June 30th has come and gone, and NBA free agency is underway with big moves — though not unexpected ones — already done across the league. While most of the eligible top-name stars have solidified free agency deals — for example, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joining forces with the Brooklyn Nets in a high-profile deal, and Klay Thompson staying put in Golden State — Kawhi Leonard is yet to sign. Furthermore, the rumors swirling about his potential decision have prompted interested teams to keep quiet about any meetings or correspondence with Leonard lest they lose their chance at the MVP. Given that the Toronto Raptors are a top 3 pick to repeat and win the title again in 2020 (assuming they have 2019 Finals MVP Leonard on the team), Leonard’s exit could change the landscape of top teams and the fate of the 2019–2020 season.
Sources currently place Leonard back with the Raptors, with the LA Clippers or off to the LA Lakers. Interestingly, his choice could be the determining factor in which of the two teams could be the favorite to win the championship in 2020. Since most have picked the Lakers to take the title in 2020, if Leonard chooses to sign with the Lakers, it would further solidify their status as next year’s top pick — and could drop the status of the Raptors significantly. On the other hand, if he chooses to stay with the Raptors, their stock could rise significantly given the success they had this past season with Leonard at the helm. And the stakes couldn’t be higher for either the Lakers or the Raptors, as LeBron James’ Lakers are hungry for a title, and the Raptors are eager to show that their dethroning of the Warriors was no fluke.
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Amid these teams, the previously mentioned Brooklyn Nets look to toss their name in the hat as a legitimate title contender. After all, we’ve seen such combinations have an immediate impact on title contention when LeBron returned to Cleveland (to join Kyrie Irving) and again when KD joined up with the “Splash Brothers” and a stacked Golden State Warriors team in 2016. Both teams found themselves on top of the league and fighting for titles almost right away. With Leonard on top of his game and arguably the best player in the league right now, it’s hard to imagine his team of choice will deviate from this trend.
Regardless of Leonard’s decision, one change feels imminent. The Warriors — who have seen themselves quite heavily favored to take the title in the past several seasons — will no longer be the runaway favorites for the title when next season rolls around, especially given the departure of KD. There will be multiple teams with the talent, chemistry and hunger to compete with them during the regular season and for a seven-game series come postseason play. While KD is likely to miss most of next season, the Warriors could still see a significant drop-off in performance (and in momentum and swagger) while teams like the Nets regroup with a renewed sense of urgency and focus. There will be a third team at the top of the heap — whether it be the Raptors or the Lakers. The only question that remains is which will show up with Leonard on the roster.