THE FIRST MEETING Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse had with Kawhi Leonard got here with trepidation.
As Nurse walked down the corridor from his workplace contained in the workforce’s observe facility to the coach’s assembly room final July, simply weeks after being named Toronto’s head coach, uncertainty loomed massive. Nurse had heard that Leonard won’t have been joyful along with his commerce vacation spot and that some individuals throughout the Raptors group have been lower than thrilled beloved franchise icon, DeMar DeRozan, had been despatched to San Antonio in alternate.
“So right here we’re in a gathering,” Nurse mentioned final week inside that very same workplace, “and I used to be pondering: What if this man simply sits there and says, ‘I am not prepared to speak to anyone but?’ What am I gonna do?”
It turned out that Nurse had nothing to fear about. When the assembly began, he requested Leonard if he had any questions. The star ahead mentioned sure.
The remainder, Nurse mentioned, took care of itself.
“Subsequent factor , it led to me being on the board, drawing performs, with him standing up there with me,” Nurse mentioned. “It was an fascinating first assembly. He was tremendous participating, and his basketball thoughts was superior, and it was enjoyable.”
It was the second Leonard’s integration into his new workforce started. Within the months since, Leonard has turn out to be the clear go-to man on a workforce that has probably the most wins within the NBA this season. The Raptors additionally hope it was the second they can level to as laying the inspiration for a years-long relationship with the pending free agent.
“We’re taking part in properly,” Leonard advised ESPN. “It is quite a bit to make an adjustment to be right here. It is totally different. It is a totally different tradition, a distinct mindset than what me and Danny [Green] are coming from.”
As soon as they acquired Leonard, the Raptors knew they’d loads of floor to make up to convince him to stay past this season.
Like the remainder of the highest free brokers on this yr’s class — together with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson — Leonard has the prior accomplishments, together with a championship ring and Finals MVP award, that enable him the liberty to make the selection that makes him happiest on a private stage this summer season.
It was no secret that as his time in San Antonio was coming to an finish final summer season, Leonard’s want was to return to his native Southern California. In the meantime, getting a learn on Leonard’s pondering — in contrast to with Paul George throughout his first season with the Oklahoma Metropolis Thunder — was at all times going to be tough.
Toronto knew its solely respectable likelihood to get Leonard for the long run was to commerce for him first, then spend the higher a part of a yr promoting him on its imaginative and prescient for a shared future — one with the two-way star because the franchise’s centerpiece.
FROM THE MOMENT the Raptors traded for Leonard, they started planning for July 1, when Leonard will hit free company and Toronto will try to convince him to stay the face of this group. The Raptors will level to all the particulars, each on and off the court docket, that they consider tip the scales of their favor — particulars Leonard may have spent a complete season seeing firsthand.
“You can at all times make that pitch, [and] you can consider it,” Raptors normal supervisor Bobby Webster mentioned. “However skilled athletes see it, and so they are available, and so they know the distinction between organizations. To reside it, and to be right here, you see it, and you reside it each single day. They know in case you’re bulls—-ing them.”
For his half, Leonard declined to say what his priorities shall be when he decides the place to play subsequent season.
“I am not desirous about that,” he advised ESPN. “I am centered on proper now, what that is bringing for me and centered on the chance that I’ve right here and what we can do that season.
“Later down the street, that is once I’ll make my resolution.”
Webster and Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri are optimistic about their probabilities when Leonard does make his resolution, for loads of causes. Toronto won at the least 51 video games in every of the three seasons prior to Leonard’s arrival and enters Thursday night time’s recreation towards the Spurs with a league-high 28 wins. FiveThirtyEight’s NBA projections give the Raptors a 38 % likelihood to attain the NBA Finals, one thing Toronto has by no means performed.
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Toronto can be positioned to be aggressive for years to come. That’s thanks, partially, to confirmed success discovering contributors with both late first-round picks (Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Delon Wright), second-round picks (Norman Powell) or undrafted free brokers (Fred VanVleet). Additionally, beginning in 2020, the Raptors have a wide-open salary-cap sheet, with just one participant (Powell) signed to a assured contract. This may enable them to be versatile in reshaping the roster sooner or later round Leonard, ought to he select to stay. In Ujiri, the Raptors have a head of basketball operations who has proven a willingness to make daring selections, together with two this summer season alone: buying and selling for Leonard and selling Nurse to change the beforehand fired Dwane Casey, who was final season’s NBA Coach of the 12 months.
