THE FIRST MEETING Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse had with Kawhi Leonard came with trepidation.
As Nurse walked down the hall from his office inside the team’s practice facility to the coach’s meeting room last July, just weeks after being named Toronto’s head coach, uncertainty loomed large. Nurse had heard that Leonard might not have been happy with his trade destination and that some people within the Raptors organization were less than thrilled that a beloved franchise icon, DeMar DeRozan, had been sent to San Antonio in exchange.
“So here we are in a meeting,” Nurse said last week inside that same office, “and I was thinking: What if this guy just sits there and says, ‘I’m not ready to talk to anybody yet?’ What am I gonna do?”
It turned out that Nurse had nothing to worry about. When the meeting started, he asked Leonard if he had any questions. The star forward said yes.
The rest, Nurse said, took care of itself.
“Next thing you know, it led to me being at the board, drawing plays, with him standing up there with me,” Nurse said. “It was an interesting first meeting. He was super engaging, and his basketball mind was awesome, and it was fun.”
It was the moment Leonard’s integration into his new team began. In the months since, Leonard has become the clear go-to guy on a team that has the most wins in the NBA this season. The Raptors also hope it was the moment they can point to as laying the foundation for a years-long relationship with the pending free agent.
“We’re playing well,” Leonard told ESPN. “It’s a lot to make an adjustment to be here. It’s different. It’s a different culture, a different mindset than what me and Danny [Green] are coming from.”
As soon as they acquired Leonard, the Raptors knew they had plenty of ground to make up to convince him to stay beyond this season.
Like the rest of the top free agents in this year’s class — including Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson — Leonard has the prior accomplishments, including a championship ring and Finals MVP award, that allow him the freedom to make the choice that makes him happiest on a personal level this summer.
It was no secret that as his time in San Antonio was coming to an end last summer, Leonard’s desire was to return to his native Southern California. Meanwhile, getting a read on Leonard’s thinking — unlike with Paul George during his first season with the Oklahoma City Thunder — was always going to be difficult.
Toronto knew its only legitimate chance to get Leonard for the long term was to trade for him first, then spend the better part of a year selling him on its vision for a shared future — one with the two-way star as the franchise’s centerpiece.
FROM THE MOMENT the Raptors traded for Leonard, they began planning for July 1, when Leonard will hit free agency and Toronto will attempt to convince him to remain the face of this organization. The Raptors will point to all of the details, both on and off the court, that they believe tip the scales in their favor — details Leonard will have spent an entire season seeing firsthand.
“You can always make that pitch, [and] you can believe it,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said. “But professional athletes see it, and they come in, and they know the difference between organizations. To live it, and to be here, you see it, and you live it every single day. They know if you’re bulls—-ing them.”
For his part, Leonard declined to say what his priorities will be when he decides where to play next season.
“I’m not thinking about that,” he told ESPN. “I’m focused on right now, what this is bringing for me and focused on the opportunity that I have here and what we can do this season.
“Later down the road, that’s when I’ll make my decision.”
Webster and Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri are optimistic about their chances when Leonard does make his decision, for plenty of reasons. Toronto won at least 51 games in each of the three seasons prior to Leonard’s arrival and enters Thursday night’s game against the Spurs with a league-high 28 wins. FiveThirtyEight’s NBA projections give the Raptors a 38 percent chance to reach the NBA Finals, something Toronto has never done.
Toronto is also positioned to be competitive for years to come. That is thanks, in part, to proven success finding contributors with either late first-round picks (Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Delon Wright), second-round selections (Norman Powell) or undrafted free agents (Fred VanVleet). Also, starting in 2020, the Raptors have a wide-open salary-cap sheet, with only one player (Powell) signed to a guaranteed contract. This will allow them to be flexible in reshaping the roster in the future around Leonard, should he choose to stay. In Ujiri, the Raptors have a head of basketball operations who has shown a willingness to make bold decisions, including two this summer alone: trading for Leonard and promoting Nurse to replace the previously fired Dwane Casey, who was last season’s NBA Coach of the Year.
