Kawhi Leonard does things his way. One of the quietest superstars the NBA has ever seen, Leonard’s decision to request a trade out of San Antonio altered the NBA landscape forever. He enjoyed an excellent 2018-19 season in Toronto by leading the Raptors to the title, and he said goodbye to the city the only way he knows how. Let’s look at Leonard’s time in Toronto and how his farewell should be perceived by the fan base.
Rebounding from injury
Throughout the 2017-18 NBA season, Leonard and the Spurs went back and forth about the condition of his quad after rehab and surgery. He wanted a second opinion, and the team (including Leonard’s teammates) questioned his toughness and love for the game. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Leonard, as he felt the loyalty by the organization wasn’t there, even though he had real concerns about returning from injury too soon.
The Spurs traded him to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, and the move instantly made the Raptors title contenders. It could have been viewed as a cold move by the Raptors front office, but when you want to win a championship, sometimes you have to roll the dice.
An MVP candidate in Toronto
When Kawhi Leonard got to the Raptors, the East was in flux, as LeBron James left the conference for the Los Angeles Lakers. James tormented the Raptors and ripped their fans’ hearts out multiple times in the playoffs. The big reason for the trade was losing to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the third season in a row.
That resulted in Raptors GM Masai Ujiri firing head coach Dwayne Casey (who would go on to be named NBA Coach of the Year) and part ways with DeRozan.
Leonard put up excellent numbers in a Raptors uniform, averaging 26 points and seven rebounds per game while leading them to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. He finished in the top five of MVP voting, but would ultimately show his worth in the postseason.
Leonard leads a title run
In the Raptors second-round matchup against the 76ers, they were pushed to the brink. It took a Leonard series-clinching, buzzer-beating jump shot over Joel Embiid (which bounced all over the rim) to send them to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The top two seeds in the Conference faced off as the Raptors faced the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto won the series in six games. Putting the clamps down on defense against the future league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo was startling to see, and they went to the Finals prepared to take down a dynasty.
They stopped the Golden State Warriors (minus Kevin Durant) from pulling off a three-peat, also winning the series in six games. Leonard earned his second NBA Finals MVP award, becoming just the third player to win it with two different teams.
Joining the Clippers
All season long there was heavy speculation that Kawhi Leonard would end up with the Los Angeles Clippers. What fans didn’t expect was that he would team up with Paul George and change the league’s dynamic. Having two of the NBA’s top-10 players in their prime, while keeping the core roster that made them a playoff team, should make the Clippers the favorites to win it all.
Kawhi Leonard says goodbye
Kawhi Leonard is a man of few words, and that showed when he bid Toronto goodbye. Did he do it with a newspaper ad? TV interview? During a press conference? No, he said goodbye to a fanbase willing to offer him free food for life in the most Kawhi Leonard way possible:
“I wanna thank the Toronto Raptor fans…You know, I don’t have social media, so I’m not able to put out a paragraph or whatever.” He finished it off by saying: “I also just want to thank the city as far as the restaurants, you know, giving up that ‘Ka’Wine and Dine‘ throughout the playoffs…I took advantage of that.”
It was straightforward, but it definitely had a heartfelt touch to it. For a player who goes about his business without a lot of fanfare, Leonard’s method was true to form.