Playing in front of Kawhi Leonard Sunday night, the Lakers didn’t make a strong case to attract the impending free agent, writes Tim Bontemps of ESPN. Leonard sat out the game with a sore left foot, but watched his Raptors teammates take an early 41-10 lead on the way to a comfortable victory.
A Southern California native, Leonard has reportedly expressed a desire to return to the West Coast once he opts out of his contract next summer. However, there has been talk that he prefers the Clippers, where he could be the top star, rather than joining the Lakers and serving as a sidekick to LeBron James.
Leonard has been guarded in his public statements, but he did mention the Lakers in a weekend interview, saying he wasn’t a fan of the team while growing up.
“I wasn’t at all,” he said. “My family was, but I wasn’t. I liked Allen Iverson, I was an A.I. fan, so I didn’t like the Lakers.”
That statement could be interpreted as bad new for the Lakers, who will be in the market for a second star to team with James. At one time, they were hoping Paul George would be headed to L.A., but he was traded to the Thunder and opted to re-sign there. According to Bontemps, the Raptors are confident they can repeat that scenario with Leonard.
At 9-1, Toronto is tied with Golden State for the league’s best record. The team is two-deep at every position and has plenty of talent for first-year coach Nick Nurse to adjust the lineup to fit the opponent. Raptors officials believe a full season of success will encourage Leonard to re-sign with the organization, which will have the Bird rights advantages of being able to offer him a longer contract and larger raises than anyone else.
Bontemps envisions a sales pitch where team president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster emphasize the advantages of playing with a young roster that can be an Eastern Conference contender for several years, along with a rabid fan base that has already welcomed Leonard as a hero. It’s still uncertain whether that will be enough, but Toronto’s plans for keeping Leonard couldn’t be working out any better.