Kawhi's free agency looms large over playoffs for rival fanbases

Sunday’s Game 7 matchup between the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers was the most-watched NBA game ever in Canada, drawing an audience of 5.8 million and an average of 2.2 million viewers during the game. But Raptors fans weren’t the only ones who tuned in to witness Kawhi Leonard deliver the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history, sending the Raptors to the Eastern Conference final and, with it, changing the narrative of an entire franchise.

Fans in San Antonio watched with interest as well, even if the Sunday edition of the San Antonio Express-News sports section featured an article encouraging Spurs fans to avert their eyes and not watch what might have been. In Los Angeles, Clippers fans watched it too. As the the franchise that most experts believe has the best chance of signing Leonard when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, they were tuned in as well.

Toronto’s playoff run continues Wednesday in Milwaukee, and it is the franchise’s most realistic chance to reach the NBA Finals. They are four wins away, but also potentially just days away from watching Leonard play his final game in a Raptors uniform.

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This is the story of the past, present and potential future of Kawhi Leonard, and how three fanbases are watching the Raptors in the playoffs.

“It’s going to take a long, long time, if ever, for those wounds to heal”

Kawhi Leonard will forever be a villain in San Antonio. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard will forever be a villain in San Antonio. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

Tom Orsborn became a full-time employee at the San Antonio Express-News in 1985. He has covered every sporting event imaginable since then, but it seemed unlikely he would ever need to be in Toronto for media day at the start of training camp. Yet that is exactly where he was in late September of last year, seated with a group of media at Scotiabank Arena anticipating the first glimpse of Leonard in a Raptors uniform.

After an NBA championship, an NBA Finals MVP and two Defensive Player of the Year awards over seven seasons, Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs became fractured last season, a year in which he played nine games because of injuries, and eventually demanded a trade.

Orsborn was in Toronto to offer Leonard a chance to speak about how his time in San Antonio ended and whether he had any regrets. Leonard declined to get into specifics, only to say he had no regrets and was ready to move on from the past.

The answer was just as unsatisfying as the end of Leonard’s tenure in San Antonio. It has left Spurs fans without the closure they seek for having lost a championship-caliber player.

“As far as healing the wounds that were created by the whole drama, I think it’s going to take a long, long time, if ever, for those wounds to heal,” Orsborn said. “There’s a large segment of fans in San Antonio who will never forgive Kawhi. They will always view him as a turncoat.”

Those bitter feelings were expressed in early January, when Leonard made his return to San Antonio and was booed from the minute he stepped on the floor until the final buzzer. During the third quarter, fans even started a traitor chant.

J.R. Wilco has followed the Spurs for two decades. He delighted in watching Gregg Popovich come up with a game plan to thwart Leonard and the Raptors in a blowout win.

“That was like a seven-course meal,” Wilco said.

Watching Leonard dominate in the playoffs has been less satisfying for Wilco and for a Spurs fanbase that knows exactly what Leonard is capable of in the most high-pressure moments of the postseason.

For some Spurs fans like Wilco, seeing Leonard stay in Toronto long-term will only make his departure from San Antonio that much more difficult to accept, especially given the fact that Leonard appeared only to want to make his way to Los Angeles.

“I will absolutely be gnashing my teeth and be upset at this point if he stays in Toronto,” Wilco said.

“I would have rather experienced this one year than not have experienced it at all”

This seasons has been a roller coaster of emotions for Raptors fans. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
This seasons has been a roller coaster of emotions for Raptors fans. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

In these playoffs, Leonard became the first player in NBA history to score 300 points on fewer than 200 field-goals attempted through the first 10 games of a single postseason. His 243 points against the Sixers in the second round was the third-highest total in a series since 1977, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 260 points in 1977 and Jordan’s 246 points in 1993. And this is in addition to the first Game 7 buzzer-beater ever.

He’s not only charting a new course for a franchise that’s only ever known playoff disappointment, he’s making NBA history in a Raptors uniform. For the first time in franchise history, Leonard is helping to change the mindset of a fanbase who has always expected the other shoe to drop under pressure.

J.E. Skeets is a member of NBA TV’s The Starters and has been a Raptors fan since the franchise’s inception in 1995. Earlier this season, he compared Leonard’s presence on the team to a weighted blanket.

“He calms Raptors fans,” Skeets explained. “He helps reduce stress. He helps relieve anxiety. His talent and just how methodical he is and how he’s never rattled, it’s so wild in a weird way as a long-time Raptors fan where it always feels like life or death with this team once you get in the playoffs. It’s a nice change. It’s surreal at times.”

The Raptors have been to the Eastern Conference final before, and even won a Game 7 in the second round in 2016 to advance. In a way, this isn’t uncharted territories. But the Raptors teams of previous years were never truly considered a championship contender, and last year’s playoff disappointment after a franchise-record setting regular season hammered home that exact point. With Leonard, the Raptors have ascended to a level of legitimacy the franchise has never reached before, which is why it will be even more painful if Leonard decides to leave in free agency in less than two months.