Although Toronto was once seen as a remote NBA outpost, one players weren’t willing to stay in or go to, the Raptors don’t see that as the case anymore. In a league that has more international players than ever, the idea of living and playing in a foreign country is no longer the deterring factor it once was, especially for a group of international stars approaching free agency — from Kristaps Porzingis to Giannis Antetokounmpo to the bevy of young Canadian talent that has entered the league in recent years.
While the Raptors believe they have plenty to offer beyond the court — the massive marketing potential that comes with living in one of North America’s biggest cities and a vibrant, passionate fan base — privately, the franchise is confident in its abilities to make a compelling pitch based on basketball reasons.
“When we came aboard six years ago, we wanted to bring this organization to a level where you can make this pitch,” Webster said. “So you have strength in excellence around the organization — the basketball side, the coaching staff, the medical and support staff, obviously ownership — to where when we have a superstar player, an MVP-candidate-type player, now we can go to him and say, ‘We are really confident in who we are, we’re really proud of what we’ve built, and these are all the reasons why we think you should stay.'”
IN HIS FINAL season in San Antonio, Leonard was hampered by tendinopathy in his left quad, and the subsequent breakdown in trust between him and the Spurs, as he played just nine games, led to the two sides parting ways via trade last summer. The Raptors knew the first thing they’d have to do was prove to Leonard that director of sports science Alex McKechnie and the team’s training staff could help keep him healthy and ready to play on a nightly basis. That would allow them to build the kind of relationship necessary to keep Leonard in Toronto beyond this season.
To date, the Raptors organization feels good about how that has gone. In coordination with Leonard, the team has held him out of at least one-half of each of its back-to-back sets this season — a practice Nurse has said could end as soon as this weekend. But after Leonard said at media day that his No. 1 goal was to have a “long, healthy career,” the Raptors are hoping the diligence with which they’ve worked with Leonard to keep him healthy so far will pay dividends not only over the final few months of this season but also when he makes a decision this summer.
“The attention to detail on the medical side is something we put a huge emphasis on from the start,” Webster said. “This even goes back to July and first meeting him here and doing the physicals. Even part of his workouts in San Diego all the way to coming up here [for the season] … I think that relationship is so personal, really, for any of these professional athletes, as far as keeping their body in line, and so having Alex and our entire medical staff has been a huge plus.”
After missing almost all of last season, Leonard credited Toronto for working with him to gradually build himself back into the player both sides want him to be when the playoffs start in mid-April.
“Just coming into the season, I still wasn’t going through training camp at 100 percent,” Leonard said. “They definitely understood where I was and where I needed to get to, and just taking my time and they’re taking their time with me and just making sure that everyone is healthy down the road in the playoffs. These games are just practices, to an extent. You’re going through these 82 games trying to build the chemistry I’m talking about. That’s what I’m focusing on.”
As the season has progressed, Toronto’s patience with Leonard has begun to pay off, and the explosiveness that came to define Leonard during his time in San Antonio has begun to return. In 17 games in October and November, Leonard had a combined 16 dunks. In 12 games in December, he had 15. Leonard says he’s feeling stronger as the regular season flips to the second half of the schedule.
“This year is definitely a grind for me, just missing the whole year last year, just getting used to having 30, 40 games under your belt,” he said. “Your overall rhythm playing, it gets thrown off when you get a season off.”
WHEN THE DISCUSSION of where Leonard will play next season inevitably comes up, there are two things that Toronto, no matter how hard it tries, can’t provide Leonard: being at home and year-round warm weather.
Those are two things the LA Clippers can offer, which is part of why their pursuit of Leonard has drawn so much attention. Some aspects of it have been overt, such as the Clippers’ presence at many of his games this season in a scouting capacity. Others have been less so, such as their decision to hire former Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins for a front-office job.
The popular opinion among league executives six months before Leonard makes his decision is that he’ll choose between the Raptors and the Clippers. If it comes down to those two teams, the chance for Leonard to come home and to stay away from snow could be the Clippers’ strongest argument.
