For Kawhi Leonard, Toronto provided a return of a different kind

TORONTO -- The Toronto Raptors had five months to decide how they were going to honor Kawhi Leonard.

It was time well-spent. The Raptors feted Leonard perfectly before their game Wednesday against the LA Clippers. Public address announcer Herbie Kuhn directed the sellout crowd at Scotiabank Arena to look at the video board above center court for a tribute video. Leonard received his championship ring from Kyle Lowry. Waves of cheers washed over him throughout the Clippers' 112-92 win. It was a fitting tribute to a man who, in the span of 10 months, transformed this franchise from a perennial NBA also-ran to the champion of the basketball world.

It also couldn't have been more different than Leonard's first "return" game of this calendar year. Eleven months ago in San Antonio, the Spurs were so concerned about the venom that would come Leonard's way from the crowd at AT&T Center that they made the decision to honor him alongside fellow former Spur Danny Green, hoping that would lessen the anger directed Leonard's way.

It did not.

"It's a new year, new season," Leonard said that day. "I'm just looking at what is in front of us right now."

Little did Leonard or anyone else know what lay in front of him between these two reunion games. In the intervening 11 months, Kawhi Leonard changed the NBA forever.

It's easy to forget, given how things played out, that trading for Leonard was hardly seen as a universally good move in Toronto.

Masai Ujiri traded for a superior player in Leonard in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, the centerpiece going to San Antonio. DeRozan was homegrown, with nine years' tenure logged with the Raptors, and he chose to stay in Toronto instead of testing free agency in 2017. The Raptors often feel treated like second-class citizens in the basketball world, but a kid from Compton chose to put roots down in Canada. That resonated with the fan base.

As a result, Leonard arrived in Toronto to a skeptical audience unsure of how long the pending free agent would stay or how effective he would be after he played just nine games in his final season as a Spur.

Then the games started, and wins began piling up. The mood in Toronto changed.

Yes, DeRozan still holds a special place in the hearts of the fans. The cheers he received at his return in February were even louder than the ones Leonard got Wednesday.

But even those who opposed the trade soon had to admit that it was unquestionably the right decision.

That was cemented by Toronto's magical run through the postseason. For three straight seasons, the Raptors had their season ended at the hands of LeBron James, the unstoppable juggernaut who won 10 straight playoff games against this franchise, earning it the derisive nickname "LeBronto" in the process.

Suddenly, the Raptors were the ones with a terminator on their side. Before long, they were -- finally -- the ones with a championship, too.

"Certainly this guy, Kawhi, was a huge part of this," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, "and this is here now to honor what he did for this organization. I think Kyle said it best at the pep rally, at the parade, that 'We're all brothers for life,' and that's it. I'm going to be connected to Kawhi for life because of what we achieved last year, and all of us who were in that locker room are."

Leonard's arrival in 2018 transformed the Toronto Raptors. His spring and summer in 2019 transformed the rest of the NBA.

Had his epic, four-bounce buzzer-beater to end the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers bounced out, perhaps the Sixers would've won a title and brought back Jimmy Butler. Instead, Butler is in Miami via a sign-and-trade for Josh Richardson. Al Horford left the Boston Celtics to join Philadelphia. Had the Milwaukee Bucks found a way to hold on to the big leads they had in Games 3 and 6 in the Eastern Conference finals, perhaps they would've kept Malcolm Brogdon rather than sign-and-trading him to the Indiana Pacers.

But those remain what-ifs. The banner the Raptors hung after beating the Orlando Magic, 76ers, Bucks, and Golden State Warriors is real.

Still, the Raptors knew even after they won the title that Leonard was a long shot to stay. Los Angeles, with the Lakers and Clippers, was his most likely destination.

"Gave it big consideration," he said when asked if he thought about returning. "I took my time like I did. I didn't hurry up and make a quick decision. I talked to the front office in deep detail.

"It was a hard choice to make."

When that choice was made in the early hours of July 6, well after other free-agent superstars had made their decisions, the ripple effects were felt across the NBA. The Raptors no longer had their star. The Clippers suddenly had two: Leonard and Paul George, the latter acquired for a king's ransom from the Oklahoma City Thunder. Ten days later, the Thunder sent Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets, ending his 11-year run in OKC.

Meanwhile, the Lakers, left at the altar by Leonard, moved on to sign Danny Green, Leonard's former running mate in San Antonio and Toronto.

That makes 10 teams -- one-third of the league -- were altered either by Leonard's play in the playoffs or his power play to go to Los Angeles and bring George with him.

It was against that backdrop that Leonard returned to Toronto. All that mattered to the Raptors, though, was that their lone year with him ended the way it did. On Wednesday, they honored him for it.

"It's like Maximus coming back as the gladiator," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "He was the champion and just did everything honorably and the right way."

While the Raptors had a few months to prepare for this night, they also have had a few months to move on from Leonard -- and into their future without him.

"I think that I knew before the season we had a good group of guys, good talent, good coaches and are a good franchise," Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said recently when asked how the Raptors have "surprised" people to start this season. "We're gonna be one of the better teams in the league."

Part of the reason that Wednesday was such a feel-good night is that even without Leonard, life isn't so bad. The Raptors are on pace to win 54 games and have the look of a feisty playoff team in the Eastern Conference. They were 9-0 at home before dropping their past three games in Toronto, including Wednesday.

The Clippers, meanwhile, are in a similar place to where the Raptors were a year ago: with a deep, talented roster that has them positioned as one of the favorites to win an NBA title.

"I'm just trying to win," Leonard said. "That's all I ever do is go into the season and try to win the game, help my team the best I could and just try to have fun."

If there is one thing the NBA learned in 2019, it's that Kawhi Leonard knows how to win. He won over a city, a fan base and a franchise that wasn't sure how it felt about him. He won a championship for a team that had never made the NBA Finals. He won the offseason by engineering things to play out on his terms.

And on the night he got his championship ring, he won the game.