TORONTO — The 2019 NBA Finals, which have the makings of a potential all-time classic on the court, will be played amid a sea of speculation from across the league over the futures of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.
And, as the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors face off over the next four to seven games, several other teams will be paying attention not to the outcome, but to the future of the two stars, hoping to lure them away next season.
In the midst of this age of player empowerment in the NBA, it is fitting that the league’s championship series will serve as the backdrop to an ongoing discussion — one both teams have weathered all season long — over what decisions Durant and Leonard will make a month from now.
Both the Warriors and Raptors deserve credit for how they have managed to come so far this season with the cloud of Durant and Leonard’s respective free agencies hanging over their heads. Both teams have had low points, from the infamous blowup between Durant and Draymond Green on the court in Los Angeles against the Clippers in November to the Raptors being annihilated in Leonard’s return to San Antonio in early January.
But in the end, those were simply signpost moments along the way in seasons that will end, as both teams had hoped and expected, in the Finals. At media day, Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who made the daring trade to bring Leonard to Toronto last summer, addressed the media before either team, and was asked directly about Leonard’s future in Toronto.
“I think when [Leonard] came here he made it clear he wanted to be healthy,” Ujiri said Wednesday morning at a news conference ahead of Game 1 Thursday night. “He wants to play on a good team that would compete, and I think kudos to [director of sports science] Alex McKechnie and Kawhi’s team that I think they have worked together to get him slowly back to playing at this level after missing, playing only nine games last year.
“I think when he sees with the city, the fan base, basketball, I think coaching, everything almost has to come together. I think that was an incredible moment in Game 7 with that shot. All these things I think naturally they have to come together, and I think we’re blessed here in Toronto that it’s slowly coming together for us. But the trust, you hope to build that trust where at the end of the day we know that there are two tough moments in sports, in the job that we do that make it very, very difficult, and that’s trading a player and when a player leaves in free agency. We all have to prepare ourselves for everything, and I think we have built this trust in a way that whatever it is, I think we would have prepared ourselves.”
The Warriors have faced similar questions about Durant all season. From the moment Golden State landed the former MVP three years ago, teams around the league waited for the time this dynastic run for Golden State would begin to fade — either because of injury, or because of a defection via free agency or trade.
Durant — who will miss at least Game 1 because of his lingering calf injury — could bring that potential fade to fruition by deciding to leave when he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season.
In doing so, he would not only turn a Warriors team that has looked unstoppable for three seasons into a simply great team, but he’d also give hope to several teams — most notably the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers — that one of the greatest players of this (or any) generation will choose to join them come July.
The same could be said for Leonard, who seemed destined to wind up in Los Angeles even before the Raptors acquired him in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs. But while the Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers would still hope to land Leonard this summer, his magical playoff run in Toronto — including an all-time great buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers — and the way the Raptors have successfully managed his health have given rise to a belief that he could, in fact, remain north of the border beyond this season.
The endless speculation around his future could have easily unsettled, and ultimately doomed, the Raptors. Instead, they — and the Warriors — managed to rise above the noise.
Instead, they allowed themselves to emerge from hellacious fights during these playoffs — the Warriors winning the final two games of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets with Durant out injured, and the Raptors surviving slugfests against first the Sixers and then the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals — unscathed.
“As each series goes [by], you get more media, or asked more questions about what’s going on,” Leonard said. “But I think once this is over, it’s still between the lines. You’re playing five-on-five. We’re still playing basketball. We have a scheme. [So] just focus on that, and don’t focus on the outside attention.
“We know what we need to do here inside this locker room every day, so don’t pay attention to people who are not in your locker room.”
That is a formula both teams have found solace — and success — in this season. But it hasn’t erased the speculation from their lives. And, as this series continues to progress, the noise may only grow louder.
Every Toronto victory or defeat during this postseason has become a mini-referendum on Ujiri’s franchise-changing experiment to bring Leonard to Toronto last summer. That no one has any idea whether this run is having any impact on Leonard’s thinking is beside the point; it hasn’t stopped anyone from constantly wondering whether it has.
Meanwhile, Durant exiting the stage in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals with a calf injury has added a new dynamic to the ongoing drama over his future. With the Warriors rattling off six straight wins (including Game 5) without him, the question of whether Golden State is better without him has, again, become a talking point.
So, too, has whether the Warriors should even bring back Durant before they lose a game, no matter when he’s ready to play, or what it would mean if Golden State brings him back and the team’s strong play without him fades away.
All year long, these two teams have been working toward this final goal, building toward the crescendo of arriving here at the NBA Finals hoping to make history. Now, that goal is within their reach, and both sides are fully capable of achieving it.
But rather than the focus solely being on that, and how this series plays out, the fight over the futures of Durant and Leonard rages on. From here to Oakland, from New York to Los Angeles, the chase is on to secure the services of two of the game’s premier talents.
Even the league’s showcase event — the one everyone in the league wants to be in — isn’t big enough to make us forget that.