Report: Kawhi Leonard Declines Contract Option, 'Seriously Considering' Raptors

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2019

CLEVELAND, OHIO - MARCH 11: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors reacts as he walks off the court during the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on March 11, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Raptors 126-101. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

In a widely expected move, Kawhi Leonard will decline his 2019-20 player option with the Toronto Raptors to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

However, Haynes noted that Leonard is "believed to be seriously considering re-signing with the Raptors."

Leonard would have earned roughly $21.3 million in 2019-20 had he exercised the option. But even if he intends to return to the Raptors, opting out was a no-brainer for the three-time All-Star. The Raptors can offer him a five-year, $189.7 million max extension, while other teams can't give him more than a four-year, $140.6 million contract.

The 27-year-old also may prefer to take the LeBron James or Kevin Durant approach, where he signs a short-term deal that would allow him to opt out again in a year or two. Doing so would allow him to ink an even heftier max contract in 2021 or beyond.

Either way, Leonard had no reason to see out the remainder of his old contract.

Now the question becomes whether he stays in Toronto or bolts after one season.

Leonard and the Raptors didn't get off to a great start after they acquired him from the San Antonio Spurs last July. Shortly afterward, Sporting News' Sean Deveney reported Leonard had "no interest" in playing for his new team.

Over time, the relationship between the two sides grew stronger. In March, TSN's Josh Lewenberg reported Toronto was "increasingly confident" about its chances to retain Leonard this summer:

"However, as they've gotten to know Leonard better, they have come to understand the other priorities that drive him on daily basis. That's what their pitch will centre on: trust, familiarity, a commitment to maintaining his health and the shared goal of chasing a championship, as well as the extra year and contract worth nearly $50 million more than anyone else can offer."

Then came the first NBA championship in Raptors history, an achievement that wouldn't have been possible without Leonard. He averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists throughout the playoffs, building a case for himself as the NBA's best player.

The Raptors built their offense around Leonard. According to Basketball Reference, his 30.3 usage rate was the highest on the team, and he attempted the most shots (1,129) of any Raptor despite missing 22 regular-season games.

Leonard sat out so frequently because Toronto wanted to proactively manage his workload following an injury-plagued 2017-18 season, when he was limited to nine games due to a quadriceps issue. With an eye toward winning his trust and preserving him for the playoffs, the coaching staff was careful not to push him too hard during the regular season.

General manager Masai Ujiri took a big risk sending a fan favorite in DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for a player who might only be a one-year rental. Because of that, the Raptors had to go above and beyond to make Leonard feel comfortable.

Leonard said the plan ultimately ensured his effectiveness into the postseason.

When the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for Paul George in July 2017, almost everybody expected him to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers the following summer.

George later admitted he had envisioned going to Los Angeles—until he played in Oklahoma City and realized he wanted to stay with the Thunder, signing a four-year, $136.9 million extension.

The Raptors can offer Leonard more money than any other team and can provide him with the opportunity to once again contend for a title. The road back to the Finals might even be more open depending on how free agency shakes out for the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks.

The opportunity to go to a bigger market such as Los Angeles is "enticing" to Leonard, according to Haynes. However, Toronto has plenty working in its favor as it looks to sell him on the direction of the franchise.

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