Some teams were going to talk themselves into it; the situation was just too ripe. There was a blockbuster coming.
In the summer of 2018, Masai Ujiri kept thinking about the difference between a good team and a great team.
The Toronto Raptors president had built good teams; he even won the NBA Executive of the Year award in his third season as general manager of the Denver Nuggets. He built a bunch of 50-win teams. He built teams that won division titles. He built teams that went to the conference finals.
But Ujiri asked himself: Had he truly ever built a great team in Toronto -- one that legitimately could win it all?
As he spent days mulling over what could have been the riskiest move of his career, he finally came to grips with the answer and then executed the trade for Kawhi Leonard.
At the moment, the NBA has a bloated middle class. There is a large group of teams, maybe as many as a dozen, that are on the edge of contention. They have a star or two. They have a path maybe to reach the second round of the playoffs or maybe even the conference finals, if things fall just right. They are good; they are not great.
This is where James Harden comes in, and why his future could shape how this NBA season plays out.