The July 18 trade between the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors that brought DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to the Lonestar state and sent Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green across the northern border feels like forever ago. In terms of NBA news and drama, that’s because it was forever ago. Since the Kawhi-Spurs saga that dominated media outlets for a brief eternity was ended by this trade, we have seen a million new stories come and go.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s launch into full-on superstardom has happened. Jimmy Butler cussed out coaches while battling teammates with the third-stringers. The annual midseason coaching firings have taken causalities like Ty Lue, Fred Hoiberg, and Tom Thibodeau.
Most recently, though, we saw the peak of trade season, headlined by the Anthony Davis-Los Angeles Lakers storyline. However, amid multiple subplots within the season, there has been one person who has done a spectacular job of never straying from the spotlight and has allowed Kawhi to fly under the radar for the most part this season: Kevin Durant.
For KD, it all comes back down to his impending free agency this summer. That has been at the root of just about every stirring that has surrounded him. He hasn’t been shy about it, either, and walked into this season making it clear that his free agency was on his mind. Durant spoke back in October about his desire to use this offseason to make some big money moves, noting that the money he would make on the open market was the only thing on his mind.
After taking discounts and signing short deals with Golden State during their title run, it is hard to blame him for seeking a massive payday. That said, it is telling that he is weighing options outside of the Bay Area. The Warriors have the ability to pay him slightly more money than any other team in the league, but it would come at the price of not being able to pay big money to the other two key pieces of the team.
Those two pieces? Klay Thompson, who will also be a free agent this summer, and Draymond Green, whose contract will be up in 2020, but could sign an extension this year. Financially, this means that Kevin could have his sights set elsewhere at least just as much, if not more, than remaining with his current team.
The Knicks have received the most buzz in terms of a possible pairing come July. New York has done plenty on their part to keep the drama alive and well, too. Around the tip-off of the season, a billboard was spotted in the Big Apple featuring a trio of Kevin Durant, Kristaps Porzingis (who is no longer with the team), and a Larry O’Brien trophy.
After trading Porzingis a week prior to the NBA Trade Deadline in a move granting them enough cap space to pursue to max-level contract signees, the storyline was shifted from “will Durant sign with the Knicks?” to “who will Durant bring with him to the Knicks?”. Once again, New York kept their foot on the gas by using a photo of Kevin Durant to entice their season ticket holders to opt in for another year of Knicks basketball. Well played, New York.
Everything that comes along with the season-long ride of the Kevin Durant free agency countdown has been rough on him and his team. Most notably, it fueled a heated moment between Durant and Draymond Green earlier in the season, which many people believed could have caused irreparable damage to the team’s chemistry. Recently, it has been the cause of a staunch lashing of the media and their speculation by the two-times Finals MVP, who had quiet the moment in speaking with reporters.
If you’re Kawhi Leonard, it doesn’t get much better than this. As a quiet guy who has tried to avoid overwhelming attention since he came into the league, he has been able to lay low and just play ball this season after being vilified and discussed regularly last season and into the summer of 2018.
For what it’s worth, Leonard and the Toronto Raptors are doing everything right to help the situation. With the majority of the focus on Leonard last season being a matter of assessing how healthy he was, or if not playing was more of a choice or power play rather than an inability, they have been cautious with the star. He has sat out back to backs, taken time to rest plenty all season, and has become a pioneer the newest phrase that gets mentioned far too often: “load management”.
Also, they haven’t forced him to commit and Leonard hasn’t felt the need to do so. We have seen how it can get rough when someone like Kyrie Irving, who will have more than enough options on the table when he hits free agency this offseason, discusses plans, or even interest to re-sign with the team, and then things go even a little awry. For Kawhi, he hasn’t mentioned anything of the sort and as far as the Raptors go, they are okay with that. They have been positioning their roster to go all-in this season, but still be in a good place if he decides to leave.
With ongoing belief that the Los Angeles Clippers have just as good of a chance as anyone to sign Leonard this summer, leaving Toronto after one season may be exactly what he does. But even if he does, it will be okay, because he has played his cards right and worked himself back into the identity of the discreet, unnoticed superstar with a hilarious laugh. However, Kawhi would be wise to give some thanks to Kevin Durant, who’s domination of stories and headlines this season has helped make that possible.