Kawhi Leonard free agency: What the Raptors can do if star leaves

Toronto won its first NBA championship but it could have some big decisions to make this summer.

The Raptors pulled off one of the most successful gambles in league history when they traded their franchise player, DeMar DeRozan, for Kawhi Leonard last July, but even a ring might not be enough when it comes to enticing the soft-spoken star to stay in Canada for the long haul.

Leonard reportedly wanted to return home and play for a team in California after his relationship with the Spurs soured and he is rumored to be interested in joining the Clippers. Leonard has given no recent indication about his future, but Toronto remains the favorite to sign him, according to a report from Yahoo Sports

If Leonard leaves, however, there really are only two routes Toronto can take when it comes to addressing the situation, so let’s take a look at what they are.

Blow it all up

The Raptors didn’t come close to the Finals until the arrival of Leonard, and it made changes to build around him for a championship run.

One constant in Toronto’s organization is Kyle Lowry, who has spent the last seven seasons with the team. But, despite being a five-time All-Star and maintaining his position as the heartbeat of the Raptors, he found himself in trade rumor talk as the 2019 deadline approached. Lowry has become a Canadian icon, but Toronto’s general manager has made it very clear he’ll do anything he can to win.

The Raptors weren’t able to package Lowry in a reported deal for the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley Jr., but did land Marc Gasol — a 3-time All-Star and early Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2018-19. Gasol’s experience, defensive versatility and ability to stretch the defense were valuable in the postseason.

One thing to think about is Toronto’s payroll, which is the fourth highest in the NBA. Lowry is owed over $33 million next season and Gasol could accept his player option to make an additional $25 million. Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who will likely be named the NBA’s Most Improved Player and clearly has a sizable raise on the way, as he averaged just under 20 points per game in his first Finals appearance.

The Raptors don’t appear to be front-runners to land any top free agents, but were 13-3 in the regular season when Leonard didn’t play.

Toronto has always consistently been a solid team in the regular season, but tying up money to these players without a bonafide superstar could be risky. Making a few trades to acquire young pieces and picks could be the better move.

Stay the course and develop

A major storyline in this year’s NBA Finals was that the Raptors path to the championship was one paved by a roster made up of zero lottery picks.

Toroto’s personnel is made up of diamonds in the rough like undrafted guard Fred VanVleet, the former project Siakam and the often criticized Lowry. But all these pieces have developed well in Canada.

Lowry didn’t develop into an All-Star until his 10th NBA season in 2015-16, but he’s been a regular every year since. Siakam basically doubled his production from a season ago and was a borderline All-Star talent in 2019. The 6-9 forward blossomed after being named the D-League’s (now G League) Finals MVP in 2017, and the Raptors have more promising talent in their back pocket.

Toronto’s 6-10 big man Chris Boucher didn’t play organized basketball until his teenage years, like Siakam. Boucher dominated the G League himself this past year and was named Defensive Player of the Year and MVP for Raptors 905. Surprisingly enough, he’s already a two-time NBA champion — he was a member of the Warriors in 2017-18.

The Canadian native has only notched two playoff appearances in his career, and both were this year. But he has been around winning environments and has potential.

Then there are veterans like Danny Green, who made six 3-pointers in a crucial Game 3 of the Finals. He has said he’d “like to be back” in Toronto, following his most efficient shooting year ever.

Toronto has the pieces to be competitive and Ujiri has pulled off a series of miracles in the front office, but Leonard’s decision this summer will seriously affect the future of the franchise.