Not even the franchise’s first-ever sweep of a four-game west coast road trip could protect any Toronto Raptor from the post-game ribbing that has come to define the team’s camaraderie over the last few seasons.
Good games are met with accusations of a player becoming too ‘big time’, outsized performances are downplayed as mediocre and credit is usually doled out after a side of tongue-in-cheek jeering. Just earlier that day at shootaround, Serge Ibaka had left Kyle Lowry’s side to avoid catching fire, only for Lowry to bellow that the red-hot Ibaka “stinks.”
It was Fred VanVleet’s turn to lob shots after the Raptors wrapped up their road trip with a win in Sacramento. VanVleet is no stranger to being on the other end of these barbs, and with one of the sharper wits on the team, he’s comfortable playing the aggressor. His target on this occasion was Kawhi Leonard, who had just returned from a two-game absence to score 25 points in 31 minutes on a night where his performance was uneven by his lofty standards and excellent by anyone else’s.
“He’s not that good, you know what I mean? He’s got a long way to go,” VanVleet said. “He’s got a lot of room (to grow). I think he shot one off the backboard there in the fourth, so I’mma let him hear about that one for a while ’til he gets everything going. When he’s not playing, it’s like starting over almost every game. But I mean, 25 and 10, probably can do that in his sleep.”
The jab itself was innocuous enough. Obviously, there is no doubting Leonard’s ability, and as the season’s rolled along, there’s little doubting that he can return to top-10 player status in the NBA, where he firmly resided pre-injury. Leonard was within earshot and didn’t acknowledge VanVleet’s remark. It was all pretty plain, by the standards of teasing in an NBA locker room, especially after a feel-good win.
It seemed an important moment, though, a sort of nod to Leonard’s continued immersion into the Raptors’ team dynamic. When he was first acquired and through the first few weeks of training camp, maybe VanVleet doesn’t say those things in front of a live camera. Now, if anyone would, it’s VanVleet, but there was a palpable uncertainty at least out of the gate in terms of Leonard’s fit off the court. By showing that he’s one with the team in the time-honoured tradition of playful razzing, a reasonable takeaway could be that the comfort level has grown, both for Leonard with his teammates and his teammates with Leonard.
After the game, Leonard would refer to the Raptors as “we,” a small word choice that Raptors fans quickly grew excited about. Given the pessimistic messaging from the larger NBA landscape when the Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick for Leonard, Danny Green and cash this summer, Raptors fans — already conditioned to run anxious in the best of times — are understandably hanging on every word, grimace and facial expression. There’s no concern to find signal in this noise; everything the traditionally stoic and unreadable Leonard does could mean something, and so Raptors fans are on high alert. Leonard quickly becoming one of the guys might really matter.
This, of course, would matter little were Leonard also not proving to be a tremendous fit on the court. With the team 11-1 overall and 8-0 in games Leonard plays, and with Leonard himself averaging 26 points, eight rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals with a robust 60.5 true-shooting percentage and a plus-14.1 net rating, that this can all work on the court has been laid plain early.
“You just throw it to him and get out of the way,” VanVleet said of how to adjust to playing with a player of Leonard’s calibre. “And if your guy helps, you shoot a three. It’s that simple.”
The Raptors have a lot of work to do at both ends of the floor, sure. Head coach Nick Nurse estimates only 65 per cent or so of schemes are installed at either end. Leonard is probably isolating a tad too much, as he and his teammates seek symbiosis within the league’s No. 2 offence. Meanwhile, the Raptors’ No. 6-ranked defence has been prone to inconsistency or miscommunication. But it’s not even a month into the season and they already look this good, which says a lot.
“We have a lot of potential. I think we can still get better. This isn’t our ceiling,” Leonard said Wednesday. “We have Kyle in the game most of the time, and he’s controlling the ball and the tempo — so I feel like once I start learning the offence I can even give him a little break and let him get some easier shots. Even though he’s playing well, you know, he’s leading us to victories. I just think me, I don’t really know the offence in and out yet. So with that we have potential. And some of our defence, as well. I feel like, you know, we could talk more, rotations, you can see the miscues out there with me and Kyle or the other guys on the floor. And just our chemistry, I feel like we can get better chemistry.”
This, more than any locker-room camaraderie or other ancillary factor, is what ultimately matters most. The Raptors have been fairly steadfast that they are not putting a hard full-court press on Leonard around the clock this year, instead believing that the quality of their team, organization and city can help do enough of a sales pitch between now and July 1 for Leonard to want to stick around. And it very well could; it just has to work on the court as it has so far, too.
One of the points of early (and exaggerated) concern may have been a small positive, too. Leonard sitting two one-game road trips early in the year to preserve his body from travel-heavy back-to-backs meant he spent over three weeks straight in Toronto, familiarizing himself with the surroundings.
“He asks questions about, like, whether he should get snow tires on his car, this that and the other,” said Norman Powell. “He’s asked questions just about what to do in the city, where to go, what are some good restaurants, things like that. I ask him how he’s liking it, and everything like that. So we’ve been having good conversations, good dialogue.”
