LOS ANGELES -- When Kawhi Leonard was a kid growing up in Southern California, he was surrounded by Los Angeles Lakers fans. His adolescence matched the heyday of Kobe Bryant's tenure with the franchise, and his family -- like so many others in Riverside and other parts of the Inland Empire where he grew up -- was full of devoted followers of the purple and gold.
Leonard, though, wasn't one of them.
"I wasn't at all," Leonard said Saturday. "My family was, but I wasn't.
"I liked Allen Iverson, I was an A.I. fan, so I didn't like the Lakers."
It was a throwaway line at the end of a short, perfunctory postpractice interview -- one that, like virtually every such session Leonard is a part of, he dutifully worked to end as quickly as he could. But it also was a small window into the mindset Leonard has employed as he has lifted himself from being a high school star plying his trade 60 miles east of Los Angeles into the sport's best two-way wing player.
That same mindset is also something that bears watching as, for the next eight months, Leonard weighs his options for where he'll continue his career upon hitting unrestricted free agency for the first time next summer.
It should leave the Lakers, whom the Toronto Raptors bludgeoned Sunday night by a score of 121-107 with Leonard sitting out with a sore left foot, nervous about what Leonard will decide.
For the past two offseasons, the Lakers have kept their powder dry in the trade market. Rather than sacrificing any of their young core -- Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart -- to pursue a trade for someone like Paul George or Leonard, the Lakers have been content to sit back, let them grow and hope the combination of a young talent base and the bright lights of Hollywood will be enough to lure star power back to Los Angeles again.
It turned out to be enough to get the biggest star of all, LeBron James, to join the Lakers on July 1. But George spurned the chance to play alongside James this summer, opting to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder at the start of free agency. And while there is plenty of time for things to change, there is a sense within the league Leonard will do the same next summer.
A survey of several league executives this weekend had the Lakers trailing, even among Staples Center tenants, in the competition to get Leonard, with the LA Clippers universally being placed ahead of them. Rather than seeking to team up with James, the thinking is that Leonard would prefer to have control of his own team, which the Clippers would offer, while still giving him the ability to return to his native Southern California.
The Lakers explored a potential Leonard trade this summer, but the San Antonio Spurs' asking price prevented a deal from ever coming close to fruition. The Clippers, meanwhile, have relentlessly pursued Leonard since the summer but didn't have the assets necessary to get a deal done.
Toronto, however, did, ultimately sending an All-Star (DeMar DeRozan), a young talent (Jakob Poeltl) and a first-round pick to San Antonio for Leonard and Danny Green. And now that the Raptors get to spend a season recruiting Leonard to remain north of the border, the Raptors have a quiet confidence about their ability to get him to stick around next summer.
One source of optimism stems from the fact that Thunder general manager Sam Presti was able to hang on to George -- despite George having openly stated he wanted to play for the Lakers, Oklahoma City being one of the league's smallest markets and the Thunder having lost in the first round of the playoffs last season. But the bigger source of optimism is what Toronto has to offer Leonard if he does decide to stay.
Kawhi takes contact and finishes and-1 layup
Kawhi Leonard shows off his strength as he drives to the lane, gets fouled and still finishes the layup.
Ironically, Toronto's best sales pitch on the court for what it can do moving forward came with Leonard not even playing Sunday night. After jamming his foot late in Friday's win in Phoenix, the Raptors played it safe with their star and sat him against the Lakers -- only to finish the first quarter up 42-17 and cruise to an easy win. It was the perfect chance for Toronto's young, athletic roster to showcase itself -- not to mention a throwback game from Serge Ibaka, who had 20 points in the first quarter alone and finished with 34 points and 10 rebounds, while Kyle Lowry continued his torrid start to the season with 21 points, 6 rebounds and 15 assists.
The Raptors have a roster teeming with long, bouncy athletes, a cohesive unit that goes two deep at every position with long-limbed players who allow first-year coach Nick Nurse to mix-and-match as he sees fit. Lowry, meanwhile, has double-digit assists in eight of Toronto's first 10 games and looks as comfortable as he has ever been running the team. The result has been Toronto jumping out to a 9-1 start after Sunday's win -- tied with the Golden State Warriors for the NBA's best record through Week 3.
It's early still, of course, but the Raptors look every bit the contender they were billed as before the season began -- and Leonard, who is averaging 26.1 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.0 steals in seven games, is back to his MVP-level form from before last season, when he was derailed by tendinopathy in his right quad.
Toronto's sales pitch will extend off the court, as well. On opening night in Toronto, Leonard was introduced last to a massive ovation from the fans inside Scotiabank Arena -- the kind that will be commonplace over the next several months, as the rabid Raptors fan base tries to will him into making the decision it hopes he will. And with the ability to offer him unfettered access to one of the big cities in North America from a marketing standpoint -- not to mention an entire country -- Toronto hopes to convince Leonard there's plenty to be gained financially from sticking around.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster lead what has proven to be an adept, flexible front office that not only pulled off the Leonard trade to begin with, but has also stocked Toronto's roster with young talent that should allow the Raptors to remain a factor atop the East for years to come. When next summer rolls around, there's little doubt they will present Leonard with a plan for how exactly they expect to do that.
Regardless of how things play out this season, though -- no matter how well the Raptors do, or how much Leonard assimilates into Toronto's vibrant cultural scene -- it's worth remembering that this is a man who grew up in the heart of Lakers territory rooting against his hometown team and his family, and for Allen Iverson.
Kawhi Leonard has never been afraid to be a contrarian. That could make the Lakers' task of convincing him to join them next summer more difficult than they ever imagined it'd be.