Sports

Kawhi or die: What the Raptors can do to stay alive in the East

Kawhi and Masai

The Raptors recently acquired Kawhi Leonard, but fans are already preparing for his departure after a year. Is there anything that can be done to keep a top-3 talent in the North?

Written by Sammy Abdo

The most surprising move in the NBA this summer was the Raptors trading for Kawhi Leonard and shipping out Demar DeRozan. Raptors President Masai Ujiri was heavily scrutinized by critics around the league, with the major criticism being that Leonard was most likely a one-year rental. He would bolt for Los Angeles as soon as he had the chance, critics said. The allure of Hollywood and palm trees might send the Raptors back to the depths of the Eastern Conference, but the Raptors’ recruitment strategy done right, could keep the two-time defensive player of the year in Toronto long-term.

Building a Comfort zone

Though the Raptors have had excellent regular season success, having a top-four seed in the East the last four years, their playoff runs have been largely disappointing. Three sweeps in four post-season appearances is not what contenders are made of. The Raptors fired coach Dwane Casey, who won the Coach of the Year award and replaced him with Nick Nurse, a rookie, with only a fraction of experience that Leonard’s old coach Gregg Popovich had.

This in-house hiring was done before Leonard got to Toronto, so it will be interesting to see how Nurse handles this opportunity. The Raptors recently hired Jeremy Castleberry, a close friend of Leonard’s in an effort to help him feel more comfortable. The coaching staff needs to integrate Leonard into the new offense and ease him into the leadership role. The team has a lot of young players who get a lot of playing time and this would be the first time Leonard would lead a team without hall-of-fame help. It’s up to Nurse and the assistants to make Leonard comfortable in his new role.

Nick Nurse

Building a Contender

The development of the Raptors’ young guys will be just as important as the coaching staff. OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred Vanvleet are integral pieces to the Raptors future and their game could convince Leonard to choose this roster over the top-heavy Lakers and the shallow Clippers.

In a conference with the Celtics who have the most complete roster in the East, and the Sixers, who have the two best young players in the League, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Raptors need to show they can—and will—compete. With Leonard’s experience playing alongside three future hall of famers and his championship pedigree, the young players can learn a lot about what it takes to compete in the finals.

Building a Trust

One of the biggest story lines of the 2017-2018 season was the lack of trust between Leonard and the Spurs. Both sides had issues with the over the handling of Leonard’s thigh injury, and after Tony Parker said his injury was “a hundred times worse,” the relationship became irreparable.

In order to gain trust from Leonard, the Raptors need to show they are willing to commit to him. Offering him top cash would be a good start.  The Raptors can put a five-year $190-million deal on the table and depending on how Leonard bounces back from his injury, which could be a steal.

Also the sensitivity around the injury has to be dealt with. If Leonard believes he is completely fine, the Raptors have to trust his judgement. The Spurs questioned the severity of the injury throughout the season, which bothered Leonard and led to his departure. The Raptors can rest Leonard if he needs it, and unleash him when he’s ready.

The hope is to go deep in the playoffs, so keeping Leonard content and fresh will be important in that quest, build trust between a player and organization that he won’t find anywhere else. Ujiri is one of the best team builders in the business and if anybody can gain Kawhi’s trust, it’s him.