Though Toronto was as soon as seen as a distant NBA outpost, one gamers weren’t keen to stay in or go to, the Raptors do not see that because the case anymore. In a league that has extra worldwide gamers than ever, the thought of dwelling and taking part in abroad is now not the deterring issue it as soon as was, particularly for a gaggle of worldwide stars approaching free company — from Kristaps Porzingis to Giannis Antetokounmpo to the bevy of younger Canadian expertise that has entered the league in recent times.
Whereas the Raptors consider they’ve loads to supply past the court docket — the huge advertising and marketing potential that comes with dwelling in one among North America’s greatest cities and a vibrant, passionate fan base — privately, the franchise is assured in its talents to make a compelling pitch primarily based on basketball causes.
“Once we got here aboard six years in the past, we wished to carry this group to a stage the place you can make this pitch,” Webster mentioned. “So you’ve gotten power in excellence across the group — the basketball aspect, the teaching employees, the medical and assist employees, clearly possession — to the place when we now have a famous person participant, an MVP-candidate-type participant, now we can go to him and say, ‘We’re actually assured in who we’re, we’re actually pleased with what we have constructed, and these are all of the the explanation why we expect you need to stay.'”
IN HIS FINAL season in San Antonio, Leonard was hampered by tendinopathy in his left quad, and the following breakdown in belief between him and the Spurs, as he performed simply 9 video games, led to the 2 sides parting methods by way of commerce this summer season. The Raptors knew the very first thing they’d have to do was show to Leonard that director of sports activities science Alex McKechnie and the workforce’s coaching employees might assist preserve him wholesome and prepared to play on a nightly foundation. That may enable them to construct the form of relationship mandatory to preserve Leonard in Toronto past this season.
Thus far, the Raptors group feels good about how that has gone. In coordination with Leonard, the workforce has held him out of at the least one-half of every of its back-to-back units this season — a observe Nurse has mentioned might finish as soon as this weekend. However after Leonard mentioned at media day that his No. 1 aim was to have a “lengthy, wholesome profession,” the Raptors are hoping the diligence with which they’ve labored with Leonard to preserve him wholesome to date can pay dividends not solely over the ultimate few months of this season but additionally when he decides this summer season.
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“The eye to element on the medical aspect is one thing we put an enormous emphasis on from the beginning,” Webster mentioned. “This even goes again to July and first assembly him right here and doing the physicals. Even a part of his exercises in San Diego all the best way to arising right here [for the season] … I feel that relationship is so private, actually, for any of those skilled athletes, so far as maintaining their physique in line, and so having Alex and our total medical employees has been an enormous plus.”
After lacking virtually all of final season, Leonard credited Toronto for working with him to progressively construct himself again into the participant either side need him to be when the playoffs begin in mid-April.
“Simply coming into the season, I nonetheless wasn’t going by means of coaching camp at 100 %,” Leonard mentioned. “They positively understood the place I used to be and the place I wanted to get to, and simply taking my time and so they’re taking their time with me and simply ensuring that everybody is wholesome down the street within the playoffs. These video games are simply practices, to an extent. You are going by means of these 82 video games making an attempt to construct the chemistry I am speaking about. That is what I am specializing in.”
Because the season has progressed, Toronto’s endurance with Leonard has begun to repay, and the explosiveness that got here to outline Leonard throughout his time in San Antonio has begun to return. In 17 video games in October and November, Leonard had a mixed 16 dunks. In 12 video games in December, he had 15. Leonard says he is feeling stronger because the common season flips to the second half of the schedule.
“This yr is unquestionably a grind for me, simply lacking the entire yr final yr, simply getting used to having 30, 40 video games below your belt,” he mentioned. “Your total rhythm taking part in, it will get thrown off if you get a season off.”
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WHEN THE DISCUSSION of the place Leonard will play subsequent season inevitably comes up, there are two issues that Toronto, regardless of how onerous it tries, can’t present Leonard: being at residence and year-round heat climate.
These are two issues the LA Clippers can supply, which is a part of why their pursuit of Leonard has drawn a lot consideration. Some points of it have been overt, such because the Clippers’ presence at lots of his video games this season in a scouting capability. Others have been much less so, akin to their resolution to rent former Sports activities Illustrated author Lee Jenkins.
The favored opinion amongst league executives six months earlier than Leonard makes his resolution is that he’ll select between the Raptors and the Clippers. If it comes down to these two groups, the possibility for Leonard to come residence and to stay away from snow might be the Clippers’ strongest argument.
