George’s trade request from the Thunder to the Clippers was fulfilled Saturday morning, too.)
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The Raptors always knew there was a chance Leonard would leave this offseason after the quiet star made his way from San Antonio through a blockbuster trade last summer. Winning the title kept the Raptors in the hunt for Leonard. The Clippers won out, while the Lakers turned to roller-coaster center DeMarcus Cousins as Plan B.
Toronto’s first response was to publicly thank Leonard and Danny Green — who also left in free agency — for helping it make history.
Now, where do they go from here?
In a wide open Eastern Conference, the Raptors are likely a middle-of-the pack playoff team at best
Pascal Siakam, the 25-year-old power forward, is expected to become the club’s go-to guy for now and years to come. Postseason hero Fred VanVleet, 25, and OG Anunoby, 21, are solid complementary pieces to move forward with, though nothing else is certain.
If Leonard returned to Toronto, many suggested it likely would have been on a one-year deal to try and defend the championship. Veterans Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and even VanVleet will be eligible for free agency after this season — leaving mastermind GM Masai Ujiri with $90 million to work with in an underwhelming free-agent class headlined by Anthony Davis, who is expected to stay in Lakers land and Draymond Green.
The real prize awaits a summer later when regular-season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo could leave the Bucks to sign elsewhere. Leonard’s experience north of the boarder could make the city an attractive destination for Antetokounmpo and others.
Remaining in contention will be a tall task for Ujiri, who was faced with two questions from Leonard when the superstar arrived last summer.
“He wanted to know if I was staying in Toronto and he wanted to know how we could make the team better,” Uijiri recently revealed to reporters. “He didn’t ask about anything else, all the sideshows or anything.”
Leonard may be gone, but both questions remain.