Raptors fans have spent all season searching for clues, reading between the lines of what Leonard says and doesn’t say, looking for any semblance of proof that he is leaning towards staying in Toronto. It has become a roller-coaster ride where every win or loss in the playoffs feels like it is tilting the scales of Leonard’s free agency decision, one way or another.

Skeets has chosen an alternate approach, perhaps the healthiest one as a fan, to appreciate Leonard’s greatness for however long the Raptors will have him. Skeets likens it to the free television cable he would sometimes inherit from a previous tenant while moving from apartment to apartment when he lived in Toronto.

“Now I don’t know how long this is going to last,” Skeets said. “Maybe a month, maybe three months, maybe longer than that, but let’s just enjoy it, let’s take advantage of it. I’m looking at it in that sense of literally enjoying this Kawhi experience for as long or as short as it is.”

Even if Leonard leaves, Skeets takes solace in one thing: the Raptors as a franchise have aced every single test in this one-year experiment with Leonard, from managing his health to making the win-now moves necessary to build a contending team around their superstar. And if he leaves, like Leonard with the Spurs, there will be no regrets.

“I would have rather experienced this one year than not have experienced it at all,” Skeets said.

“It’s the first big test of whether the fortunes in Los Angeles have changed on a permanent basis”

The Clippers are considered the front-runner by most to land Kawhi Leonard this summer. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
The Clippers are considered the front-runner by most to land Kawhi Leonard this summer. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Adam Horowitz is 50 and considers himself a lifelong Clippers fan. Initially founded as the Buffalo Braves in 1970, the franchise moved to the west coast and became the San Diego Clippers in 1978. Horowitz was a 9-year-old living in San Diego, and lined up with his dad to secure season tickets, sitting second row at center court for six seasons, before the team relocated to Los Angeles in 1984.

Horowitz has followed the Clippers closely since, and in 2009, a freshman named Kawhi Leonard joined the San Diego State Aztecs. In his sophomore season, Leonard led the Aztecs to a 34-3 record and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in the NCAA tournament.

“It was the highlight of any San Diego sports fan’s existence for the last 20 years,” Horowitz said.

The Clippers are believed in many circles to be the favorite to sign Leonard this summer. They have not been shy about making their presence felt at Raptors home games. Aside from having scouts on media row, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer sat courtside when his team visited the Raptors in February.

Horowitz has been rooting for Leonard in the playoffs, with caveats.

“In some respects, it’s great. It’s like, keep it up, and then come to the Clippers,” Horowitz said. “In other respects, it’s like, whoa whoa whoa, slow down, don’t win Toronto a championship and stay. You want him to have success, but not too much.”

The Clippers have quickly rebuilt after trading away both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, and were a surprise playoff team this season, taking the Warriors to six games in the first round while building out a solid group of supporting players.

With cap space to attract marquee free agents this summer, Leonard would be the perfect acquisition, and also help possibly unseat the Lakers as the featured team in Los Angeles, a prospect that was difficult to fathom as recently as last summer when LeBron James came to town.

Melissa Stetten grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, played basketball in high school, moved to Los Angeles and became a Clippers fan during the Lob City era.

“Clippers games feel like authentic sports games,” Stetten said. “It’s no bullshit, just people there to see a hardworking team play basketball. At Laker games, I see lots of men wearing expensive shiny jackets and women wearing heels and cut-off jerseys. I'm not hating on their outfit choices, but the vibe I get is a lot of people are there for the social scene. I don't doubt there are hardcore Laker fans, but from what I see at Clippers games, they also have an insanely devoted fanbase.”

In many ways, what the Clippers are searching for this summer is what the Raptors have desired as an organization forever: a transcendent superstar to take them to a championship level, or even close to it. The Clippers have never made it to even the conference finals.

“It’s the first big test of whether the fortunes in Los Angeles have changed on a permanent basis,” Horowitz said. “It’s the biggest test we’ve seen as to whether this franchise is going to be a player [in free agency] permanently or whether we’ll flip back to the also-ran second tier team in Los Angeles.”

***

The Raptors are in the Eastern Conference final and they’re chasing two things: a championship and also the hope that an impressive playoff run can sway Leonard’s decision and convince him to return. As Raptors fans bask in the jubilation of the team’s Game 7 victory, they must continue to balance it with the realization that this could all be gone next season.

In San Antonio, the Spurs are moving ahead, with Popovich at the helm, and DeMar DeRozan as one of the new centerpieces of the team. In Los Angeles, the Clippers are hoping they’ve built an attractive enough situation for Leonard to decide he wants to be the final piece to their puzzle.

The answers to Leonard’s future will be revealed soon, and after an entire season of scrutinizing every possible sound byte and pre- and post-game interaction, there’s still very little for either the Raptors or Clippers fanbase to hold on to, making the process that much more excruciating.

“Nobody really knows at this point,” Horowitz said.

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