Leonard, who is still acclimating to his new NBA home, said he hopes to go see both the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto FC play this spring, but it is tough during the constant chaos of the 82-game NBA season to find time to explore the city.
“It’s just different going anywhere,” Leonard said. “I mean, I’m not real familiar [with Toronto], but my friend [Cory Joseph], he’s from Toronto … he pretty much showed me the city in the four or five years I was with him [in San Antonio]. That kind of brings me some familiarity here.
“But it’s just cold. You know, I came from California, and I moved to San Antonio, and there’s no snow in either city. It’s my first experience having Christmas with snow on the ground and just seeing snow throughout the year for the first time.”
LEONARD’S RETURN TO San Antonio on Thursday will undoubtedly lead to a rehashing of what happened last season, as well as the recent comments Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made about Leonard’s leadership — or lack thereof.
“Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader or anything,” Popovich said of Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. “Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills] were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn’t his deal at that time.”
Popovich has regretted both his comments and the way they were perceived, sources said, but it was yet another moment that exemplified how raw the emotions became on both sides. The protracted disagreement about how to proceed with Leonard became the dominant storyline surrounding the Spurs last season.
Regardless of their intent, Popovich’s comments are at odds with the player Nurse has seen. The Raptors coach pointed to a pair of moments in the preseason — one when Leonard sought out a player to have dinner with at a team function and another when Leonard allowed a player to get up shots with him during his pregame routine, which he prefers to do alone — as signs of Leonard being a leader without making a lot of noise in doing so.
“Things like that I thought were pretty cool for the new kid in school to do,” Nurse said.
It’s also part of a different vibe Green has seen from Leonard in his first few months away from San Antonio.
“It’s been interesting to see him interact in a different atmosphere and be more of himself and be more comfortable,” Green said. “He’s older now, he’s more mature now, and be able to speak and use his voice and be more of a leader vocally … he’s had some emotions, he’s talked more on the sideline, on the bench. I think a lot of people have seen it and noticed it this season thus far.”
Being vocal in any setting has never been an attribute ascribed to Leonard. But Green said Leonard has grown more confident and self-assured.
“That’s part of his role,” Green said. “He wants to lead a team and wants to be that guy, wherever he is, in an organization.
“To win, he’s going to have to adapt to that and adjust to that, and he knows that. And he’s kind of taken that on.”
“I’m focused on right now, what this is bringing for me and focused on the opportunity that I have here and what we can do this season.”
It’s partly why, when people around the Raptors were asked what Leonard is like behind closed doors, the near universal response was a shrug of the shoulders. Away from the gym, Leonard is seen as a regular guy — one who will talk about sports, music or anything else. But when it’s time to work, whether for practice or a game, his demeanor instantly changes.
“He understands his work day,” Nurse said. “And when he walks through that door, he’s ready to put in a day of work. It’s not like, ‘Oh, man, I have to do this stuff again today.’ That’s not even close to his mentality. It’s, ‘This is what I’m doing, and I’m gonna do it well,’ and that’s just the way it is.
“‘Let’s get it done.'”
THE RAPTORS WILL be hoping to hear that same phrase — let’s get it done — from Leonard this summer. For now, they can take solace in the fact that things have gone about as well as they could have hoped through the early months of this partnership. The team is winning, and Leonard is healthy and playing at an MVP level.
But Toronto also knows that everything it has going for it — the team’s success, Leonard’s play, his positive relationship with the medical staff — ultimately might not matter. These 11 months could come and go, with all of it doing little to change Leonard’s mind, and that could leave him in the same place he was when the Raptors traded for him.
That place was not with Toronto at the top of his list.
The Raptors, however, are giving it their best shot. As Leonard returns Thursday to the place where he made his name in the NBA, the Raptors hope they can convince Leonard over the next six months that Toronto is the right place for him to be.
“He always just says, ‘I want to win, man,'” Nurse said. “‘I want to be healthy and play. I love playing, and I want to win.’
“It’s not sexy, but it sure is cool.”
ESPN’s Michael C. Wright contributed to this report.