The NBA world is waiting for what Kawhi Leonard will decide in free agency. It appears, based on the latest reports, that the road to that choice might be getting just a bit closer.
Last night, ESPN’s Jordan Schultz reported via Twitter that Leonard had his meetings with the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers on Tuesday. Now that those meetings are seemingly out of the way, the incumbent Toronto Raptors appear to be up next to pitch to Leonard.
Kawhi Leonard has completed both his meetings with the #Lakers and #Clippers, a league source tells ESPN. He is also meeting with the #Raptors today. The rest of the basketball world awaits Leonard’s decision…
— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) July 2, 2019
A private plane owned by the group that operates the Raptors landed Wednesday afternoon at Pearson International Airport in Toronto — and video footage suggests that Leonard was one of the passengers on that plane.
The plane’s occupants boarded SUVs on the tarmac and were driven toward downtown Toronto, with at least one news helicopter airing their trip live even though it was not confirmed that Leonard was indeed in one of those vehicles.
Meanwhile, a large crowd was forming outside a posh downtown hotel where Raptors President Masai Ujiri had been spotted earlier in the day, with the assumption being that the hotel is where the meeting between Leonard and the team may be taking place.
Leonard is the top free agent whose decision about where to play next season remains unknown.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) July 3, 2019
CP24 is showing live aerial shots of the MLSE plane landing in Toronto. 3 guys got off the plane and into SUVs. Looked like they were wearing New Balance. One had a towel over his head. They're now following the SUVs down the highway. This isn't abnormal at all.
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) July 3, 2019
Josh Lewenberg of TSN reports that Leonard asked interested teams to not leak information about the recruitment process, but that some media members tracked the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment plane bound for Toronto today. So far, there has been no information reported in the NBA media-sphere about what direction Leonard may be leaning toward team-wise.
Kawhi asked that interested teams not leak info re: the recruitment process. That's not what happened here. Some folks in the media tracked the MLSE plane and followed those that got out of it. Whether Kawhi is bothered by this or not, can't really blame the Raptors for it.
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) July 3, 2019
Overall, getting a true reading on what is true (and what is false) when it comes to Leonard’s move has been tough to gauge since free agency began at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday. But Doug Smith of the Toronto Star — as plugged-in a Raptors observer as there is around — has some insight on what Toronto may have up its sleeve.
So, as they make a pitch to free-agent Kawhi Leonard — likely on Wednesday, as far as anyone can ascertain in these odd and intensely quiet times — they are certain to go soft on their selling job.
All team president Masai Ujiri has ever said publicly about how they will convince Leonard to stay after one memorable, championship season is that the Raptors “will be who we are” and that is certain to be the message they convey.
According to every reputable report — and the cone of silence that has dropped over all three teams is like nothing many have seen — the Clippers and Lakers were also expected to meet with Leonard on Tuesday and perhaps Wednesday, the final step in a long process of wooing the two-time NBA champion and two-time NBA Finals most valuable player.
When Leonard will decide is an equally well-guarded secret, and since there have been as many ridiculously premature “reports” as ones based in any semblance of fact, trying to put a time frame on it is a waste of time. The best and most well-connected journalists who cover the three teams and the league have been trying unsuccessfully for days to unearth even a snippet of usable information, and have come up empty.
Marc Stein of The New York Times reports the Raptors do not intend to back off at all in their pursuit of Leonard. In addition, rapper Drake is expected to mount his own recruiting campaign for Leonard, Stein reports.
3. The Raptors haven't backed off one centimeter and Drake is said to be mounting his own recruiting campaign on top of whatever the freshly minted champions are doing to convince him to stay
— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) July 2, 2019
Since leading the Raptors to the 2019 NBA title, Leonard was spotted in Niagara Falls with his family and at a Blue Jays game (where he got a lengthy standing ovation). He was also photographed on social media in a subsequent trip to the Bahamas, where he was seen wearing a Blue Jays jersey.
So far in free agency, the Raptors have only made one reported move, adding EuroLeague guard Matt Thomas. Swingman Danny Green is an unrestricted free agent this summer and has received interest from the Dallas Mavericks, the Toronto Star reports. However, Green seems to be in no hurry to sign a deal and some have reported he may sign wherever Leonard chooses to go.
Leonard turned down his player option for 2019-20, thus becoming an unrestricted free agent, which set off a frenzy of teams officially interested in his services.
In leading the Raptors to their first NBA championship, Leonard joined exclusive company en route to being named MVP of The Finals. Only he, LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can rightfully claim to have won Finals MVP with two different teams (Leonard won his first Finals MVP as a member of the San Antonio Spurs in 2014).
Injured for all but nine games in his final season with San Antonio, Leonard played 60 games this season and another 24 in the playoffs. After averaging career bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season, Leonard raised his averages to 30.5 and 9.1 in the playoffs.
He scored 732 points in the playoffs. Only Michael Jordan (759) and James (748) ever scored more in a single postseason. Leonard finished with 14 games of 30 points or more in these playoffs. The only players with more in a single postseason are Jordan (16 in 1992), Hakeem Olajuwon (16 in 1995) and Kobe Bryant (15 in 2009).
Getting Leonard was just one of a bold series of moves Ujiri made in the last 12 months. He fired last season’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey and hired Nick Nurse. He traded away three players at midseason for Marc Gasol. And he took the risk that Leonard would be both happy enough and healthy enough to take the Raptors to the newest and highest of heights.
Shortly after The Finals ended, Ujiri said he and Leonard had talked several times and Ujiri remained confident the Raptors would keep Leonard in the fold going forward. Gasol opted into his contract for next season before free agency began.
His path has not been an easy one. He wasn’t highly recruited in high school. By the time bigger colleges were calling, he was committed to San Diego State. He wasn’t even a lottery pick, getting taken No. 15 in the 2011 draft — behind the likes of Derrick Williams, Tristan Thompson, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Jimmer Fredette and Alec Burks, none of whom averaged 10 points per game for their NBA careers.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.