• Brian L. Barefield

Kwahi Leonard should ask KD about the 2012 Finals before making a decision on free agency.

If I was Toronto Raptors forward Kwahi Leonard, the first person I would seek-out would be Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant. No not for any intel on if Klay Thompson plans to purify himself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka before the Finals. You know like he did in the Pacific Ocean during the first round of the playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Nor would I ask him if he plans on staying with the Warriors or leaving and going to the "Big Apple" with Kyrie Irving. I would simply ask one question that I am sure would catch him off-guard and probably have him puzzled.

"Did you ever think you would win a title with the Oklahoma City Thunder after you went to the Finals in 2012?"

That is the question I am sure is on the mind of Leonard as he leads the Raptors into Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Warriors in Toronto. He will be faced with that difficult decision once the Finals are over and NBA free agency begins on July 1st. The Raptors were able to obtain Leonard in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs in 2018 after things had soured between the star player and the storied franchise over an injury the Spurs felt Kwahi was completely healed from. Yet Leonard and his medical staff said he needed more time and just was not ready.

Kwahi and Danny Green were sent up North for DeMar Derozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected first-round pick. Raptors president Masai Ujiri knew he would be on the clock as Leonard can opt-out of his $21.3 million player option for the 2019-20 NBA season. He knew it would take a spectacular season in order to retain the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and NBA Finals MVP. The Raptors finished the season with the second-best record in the NBA (58-24), won the Eastern Conference title over the heavily-favored Milwaukee Bucks, and will play in the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.

Not bad for a franchise who received major backlash for trading away a fan favorite in DeRozan for a player who had reportedly said, "I have no interest in playing in Toronto." Although the Raptors can offer Leonard more money than any other team with a five-year $190 million contract (other teams would be limited to four years $141 million), he still may leave for California.

Insert Kevin Durant.

The Finals run made by the Toronto Raptors reminds me a lot of the 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder. They were loaded with talent that included Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka (who ironically is returning to the Finals as a member of the Toronto Raptors). Just like the Raptors, they had to go through a number of heavy favorites in their conference such as the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs in order to reach the Finals. Durant was playing some of the best basketball of his life even though they fell short to the LeBron James led Miami Heat (4-1).

"It hurts, man. We made it to the Finals, which was cool for us, but we didn't want to just make it there. Unfortunately, we lost," said Durant after the loss.

Most would think that a team with a core nucleus of players under 24 would make it back to the Finals, but James Harden would leave for the Houston Rockets and three years later Kevin Durant would leave for the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder never improved on that 2012 team after the Finals although they still competed at a high level.

The Thunder added players such as, Ronnie Brewer, Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, Daniel Orton, Mustafa Shakur, Royal Ivey, Ish Smith, and Randy Foye to help make a championship run that never happened. That lack of talent may have been one of the main reasons Kevin Durant left. He knew that management wasn't taking the necessary steps to place talent around him and Westbrook.

Which is the same problem Leonard will face when it's time to make the decision to stay or go. Will the Raptors have the necessary pieces to make another run at the Finals? By signing on for five years, Kwahi would have to play at a super high level to get Toronto past the likes of Boston and Philly with their young nucleus of talent. Also going back against a Milwaukee Bucks team with a rising superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo who has revenge on his mind.

At the start of the 2019-20 season the Raptors could be without the services of Marc Gasol (Player Option) and Danny Green (Unrestricted Free Agent). If Kwahi does decide to stay he could be without one of his key sharpshooters in Green.

Toronto does not have a history of attracting big name free agents so this would start their downfall. In 2020-21 they will be faced with another free agency dilemma as Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Fred Van Fleet will all be unrestricted free agents leaving the Raptors facing a rebuilding phase that Leonard does not want to go through in this part of his career.

So even if by some strange twist of fate the Raptors defeat that juggernaut on the West Coast in the Warriors. I still don't believe that they nor Drake can do enough to keep Kwahi Leonard in Toronto. Plus I am under the impression that he is a Tupac fan and has the song "California Love" on repeat.

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