I have always said that the Toronto Raptors have the best fans in the NBA. As a native Torontonian, I have witnessed the rise of a team that, over the past few years, has turned a town of die-hard hockey fanatics into a blooming basketball city. From the Vince Carter era to the Chris Bosh era to the eventual Eastern Conference powerhouse that was built around DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors have changed the perception of basketball in Canada.
When I say “powerhouse,” though, I should clarify that I mean a regular-season powerhouse. That is, until now.
For the first time in franchise history, the Raptors have made the NBA Finals, and they are giving a legendary Golden State team everything it can handle. And the reason for that success is singular: Kawhi Leonard.
Though the decision to move on from the team’s homegrown franchise cornerstone, DeRozan, was both emotional and controversial, general manager Masai Ujiri realized something that many managers still don’t — the worst possible position in the NBA is one of consistent mediocrity. By taking a risk and pulling the trigger on Leonard, he put an immediate jetpack on the team’s trajectory.
The so-called “King of the North” has catapulted Toronto over its previously insurmountable hump, and for once, an entire nation can smell an NBA ring.
The Raptors’ fan base is simply built differently. When you have virtually an entire country rooting for you, that is automatically going to set you apart.
Even within the city of Toronto, the team boasts one of the league’s most diverse groups of fans, and their energy is contagious. Watching the viewing area outside of Scotiabank Arena, known as “Jurassic Park,” completely fill up hours before tipoff is one of the most incredible phenomena in all of professional basketball.
While rumors have been flooding in that Leonard wants to return to Los Angeles, I predicted that he would stay in Toronto from the day he was traded there, and I stand by that. The only way I could see him leaving is if it truly were a decision primarily made with regard for being closer to family.
While going to the Lakers would undeniably make the team an immediate contender, it doesn’t make sense for multiple reasons. For one, Leonard has implied that he wishes to be seen as a true franchise player, and playing under the shadow of LeBron James would clearly inhibit that. Additionally, Leonard has always been one to shy away from the spotlight, and the Lakers probably have the most media coverage of any team in the league, not to mention the paparazzi within the city itself.
As for the Clippers, their roster is clearly less talented than the Raptors’ in the short term, and unless they can clear enough cap space to add another star, I do not see them having any chance to make it out of the West.
Winning postseason basketball games is fun, and Toronto knows that the way to keep that tradition going is to lock up their superstar.
Fans have shown Leonard their dedication through countless means, highlighted by the “Ka’Wine and Dine” trend, which has seen a plethora of restaurants offering the Los Angeles-born forward free food for as long as he stays in the city. That’s not to mention a real estate agency that has offered him a free multimillion-dollar penthouse from a selection of luxury high-rises.
That’s how bad Toronto wants to keep this thing going. The team knows that it is right on the brink of a championship. Leonard himself should know that, regardless of what happens over the next couple weeks, the Raptors will provide him with a quality chance at a ring for at least the next few years.
For one, the Eastern Conference has proved to provide the easiest path to the finals, and given Leonard’s injury history, I doubt he would mind being able to coast a little through the regular season without sacrificing seeding. While the Raptors’ roster features aging veterans such as Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, the team also has some young guys who have the potential to keep this team in contention for years to come.
Additionally, more than half of the players on Toronto’s roster are in their first year with the team, which also has a new head coach, so more time to build chemistry together will only make the Raptors more lethal in the coming seasons.
Pascal Siakam has shown legitimate all-star potential, as he has developed a versatile all-around game to complement his freakish athleticism. OG Anunoby is a physical wing who is already a quality 3-and-D player at only 21 years old, and third-year point guard Fred VanVleet has been playing better than Lowry so far in the finals.
In my opinion, it doesn’t get much better than what Leonard has right now. He is the face of one of the world’s most famous cities and took a team stuck in basketball purgatory to its first NBA Finals in his first year.
While there are questions regarding the ages of key players, Toronto has set itself up for continued success in the future, and there is no other destination where Leonard would have the same combination of culture, talent and exposure that he currently gets in the North. Only time will tell what he will do, but if he stays, I don’t see many universes in which he regrets the decision.