When news hit this morning about Kawhi Leonard getting traded to the Toronto Raptors, the reactions I saw from Clippers’ fans were mixed. Some were bummed that the Clippers weren’t able to make the deal for him. Others were happy because they didn’t want to trade away guys they have grown attached to (Tobias Harris, Pat Beverley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) for Kawhi, an injury risk and a potential rental. The rest mostly shrugged, having been unconvinced the Clippers would really land him anyway.
However, I’d like to suggest that the hunt for Kawhi might be just getting started. Despite the fact that Toronto seems like a lock for 60 wins and a top 3 seed if Kawhi is healthy, despite Toronto being a fantastic city (for basketball and everything else), and despite the Raptors’ desire to make this work… there’s still a good chance that Kawhi has no desire to play for the Raptors. Now, it seems unlikely he would refuse to report, as he would lose money for every game missed, and it would drastically harm his free agency stock. That still doesn’t rule out the possibility that Kawhi informs the Raptors he won’t re-sign with them under any circumstances next summer, and that if they keep him it’s entirely a one-year rental.
If Kawhi does make such a statement (not likely, but very possible), it is impossible to predict what happens next. Toronto could keep him all year, hoping that the likelihood of a strong team and a deep playoff run (potentially even a Finals appearance) would be enough to sway him to stay in Toronto, similarly to Paul George in Oklahoma City. They would rely on their culture, their city, and the strength of their team to convince Kawhi Toronto could be his home for the remainder of his prime. It’s happened before, and it could certainly happen again, particularly for a situation as good as Toronto’s and a player as mercurial as Kawhi.
The Raptors could also decide that even if they don’t think Kawhi is staying, they’d rather have him for one year and reap all the benefits that would bring, even if he walks in summer. Making a trip to the Conference Finals is never a bad thing, and having a legitimate superstar could open up new marketing and media doors for the Raptors that were previously closed. Additionally, the Raptors still have a terrific group of young talent, enabling a pivot towards a rebuild if Kawhi departs. It’s not ideal to not get anything in return for him, but clearing DeMar’s contract off the books for following years will grant them greater flexibility, Kawhi or no.
The other option is, of course, that the Raptors decide that they’d rather get something for Kawhi while they still can, and begin shopping him to teams where he might re-sign next summer (Zach Lowe said as much in his fantastic piece on the Kawhi trade yesterday). One of those teams, by all accounts, is the Clippers. There are two possibilities here: one is that the Raptors trade him before the season starts to get a full year with the return pieces, and the other is that the Raptors have Kawhi play for a bit to rehabilitate his value before the trade. Watching him play and (hopefully) reach his 2016-2017 peak would be a great relief for the Clippers, but it would also up the tag on Kawhi’s trade value significantly. Still, the two great risks with trading for Kawhi are his injury situation and the possibility he doesn’t re-sign with the team next summer. Eliminating one of those (if not both, as Kawhi could inform the Clippers he would re-sign if they trade for him) would make giving up real assets (Harris, Gilgeous-Alexander) far less of a risk.
While it seems unlikely that news of Kawhi’s attitude towards the Raptors (and vice-versa) will start coming out anytime soon, it is something to monitor as we head closer towards the season. Having Kawhi pout his way off another team (this time one who gave up a lot to get him) would not be a good look for his brand, so I suspect that he and his team give the Raptors at least somewhat of a chance to pitch him. Still, it is very possible that just a month from now, Kawhi trade rumors will be starting up all over again. And this time, with the seeming knowledge that he really is interested in only Los Angeles (and maybe one or two other places), the Clippers could have a real edge.