‘We Need Him to Stay’: Raptors Bracing for Kawhi Leonard’s Free Agency

by January 10, 2019

Kawhi Leonard‘s impending free agency looms over everything in Toronto.

Leonard, 27, is enjoying his best statistical season (27.3 points, 7.8 rebounds) with the Raptors (31-12), but his future remains very much in question.

Toronto can offer Kawhi a five-year, max-level contract extension worth around $190 million on July 1.

Per Sports Illustrated:

(Last season, he approached the Thunder about a Paul George-for-DeMar DeRozan swap.) Since [Masai] Ujiri took over basketball operations in 2013, the Raptors have been consistently good, never sinking below 48 victories. But they never felt great. “I have a mandate . . . to win a championship,” says Ujiri. “You can’t continue doing the same thing over and over again. We gave a chance to [that] team. We tried to build it as much as we can.”

Inside the locker room, Leonard’s free agency is rarely discussed, even if everyone is wary of the consequences. “We need him to stay,” says [Serge] Ibaka. “He keeps everybody safe—no one is safe if he leaves.” Ibaka has been one of Leonard’s strongest new connections. In Leonard, Ibaka sees shades of [Russell] Westbrook and Kevin Durant, his former teammates in Oklahoma City. “They have a similar mind-set, where if they want to do something, they know they can.” In San Antonio, Leonard was known as the Claw. In Toronto, Ibaka has tried to make Deadly Zombie (self-explanatory) and Cape Town (the city in South Africa) stick. “I don’t know why, but he keeps telling me he’s from Cape Town,” says Ibaka, who was born in Congo. “Of all the places. . . . Maybe he just wants to visit there someday.”

From his locker a few stalls over, Leonard looks up. “You hating on me, Serge?” Leonard asks, smiling.

Ibaka grins back. “No, man,” he says. “We need you to stay. Stay, Kawhi. Stayyyyyy.”

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