Throughout the offseason — and even into the 2018-19 regular season — the Toronto Raptors had heard the question. Was it worth shipping off fan favorite and All-Star DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs for possibly only one season of Kawhi Leonard?
Leonard was widely regarded as one of the top five players in the league, but he spent almost all of the 2017-18 campaign on the shelf with a mysterious injury. The thought was he was using the injury to force the Spurs to trade him, possibly to the Los Angeles Lakers so he could pair with LeBron James.
But instead, San Antonio worked out a deal with Toronto, which had seen its regular-season success with DeRozan and fellow All-Star Kyle Lowry come up short in the postseason, mostly at the hands of James.
Would Leonard be worth the trouble and cost? With the Raptors officially advancing to their first-ever NBA Finals, the answer is unquestionably yes.
Leonard played just 60 regular-season games this season as the Raptors tried to avoid the nagging injury that limited him to just nine in his last season with San Antonio. Leonard made the most of the games he was in, averaging 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists as Toronto won the Atlantic Division over Philadelphia and Boston and earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
A first-round series win over Orlando was fairly easy, with the Raptors advancing in five games, but the 76ers gave Toronto all it could handle in the conference semifinals. The series went the full seven games and was still tied with 4.2 seconds to play.
That’s when Leonard proved once again to be worth the investment, as he hit the game- and series-winning shot at the buzzer, pushing Toronto to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2016 and for only the second time in team history.
Calm In The Storm
Top-seeded Milwaukee seemed like an insurmountable challenge after two games of the Eastern Conference finals, though, as the Bucks jumped out to a 2-0 series lead and looked nearly unbeatable.
But the former NBA Finals MVP had other plans, leading his team to four straight victories, even when he looked hobbled by a possible leg injury. Leonard averaged 41.7 minutes over the four games, capped by a 41-minute effort in Game 6. He finished the series clincher with 27 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists, two blocks, and two steals, and his relentless attacking of the Milwaukee defense set the tone for the Raptors.
Never one to be demonstrative with his emotions, Leonard was stoic throughout the game and the celebration that followed, knowing there’s more work to be done.
Will He Stay Or Will He Go?
The question of whether Leonard will remain a Raptor remains. Was this season just a one-year layover for him before he jets off to the Lakers or some other team? Or will he become a Raptors legend and sign a new deal in the offseason?
Toronto has certainly given him all he could want with a winning team and an organization that is going to cater to him in regards to nights off.
But that is a question for two weeks from now. Toronto has a bit of business to deal with in the form of the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. Leonard certainly remembers the Warriors. His postseason was ended two years ago when he stepped on the foot of then-Golden State center Zaza Pachulia while attempting a jump shot in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals in 2017.
Leonard will certainly have that in mind come Thursday when the Finals begin. Or maybe he won’t. It’s hard to tell with the stoic Leonard. We just know that he’ll come to play.