TORONTO: Defending champion Golden State and the Toronto Raptors are battling for supremacy in the NBA Finals, but both teams could lose superstar talent in upcoming free agency for next season.
Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol and Golden State’s injured Kevin Durant as well as Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins are among those expected to be highly prized free agents on the market next month for the 2019-20 campaign.
Players can agree on contract terms for next season starting in July and begin signing new deals on July 6.
Durant, Leonard and Gasol have contract options allowing them to opt out of deals and become free agents after the NBA Finals, as do such stars as Boston’s Kyrie Irving and Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler.
Thompson and Cousins become free agents once the Warriors’ season is over and their deals conclude.
The Raptors made a trade deal last year for Leonard with San Antonio knowing they were guaranteed only one season with Leonard in Toronto. Their move for Gasol with Memphis at the trade deadline was for a top defender to help the title chase but one who could leave afterwards.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri, who is from Nigeria, says regardless of how the finals turn out, the trust built over the journey will be critical in Toronto’s chances of persuading Leonard to stay.
“We’re going to be us,” Ujiri said. “Kawhi Leonard is a superstar and we’re going to treat him like a superstar, but we’re also going to do all the natural things I think will help us get to that level to convince Kawhi that this is the place for him.
“The future conversations I’ve had with Kawhi are about the Golden State Warriors and that’s his mindset, what’s at hand right now, what’s the job right now. And the job right now is to beat the Golden State Warriors.”
Ujiri realizes the deal must work for the club and Leonard, who has had to adjust to life in a new nation.
“When he sees with the city, the fan base, basketball, coaching, everything almost has to come together naturally,” Ujiri said.
“You hope to build that trust. We know there are two tough moments in sports, trading a player and when a player leaves in free agency. We all have to prepare ourselves for everything. I think we’ve built this trust in a way that whatever it is, we would have prepared ourselves.”
Some Raptors fans were excited at a report Leonard bought property in Toronto but he said Sunday that it wasn’t true.
There’s a lot of money available and plenty of possibilities.
LeBron James would love to lure talent to the Los Angeles Lakers and both Thompson and Leonard are from Los Angeles.
Reports and speculation link Durant to the New York Knicks or Los Angeles Clippers and Leonard or Durant, or both, to the Brooklyn Nets, maybe with Irving.
‘Nothing is guaranteed’
Clippers coach Doc Rivers incurred a US$50,000 fine from the NBA for comparing Leonard to retired Chicago Bulls icon Michael Jordan.
“I don’t really think my legacy is going to ever reach the potential of Michael Jordan,” Leonard said. “I just want to play and let people remember I played hard at both ends of the floor, I was a winner, and that’s basically it.”
The Knicks can be the big spenders in free agency with nearly US$73 million available while the Clippers have nearly US$60 million and the Nets about US$54 million.
The Warriors can offer Thompson a five-year deal for US$190 million, better terms than rivals, but that hasn’t stopped Thompson from fielding questions about his legacy.
“I just try to enjoy the journey,” he said. “You wish to have no end in sight, but everything that’s great always comes to an end. So whether that’s tomorrow or four years from now, you never know.
“That’s the beauty of life. You just got to go out and enjoy every minute with the group of guys you got, because in professional sports nothing is ever guaranteed.”