What will the NBA’s most mysterious superstar do this summer?
After leading the Toronto Raptors to their first championship in franchise history, Kawhi Leonard has re-emerged on top of the basketball world. Leonard was nearly a forgotten man after a quadriceps injury in the 2017 Western Conference Finals kept him out for all but nine games of the entire 2017-18 NBA season. But he emerged, on a new team in a new conference, and now with a new nickname: King of the North.
That’s a name he stands to forfeit if he chooses to this summer. Leonard has become the best player in basketball, the NBA’s premier two-way playmaker set to wreak absolute havoc with his decision this summer. If he returns to Toronto, the Raptors could very well repeat as NBA champions. If he leaves, Leonard becomes a rogue dynasty destroyer, eliminating everything and everyone standing between him and that Larry O.B.
The latest rumors
Toronto’s trade for Leonard was always viewed as a one-year rental, with his reported desire to go play back home for the LA Clippers. But the Raptors winning an NBA championship flipped that narrative onto its head. So did the Brooklyn Nets, who made the playoffs for the first time since 2015 and have leaped out in front of the pack to land the league’s top free agents. Leonard is notoriously hard to read, though, so take all rumors with a grain of salt.
- June 26: Lakers will get meeting with Leonard, still think they’re in the race
- June 26: Knicks are expecting to.have a meeting with Leonard
- June 26: Multiple teams interested in pairing Leonard with Jimmy Butler
- June 24: Leonard and the Clippers have a meeting tentatively scheduled for July 2
- June 24: Leonard considering re-signing with Raptors on two-year deal with player option on Year 3
How we got here
Leonard’s desire to leave the San Antonio Spurs came as a shock. After all, the Spurs dealt George Hill for the No. 15 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft to select Leonard and add him to their championship team. It was Gregg Popovich who helped develop Leonard into the offensive superstar he has become today. Who knows how his career arcs if San Antonio never pulls the trigger on the draft day deal.
But they did, and he morphed into an NBA Finals MVP seemingly overnight. First Leonard destroyed the Miami Heat dynasty, dethroning them as repeat champions with a convincing 4-1 series win in 2014. Then, he put the Golden State Warriors — who had just added Kevin Durant to a team that won 73 games the season before — on notice in the 2016 Western Conference Finals.
But you know how that story ends. Leonard scored 26 points in 24 minutes, giving the Spurs a 24-point lead at Oracle Arena. Then he landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot coming down from a jump shot in the third quarter. He grabbed his ankle and was helped off the floor, never to play again in that series. The Warriors went on to sweep the series and defeat the Cavaliers for their second championship in three years.
Landing on Pachulia’s foot morphed into a quadriceps injury that strained the relationship between Leonard and the Spurs’ medical team. He eventually sought independent doctors in New York. He played in nine games, but visibly labored and was not the same player the world was accustomed to seeing.
Leonard reportedly requested a trade, and the Los Angeles Clippers seemed to be his preferred destination. San Antonio obliged, but instead sent him and Danny Green to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and the 2019 first-round draft pick they used to select Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson — pennies on the dollar for a player of Leonard’s caliber, injured or not.
The Raptors welcomed Leonard with open arms. His opening-day press conference went viral because he laughed, awkwardly. Toronto didn’t force him to play in back-to-backs and rested him in critical stretches, like three games in four nights. He only played in 60 regular-season games, but it was enough for the Raptors to secure the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
Leonard’s load was managed in the regular season so he could be unleashed in the playoffs. He wreaked havoc on Orlando, sunk the Sixers with a Game 7 rim-tapping buzzer-beater, then dominated the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals after Toronto fell behind 0-2. By the time he got to the NBA Finals, it was the Warriors who were battered, with season-ending injuries to both Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson and other significant injuries to DeMarcus Cousins, Kevon Looney and Andre Iguodala.
Leonard destroyed the Warriors dynasty that had once destroyed him, giving him two Finals MVPs on two different teams. Only LeBron James has done that.
Now, the dynasty destroyer makes the biggest decision of his career. He can either ride it out with Toronto, potentially a short-term deal to maximize this championship window; or head for new skies, reportedly back to his hometown of Los Angeles, or the big city in New York.
No one knows what Leonard’s thinking is. He’s the least public public figure you’ll find in the league. The only thing that’s for sure: no matter where he goes, Kawhi Leonard is going to chase that Larry O.B. And anything standing between him and that trophy will be destroyed along the way.