Leonard, who continues to be acclimating to his new NBA residence, mentioned he hopes to go see each the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto FC play this spring, however it is hard through the fixed chaos of the 82-game NBA season to discover time to discover town.
“It is simply totally different going anyplace,” Leonard mentioned. “I imply, I am not actual acquainted [with Toronto], however my good friend [Cory Joseph], he is from Toronto … he just about confirmed me town within the 4 or 5 years I used to be with him [in San Antonio]. That form of brings me some familiarity right here.
“However it’s simply chilly. You realize, I got here from California, and I moved to San Antonio, and there is no snow in both metropolis. It is my first expertise having Christmas with snow on the bottom and simply seeing snow all year long for the primary time.”
LEONARD’S RETURN TO San Antonio on Thursday will undoubtedly lead to a rehashing of what occurred final season, in addition to the latest feedback Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made about Leonard’s management — or lack thereof.
“Kawhi was an ideal participant, however he wasn’t a pacesetter or something,” Popovich mentioned of Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Participant of the 12 months. “Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills] have been the leaders. Kawhi’s expertise will at all times be missed, however that management wasn’t his deal at the moment.”
Popovich has regretted each his feedback and the best way they have been perceived, sources mentioned, however it was yet one more second that exemplified how uncooked the feelings grew to become on either side. The protracted disagreement about how to proceed with Leonard grew to become the dominant storyline surrounding the Spurs final season.
No matter their intent, Popovich’s feedback are at odds with the participant Nurse has seen. The Raptors coach pointed to a pair of moments within the preseason — one when Leonard sought out a participant to have dinner with at a workforce operate and one other when Leonard allowed a participant to rise up photographs with him throughout his pregame routine, which he prefers to do alone — as indicators of Leonard being a pacesetter with out making a whole lot of noise in doing so.
“Issues like that I believed have been fairly cool for the brand new child at school to do,” Nurse mentioned.
It is also a part of a distinct vibe Inexperienced has seen from Leonard in his first few months away from San Antonio.
“It has been fascinating to see him work together in a distinct ambiance and be extra of himself and be extra comfy,” Inexperienced mentioned. “He is older now, he is extra mature now, and find a way to converse and use his voice and be extra of a pacesetter vocally … he is had some feelings, he is talked extra on the sideline, on the bench. I feel lots of people have seen it and seen it this season to date.”
Being vocal in any setting has by no means been an attribute ascribed to Leonard. However Inexperienced mentioned Leonard has grown extra assured and confident.
“That is a part of his function,” Inexperienced mentioned. “He needs to lead a workforce and desires to be that man, wherever he’s, in a company.
“To win, he is going to have to adapt to that and alter to that, and he is aware of that. And he is form of taken that on.”
“I am centered on proper now, what that is bringing for me and centered on the chance that I’ve right here and what we can do that season.”
It is partly why, when individuals across the Raptors have been requested what Leonard is like behind closed doorways, the close to common response was a shrug of the shoulders. Away from the health club, Leonard is seen as a daily man — one who will discuss sports activities, music or anything. However when it’s time to work, whether or not for observe or a recreation, his demeanor immediately adjustments.
“He understands his work day,” Nurse mentioned. “And when he walks by means of that door, he is prepared to put in a day of labor. It is not like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve to do that stuff once more as we speak.’ That is not even shut to his mentality. It is, ‘That is what I am doing, and I am gonna do it properly,’ and that simply the best way it is.
“‘Let’s get it performed.'”
THE RAPTORS WILL be hoping to hear that very same phrase — let’s get it performed — from Leonard this summer season. For now, they can take solace in the truth that issues have gone about in addition to they may have hoped by means of the early months of this partnership. The workforce is profitable, and Leonard is wholesome and taking part in at an MVP stage.
However Toronto additionally is aware of that every thing it has going for it — the workforce’s success, Leonard’s play, his optimistic relationship with the medical employees — finally won’t matter. These 11 months might come and go, with all of it doing little to change Leonard’s thoughts, and that might depart him in the identical place he was when the Raptors traded for him.
That place was not with Toronto on the high of his record.
The Raptors, nevertheless, are giving it their finest shot. As Leonard returns Thursday to the place the place he made his title within the NBA, the Raptors hope they can convince Leonard over the subsequent six months that Toronto is the fitting place for him to be.
“He at all times simply says, ‘I need to win, man,'” Nurse mentioned. “‘I need to be wholesome and play. I like taking part in, and I need to win.’
“It is not attractive, however it positive is cool.”
ESPN’s Michael C. Wright contributed to this report.