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Canada

Ujiri confident Raptors will keep Kawhi and try to ‘run it back,’ but says they’ll respect Leonard’s decision

Basking in the glow of Canada’s first NBA title, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri expressed confidence on Tuesday that his superstar player would return to defend the championship.

That doesn’t mean for sure that Kawhi Leonard is coming back, a drama millions of people seem to be following closely, even as they also follow Leonard in public a bit too closely, just that the brain trust knows it has done all it can to sell him and believes in the work that was done over the past 11 months since his acquisition from San Antonio.

“Our organization feels confident. And we do feel confident that he will (re-sign). But Kawhi is his own man. He’s shown that since he came here,” Ujiri said during a final media briefing of the season that at times felt like a political stump speech.

The Raptors now feel like they know Leonard, the two-time NBA Finals MVP who was brilliant in the run to glory, but recognize that nobody seems to truly know the elusive superstar. They’ve done their best to make a case, and can offer him more money and term than any other team (five years and just shy of $190 million U.S.), but a meeting is not yet set up.

“He’s a confident human being, he’s an unbelievable person, he is his own person. I’m glad we got him for the year. I said this to you guys, we have to be ourselves. And we were ourselves the whole year,” Ujiri said. “I think he saw that, I think we built a trust there. But at the end of the day, the relationship I’ve developed with Kawhi, and I know the relationship this organization has built with Kawhi, we will respect his decision. I do respect that. I always say that the hardest thing in this business is trading a player and free agency, and we always have to be ready for both. But I believe winning a championship, him seeing who we are, working with his medical staff combined with our medical staff and getting him to where he wanted to be (health-wise following his nine-game 2017-18 season, will be keys).”

Raptors President Masai Ujiri at year end press conference in Toronto, Ont. on Tuesday June 25, 2019. (Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network) Craig Robertson / Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun

Ujiri said the lines of communication have remained open with Leonard, his agent and his advisor and uncle, Dennis Robertson, who gave Ujiri a big thumbs up during the championship parade last week. “I’ve had very good meetings with him the last few days, and yes he’s told me, and honestly I’d rather keep that conversation between me and Kawhi for now, and for me, they’ve been positive. And he challenges me the same way that I challenge him, and I think that the goal is the same, and I appreciate that,” Ujiri said.

“Whenever they make up their mind, we’ll be here. I know we’ll be in touch with them. We’ve built a relationship with them where honestly, I texted with Kawhi last night. I talked to his uncle this morning. For us, there is that trust regardless of wherever it goes.”

Former all-star centre Marc Gasol must make a decision about his own future on Thursday. He can opt into a final year worth about $26 million, or become a free agent. Fellow starter Danny Green will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the month.

Ujiri hopes to bring all of the key contributors back but recognized Leonard’s decision hovers over everything. Regardless, he says his staff has plans drawn up for various scenarios.

“I think our team is always very well-prepared, that we would be able to deal with whatever comes our way,” Ujiri said.

“I think our team is in a good place where we can be in a holding pattern. We don’t have to react to anything that’s done in any way. We will wait. He’s our player. He’s a superstar on our team in the league. We’ll continue to wait on that until we know otherwise.

“We’ve spoken at length with (Gasol and Green) and their agents and they know what the effect of Kawhi’s decision is but we’re really approaching it like we want to bring everybody back. This team, that’s a priority for us, how we can run it back and I think they know that and we’ve had good communication towards that,” Ujiri said.

Ideally, running it back will be the theme for 2019-20, but that only happens if No. 2 signs on the dotted line.

Ujiri is already imagining the possibilities.

“I said we would win in Toronto and I really believed it, I said that when I got here and I truly believed it and I truly believe we will win some more. I have no doubt in my mind.”

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