Powell has known Leonard a long time and may have a better idea of how things are going than most. Back when Powell was in high school, he nearly wound up at San Diego State, taking a recruiting visit during Leonard’s sophomore year. That visit was led by Jeremy Castleberry, who followed Leonard to Toronto from San Antonio and has established himself as a strong player development coach as well as a close confidant of Leonard. Powell and Leonard now joke that Powell should have gone the San Diego State route or that Leonard should have gone to UCLA, and their mothers know each other after becoming familiar through California basketball circles.
Their common upbringing in California was briefly a topic of conversation early in the trip, and it’s at least part of why this early test — and another four-game set on the west coast next month — stands out as a meaningful stretch for the Raptors. If offseason rumours are to be believed, Leonard would prefer to land back in his home state, one factor, if serious, that the Raptors can’t compete against no matter how good the fit is in Toronto.
As time has gone on, those rumours have focused more on the Los Angeles Clippers. The Los Angeles Lakers boast LeBron James and the greatest marketing advantage in the sport, but there are some around the league who feel that James’ shadow looms too large and that the impatience the Lakers are already showing with their four-year plan could erode their sales pitch. They will always be the Lakers, which carries weight, even if Leonard promptly shut down questions about any Laker fandom in his childhood. (He was an Allen Iverson fan, which could point to a willingness to go against the grain and be his own person. Or, you know, it could point to very little, because it’s just fandom. Leonard is not the type to tip his hand in any sort of way by answering gratuitous questions, or to answer them much at all.)
The Clippers, though, have some nice momentum. They’ve managed to pivot away from their former core without going through a nasty rebuild that would threaten to regress some of the reputational rehabilitation they performed in the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan era. They’ve maintained a clean cap sheet, added young talent and are winning games while toeing the line in a holding pattern between two possible paths after next summer. In talking to some around the league, the sense coming from the Clippers is that they believe in their ability to craft a narrative this summer that fits Leonard’s personal story. The rumblings that there’s a potential fit there will persist.
None of that is to say Toronto is not firmly in the mix. It’s hard to pick them against the entire field so early, but there’s a pretty clear argument to make for them if things go well this season. That starts with the estimated $49.1 million more they can offer him than anyone else this summer. If things continue to go well on the court, their pitch expands to include a strong competitive environment, a good young core around him with a second all-star in Lowry and a franchise willing to spend into the luxury tax to fortify that group. (Ironically, the Raptors may prove too good when he sits for his MVP case to really pick up steam, something that may have also helped sell him on that situation.) Being the best player on the best team in the East, in a sizable market that doesn’t demand quite the same rigours from its basketball stars as other markets, might compel.
The Raptors have done well to downplay any near-term tension they’re feeling as the clock rolls along on their one-year window to convince Leonard to stay. So far, things are going mostly well.
Still, the Raptors have yet to hit any sort of real adversity. They’ve been banged up but not beaten down by injuries and they’ve rolled through competition, leading by double-digits in all but one game and playing just seven crunch-time minutes all year. There are unknowables in terms of overall fit until the Raptors run into some hardship, and in general, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence when it comes to intangible and immeasurable matters like chemistry. There are small things that have popped up, like Leonard abruptly (and justifiably) ending a scrum as it grew superfluous or not joining the team on the bench while sitting games out. As with the positive signs, you can read into these things however you’d like.
The latter was downplayed inside the Raptors organization as something not all that uncommon or meaningful. So, too, was concern over the jammed foot and sore ankle that cost him two games, with the Raptors doing their best to take a cautious approach and include Leonard’s own comfort and knowledge of his body as part of the decision-making process. In general, Leonard has fit well with the Raptors staff, with the feeling being that Leonard is easy to get along with when it comes to basketball, especially if you might be able to help toward the ultimate goal of winning.
“I mean, listen, he’s had no trouble fitting in. He’s a really hard worker and a really good dude,” Nurse said. “I keep saying that. He’s an enjoyable person to be around and all his teammates really like him. There’s no issues there. I always try to put the positive spin on these things, and that’s two games we didn’t have to get into his legs at all and we got through ’em. I know he’s excited to play. The guy loves to play, man.”
And yes, he’s living up to his over-memed claim that he’s a fun guy who likes basketball. Behind closed doors, Leonard has surprised staff and teammates with a few unexpected moments of comedic timing.
“He’s so dry, he kinda has to be funny,” VanVleet said. “But honestly, if you take the way he acts around us, he’s been great to be around. If it wasn’t for the internet or social media, I wouldn’t think anything of it.”
In an ideal world, nobody would think much of any of this until the end of the season. This world is not ideal, though, and there remain hurdles for the Raptors to clear, stumbling blocks to avoid and the likely late-season spate of rumours to ignore. For now, Leonard’s future is an unknown, perhaps even to him, as he navigates through what he wants next for his career.
The biggest element of that decision the Raptors can control right now is how well everything works on the court and how well-prepared the team is for a deep playoff run. Making the NBA Finals and competing for a championship looks a lot different in a pitch meeting than getting bounced in the second round, and as Leonard said Wednesday, “we want to be the best team.” That, and some $50 million, was always going to be the Raptors’ biggest sales chip. And so while it’s great for the organization that the fit seems to be working out just fine out of the gate, they — both the team and Leonard — have the comfort of being able to just focus on basketball in the interim.