TORONTO – Behind the scenes, many Toronto Raptors officials have become increasingly confident in the team’s chances of re-signing this summer, sources tell TSN.
Building a relationship and establishing mutual trust with the enigmatic superstar hasn’t been a linear process. As the season’s unfolded, there have been a few bumps in the road and moments of doubt. But things appear to be trending in the right direction and the timing couldn’t be better, with the playoffs less than three weeks away and the start of free agency two and a half months after that.
The Clippers – like the Lakers, who some league insiders believe to be less of a draw to Leonard – can offer at least a few things Toronto can’t. They can offer a warmer climate and an opportunity for the California native to play closer to home. If those are the factors that end up powering Leonard’s decision, the Raptors don’t stand a chance and likely never did.
However, as they’ve gotten to know Leonard better, they have come to understand the other priorities that drive him on daily basis. That’s what their pitch will centre on: trust, familiarity, a commitment to maintaining his health and the shared goal of chasing a championship, as well as the extra year and contract worth nearly $50 million more than anyone else can offer.
One thing they can fall back on, and perhaps their biggest advantage over the Clippers or any other interested team, is their nearly 12-month head start at earning his trust.
When Raptors management, led by president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster, first sat down with Leonard shortly after they had acquired the all-star forward in last July’s blockbuster trade with San Antonio, they wanted to know what he valued most. His answer was the same as he gave on media day months later: he wants to have a long and healthy NBA career
That extends to how they’ve managed his workload. He and Toronto’s highly regarded medical staff, led by director of sports science Alex McKechnie, are in constant communication over his health. They run regular tests, give him treatment and work together to determine when he plays and when he sits. If he feels like he needs a night off, they give him a night off. When he felt like he was hitting a wall in January, they gave him a week off.
As it turned out, 12 months is more than enough time to recruit a player when you have him in your gym every day, especially if you’re confident in your team’s culture.
The odds are stacked against them, at least that's the perception around the league, but they like their chances.
“We all have ideas of what we think’s going to happen,” Webster told TSN Radio last month. “The tough part is, does that happen?”
“We understand things [can] change, but we’re very happy with Kawhi and where things are going.”