The Toronto Raptors took a massive risk when they traded for San Antonio Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard this offseason, knowing that the 2014 NBA Finals MVP has a desire to join one of his hometown Los Angeles-based teams this offseason.
President Masai Ujiri traded franchise star DeMar DeRozan, young standout Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick to land both Leonard and Danny Green. Ujiri saw this as his one move to land an elite player in Leonard, and he went for it.
After trading for the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Ujiri's next task was simple: Do everything in your power to convince Leonard to stay after this season. The 27-year-old wanted out of San Antonio after a falling out with coaches and players - stemming from a disagreement on the handling of his quad injury.
When asked about how he would try to sell Leonard the idea of re-signing in Toronto, here's what Ujiri said on The Woj Pod podcast:
"We are who we are. We are going to be prepared, we are going to make things as smooth...We might not be the best ones in weather, but we might be the best ones in many other places: the diversity, the city, the uniqueness of a place like [Toronto], fans, the atmosphere...
And then you have to put the basketball together...With his teammates and seeing how hard these guys are working. We have to show who we are. There is no fake sales job here -- this is what it is."
Well, the Raptors have done literally everything required to convince Leonard that Toronto should be his home after this season. The fans gave him a roaring ovation in the season opener, and Leonard has received thunderous "MVP chants" from the Toronto faithful during home games.
On top of that, the Raptors aren't forcing Leonard to play hurt. Remember, the Spurs held an emotional meeting last year and begged him to come back. Leonard wound up only playing nine games, amid massive pressure from the organization to return before he was even ready.
The Raptors have rested Leonard in four games this season, and they still managed to win three of them. Leonard was dealing with a brief foot injury, but head coach Nick Nurse kindly and smartly let him take the necessary rest. That's something the Spurs didn't do last year.
Again, that's where the Raptors are already winning in trying to keep Leonard. With the league's best bench, they're not forcing Leonard to play when he's not at 100 percent. How nice is it for him to be told "Take the day off, our bench will win this game for us anyway"?
So to recap: The Raptors are treating Leonard with respect, giving him the necessary time off, and the fans are making him feel loved and admired. They're already 10 steps ahead of the Spurs, who had no chance of retaining Leonard after the falling out with him.
Yes, Leonard wants to join the Los Angeles Clippers. It's no secret. That's what all the NBA insiders are saying. They'll have the cap space to add Leonard and another superstar this offseason. It's understandable for Leonard to want to go back home, but the Raptors are not helping the Clippers' chances of getting him in free agency.
The Raptors are the best team in the Eastern Conference, sitting pretty with a 12-1 record. That only loss was to the Milwaukee Bucks - who are the second-best team in the conference right now. And by the way, Leonard was rested for that game.
Toronto is a bonafide championship contender, with Leonard and Kyle Lowry forming one of the game's most dynamic scoring duos. Throw in a resurgent Serge Ibaka and do-it-all center in Jonas Valanciunas, and the Raptors' starting-five is truly championship caliber.
Once you throw in the league's best bench and the smart in-game tactics and strategies of coach Nurse, and you have a problem finding a weakness in this Toronto team. How could Leonard want to leave a club that could rule the Eastern Conference for the next five years?
And keep in mind that the Raptors can offer Leonard the five-year, $190 million super max contract. The most another team can give Leonard in free agency is a four-year, $140 million deal. If Leonard were to sign that contract in Los Angeles, he'd lose a huge chunk of it anyway because of the high California state taxes.
And even if Kawhi joined the Clippers, he wouldn't have an easy path to a championship. The Golden State Warriors aren't going anywhere. The Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets will be major obstacles. The Lakers will surely add one or two more superstars in the offseason to complement LeBron James.
So in short, the Raptors can offer Leonard: A long-term championship contender, a beautiful city with a massive and passionate fan base, $190 million, and the respect he didn't get in San Antonio.
As much as Leonard wants to play in Los Angeles, it's hard to see how he'd be able to turn down everything Toronto has given him so far. Right now, it's hard to see how he could reject a long-term future with the Raptors, seeing how they're giving him everything he could ask for.