After just one season with the Toronto Raptors, Kawhi Leonard will be taking his talents to the Los Angeles Clippers, where he will be teaming up with fellow offseason acquisition Paul George and a solid returning cast from the team that finished eighth in the Western Conference last season. But even with Leonard’s decision representing a big blow to the defending NBA champions, Raptors head coach, Nick Nurse, recently remarked that he understood the 2019 NBA Finals MVP’s move to one of his hometown teams.
“I think you can’t blame a guy for wanting to go home,” Nurse told reporters at the Las Vegas Summer League on Saturday night, as quoted by ESPN. “That’s what [Leonard] texted me today. ‘I’m going home.’ And I just said, ‘You’ve changed a lot of lives, man, by what you’ve accomplished in Toronto. Mine especially.’ And thanked him for what he did, and we’ll look to the future, and we’ll look to [win a title] again.”
As further noted by ESPN, the Raptors had long been prepared for the possibility that Leonard would only be a one-year rental for the team, after they acquired him from the San Antonio Spurs in the summer of 2018. That possibility, as Nurse recalled, became a reality for the Raptors when he got a text message while he was “hanging out” with two of his assistant coaches.
“I’m not totally surprised,” Nurse continued. “I think we all knew that [Leonard leaving] was a situation that could happen. He delivered big-time, played his heart out for us. We certainly are going to relish this championship for a long time.”
Despite admitting that Leonard’s move to the Clippers wasn’t that much of a surprise, Nurse told reporters it was “certainly disappointing” that he and the Raptors will be losing their best player once the signing becomes official. He described the two-time Defensive Player of the Year as an “unbelievably fun” individual to coach, and someone who was always ready to work hard on the court.
Regarding the Raptors’ plans for the 2019-20 season without Kawhi Leonard, Nurse said that the team will soon “stop celebrating” their first NBA championship and prepare for the “tremendous” challenge that awaits them in the coming months. He hinted that there could be some Raptors players who will enjoy more prominent roles in the team following Leonard’s departure, but did not name anyone specifically.
As the Raptors team has a sizable hole to fill with its top star headed to Los Angeles, it appears that the team’s recent roster moves have been geared toward at least partially replacing Leonard’s contributions at small forward. On Sunday, The Athletic‘s Shams Charania took to Twitter to report that former Brooklyn Nets forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson agreed to a one-year contract with Toronto, where he could set himself up for a big payday as a free agent in the summer of 2020, if he plays well for the Raptors. This came one day after Charania tweeted that the Raptors agreed to sign ex-Detroit Pistons lottery pick Stanley Johnson to a two-year contract, as noted by Sportsnet.