Hot Take Marathon: Neither Kyle Lowry nor Kawhi Leonard End the 2018-19 Season in Toronto
*The NBA offseason is cooling down, but the takes at OTG aren't. This month, we are hitting you with the Hot Take Marathon. Check back every day for a spicy NBA take!*
The long, troubled saga between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs has mercifully come to an end. The two-time All-Star is headed to Toronto, marking a messy divorce from the team that drafted him.
For the Raptors, it was a slick move. Leonard is a seminal talent, but also owns an expiring contract. General manager Masai Ujiri has a year to sell the San Diego State product on basketball in Toronto. That said, Ujiri also has a youth movement in the wings as a back-up plan.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, that Plan B is going to become quite important. All signs point toward Leonard continuing his sustained temper tantrum. He’ll be out of town before the seasons ends, and to make matters work, he’ll force fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry out the door in the process.
Kawhi the star
The entire Leonard-Spurs saga supposedly hinged on Kawhi’s desire to be a star. LeBron James and Kevin Durant - two hyper-intelligent, lengthy wings - are the league’s preeminent figures. Leonard is perhaps the only player in the NBA who can stand shoulder to shoulder with these two on the basketball court. Why shouldn’t his star burn as bright?
It follows, therefore, that Toronto is just a stepping stone to a bigger, better future for Leonard. The lights of New York and Brooklyn or the red carpets of L.A. And if the Knicks or the Lakers are already reading their checkbooks for summer 2019, Leonard doesn’t really need a Raptors showcase to earn himself a pay day.
I’m doubtful Leonard will be as sanctimoniously disengaged in Toronto as he was in San Antonio. Clearly his team and the Spurs diverged in a big way. But I don’t see his dissatisfaction waning either. He’s going to be an unhappy camper with the Raptors (especially as Canadian winter descends on the L.A. native).
Where things all go south for the North, however, is when you consider the real lynchpin to the operation, Kyle Lowry.
Kawhi can only moan so much, and it’s unlikely he actually abstains from playing and playing well in Toronto. Still, a sour attitude will make it hard to float a happy locker room. That’s where Leonard’s relationship with Kyle Lowry takes center stage.
We already know that Lowry is decidedly upset with the Raptors front office, and has far from leaned into the Leonard deal. The team unceremoniously shipped his running mate and good friend DeMar DeRozan out of town, and Lowry may very well struggle to move on from the blindside.
Suddenly rookie head coach Nick Nurse has the difficult task of finding synergy between a resentful Kyle Lowry and an apathetic and restless Kawhi Leonard. Toronto needs both of these players to click in order to succeed next year. Lowry’s mental fortitude is as critical as Leonard’s moving forward.
There’s a good chance this crashes and burns in spectacular fashion for the Raptors. And there’s plenty of scenarios where next season is nothing more than a mediocre slog. Either way, there’s opportunity for tough decisions ahead.
Toronto sells big at the deadline
It’s early February, and the Raptors have just lost their sixth game in a row. Toronto’s winning ways early on have descended into rubbish, with the team barely posting a .500 record. The Pacers and the Bucks are picking up steam, while the Celtics, the Sixers, and the Wizards have really asserted themselves as the biggest players in the Conference.
Leonard has once again neglected to speak to the press after the game. Lowry is in hot water for liking a post on Instagram mocking the Raptors. Serge Ibaka has become simply unplayable.
Masai Ujiri picks up the phone, and begins to dial.
First it’s the Knicks. Or the Suns. Or the Nets. Some team in need of a point guard. Lowry is flipped for a future first and a not-quite up-and-coming player. Soon after, Ujiri has found a home for Kawhi, sending him to Minnesota, Washington, Memphis, or any other team desperate to swing for the fences before the postseason.
It’s a massacre, one of the biggest implosions in NBA history. The ripple effects around the league are enormous. Ujiri is undeterred.
Having gotten just pennies on the dollar for his biggest stars, the Raptors GM tells Nurse to prioritize the youth. O.G. Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and others are the future, he reminds his coach. A new chapter in Toronto basketball has begun.
Once the Raptors pulled the trigger on the Leonard deal, this sort of nuclear option was always a possibility. The team has flirted with contention to no avail, but also has the right young pieces to make a big pivot. Ultimately this season was always going to be something of a last stand for this iteration of the Raps.
I’m a big Lowry fan, and an equally big supporter of Leonard. Both players seem to be wearing their emotions on their sleeve for the moment, and the returns aren’t good. There’s a chance Toronto is one of the best teams in the league next season, no doubt. But it seems to me that this experiment is doomed to fail.