'Don't Expect Any Favors': NBA Execs Dish on How to Keep Kawhi in TorontoJuly 26, 2018
Pay no mind to Kawhi Leonard's feet in the recent photo taken with Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster on the team practice court, a photo presented as proof by the Raptors that Leonard is indeed willing to travel north of the border and possibly even work there despite initial rumors to the contrary.
So what if one foot is forward and one foot is back, the stance of someone as ready to turn and run as stay exactly where he is? That could just be the way Leonard is comfortable standing, right?
Rest assured, though, that Ujiri, Webster and everyone else with a vested interest in Leonard's ongoing feelings about living and playing in Toronto will be monitoring everything he does and says (which isn't likely to be much if his time in San Antonio is a guide) between now and the February trade deadline to determine if he's still bent on joining an L.A. team next summer. Photo poses included.
Contrary to seemingly popular belief, the phenomenon of marquee players forcing their way elsewhere didn't begin with LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Paul George. The list actually goes all the way back to Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Earl Monroe and includes Charles Barkley, Jason Kidd and Alonzo Mourning as well.
All of which means plenty of executives can appreciate Ujiri's predicament. Four current ones, all of whom have dealt with players who wanted out, offered advice on what Ujiri can do to persuade Leonard to stay, accurately assess his chance of retaining him and if or when he should deal Leonard if it becomes clear he has no intention of staying in Toronto beyond this season.
Then again, Ujiri has plenty of experience already. Before joining the Raptors, he had to deal with an unhappy Carmelo Anthony as GM of the Denver Nuggets. Ujiri ultimately fulfilled Anthony's wish to be dealt to the New York Knicks in exchange for an array of players that allowed the Nuggets to add three more seasons to their streak of consecutive playoff appearances to 10. He made that decision, Nuggets sources say, after asking Anthony a simple, direct question: Will you sign an extension? When Melo demurred, Ujiri committed to trading him.
Despite the black-and-white manner in which Leonard's situation has been discussed, the challenge for Ujiri is not in whether Leonard will actually play for the Raptors, but how much he will commit himself to the team's success this season.
"You don't have to worry about the guy playing," one Western Conference GM says. "If he didn't play, that would be two years of inactivity, and he can't afford that going into free agency. The tough thing to gauge is if he's 100 percent in. You may get a good player, not a great player."
Getting Leonard to stay begins with earning his trust. Leonard's unhappiness with the Spurs, one rival team president said, began during negotiations on the current five-year, $94 million deal he signed in 2015.
The Spurs, as they had with other stars—Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker—initially offered Leonard a deal slightly less than the maximum amount they could, ostensibly to spend on putting talent around him. Leonard had just been named Defensive Player of the Year and was one year removed from being Finals MVP.
"I don't think he ever completely bought into the San Antonio culture," the team president says. "The first time he was up for an extension, they asked him to take a little less and he said no. He wasn't going to be like Tim, Manu and Tony. He was coming off a great year and felt he deserved everything he had coming to him. He's going to do what you ask him to do, but don't expect any favors. He'll be offended you even asked."
Building relationships beyond Kawhi is also vital, beginning with his business manager and uncle, Dennis Robertson, who has been vilified in San Antonio as the mastermind behind his departure, a perspective that the rival team president says is unfair.
A recent ESPN report portrayed Robertson as a self-seeking interloper utilizing Leonard as a way to build a client list of NBA players rather than a successful financial executive looking out for his nephew's best interests. Seeing Robertson the latter way, as Leonard does, is a must for the Raptors, says an Eastern Conference general manager. "Contrary to what people say, he's a smart dude," the GM says. "He's not a street dude. He's a businessman."
Cultivating a relationship with Robertson, though, isn't enough. Accommodating the wants and needs of everyone around Leonard will be important. Speaking in general terms for winning over any presumptive free-agent star, one Eastern Conference vice president outlined the lengths to which a team must go to give itself the best shot.
"Figure out what the rules allow you to do, get up against that line and then push it," he says. "Find out what he doesn't like, what his fears are, what will make him happy. That goes for travel, on the court and off the court. What is most important to him? Who does he want to play with? What does the wife need? What do the kids need? What are those business opportunities locally that you can extend to that player? The money is not going to be great, but depending on the market, it could move the needle. All these things matter. You might not think they matter, but they do."
In fact, making inroads with everyone around Leonard, at least initially, might be smarter than smothering Leonard—especially for Ujiri, who was accused by his outgoing All-Star, DeMar DeRozan, of not being up front with him about the possibility he could be traded.
"In this instance, you might have to let time heal the wounds," the Eastern Conference GM says. "Masai has got to show Kawhi who he is more than he can tell him. You've got to give him a little space while you figure out who his closest confidants are—agent, parent, uncle. It's a little bit like college recruiting—find out who is in his ear. You have to finesse it."
Leonard's recent injury history could complicate things, making it hard to know if he's malingering. He played all of nine games for the Spurs last season because of a quad injury, the specifics of which have never been fully revealed. Some league executives question if he used the injury as an excuse not to play and as leverage to convince the Spurs to move him; others believe he was genuinely hurt and simply didn't want to risk further injury with free agency a year away.
Either way, "he did that to San Antonio, one of the most historic franchises in the league," the Eastern Conference VP says. "If you're Toronto, can you really think he won't do it to you?"
So how will the Raptors know if he's genuinely injured or simply saving himself for his next team?
"If healthy, he's a top-five player, but you'd have to have coached him or have film of him when he was that last," the Western Conference GM says. "There are certain signs, though. Does he fight through screens? Is he digging in defensively? A hustle play that he would ordinarily make in the first quarter, is he only making it in the fourth? Is he playing with the same speed and intensity? What's his focus like in practices? If he's not giving you those things, then you have to ask yourself why—he either can't or he won't."
Should the answer be the latter, the next question facing Ujiri will concern what he wants in return—assets by trading him before the February deadline or simply a chance at Leonard leading the Raptors to their first Finals before he exits.
The executives were unanimous in believing a playoff-bound team in need of a boost would be willing to deal a young player and a future first-round pick simply to acquire Leonard for a stretch run, but they were mixed on what the trigger should be.
"If you knew he wasn't staying at the trade deadline and you don't trade him, you're a fool," the Eastern Conference vice president says. "What if, after the deadline, he magically has an issue and shuts it down?"
The Western Conference GM disagrees, suggesting the fortunes of the team as a whole should drive the decision, especially since the Raptors didn't have to include any of their most valued young building blocks—small forward OG Anunoby, shooting guard Norman Powell and power forward Pascal Siakam—in the deal with four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan to acquire Leonard.
"People not in the L.A. market went into this thinking it's strictly a rental," he says. "If you get a sense that there's no chance to keep him but the team is playing well, you'll just roll with it. If the team is under-performing and there are chemistry issues and there's constant pressure from Kawhi and his camp, that's when you may have to listen to offers."
One big reason the Western Conference GM is willing to believe Leonard would try to take the Raptors as far as he could even if he were intent on leaving is how he played for the Spurs in those nine games. An NBA referee who worked one of the nine games says something clearly was bothering Leonard last season because he barked and complained to the officials far more than he ever had before, but that didn't show in his actual play. While he only averaged 23 minutes a game, his per-minute numbers in scoring and assists were second only to his 2016-17 All-Star season and his blocked shots were at an all-time high.
"There's no indication of him, when he's healthy, not playing hard," the Western Conference GM says. "There's going to be rhetoric, but he's a competitor. He's going to play."
How hard? How long? That remains to be seen. And for Ujiri to see it.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.