LAS VEGAS — Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said he understood why Kawhi Leonard decided to leave the team after winning an NBA championship, but admitted being disappointed that Leonard and the rest of Toronto’s 2018-19 roster won’t be able to try to defend their crown together next season.
Leonard will join the LA Clippers on a four-year, $141 million contract, league sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
“I think you can’t blame a guy for wanting to go home,” Nurse said Saturday night at the Las Vegas Summer League. “That’s what he 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.”
Nurse said the possibility of Leonard leaving was always something the organization was aware of from the moment it acquired him from the San Antonio Spurs last summer. Nurse said he was hanging out with a couple of members of his staff when he got the news that Leonard, who grew up in Southern California, was leaving Toronto to play for the Clippers.
“I was just hanging out with a couple of the assistants,” Nurse said. “Got the text message and then got the news report quickly afterward. I’m not totally surprised. 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. And we’re going to stop celebrating it pretty soon. Not quite yet, but then we’ll get back to work. I mean we got a tremendous challenge ahead of us, but I always say that the challenge is our fuel and the tank is certainly full. So we got a change for some guys to expand their roles maybe that wouldn’t have had expanded roles in the situation, and I think we got some guys capable of doing that. So I look forward to the challenge as I said, and let’s go get after it.”
Nurse acknowledged that Leonard’s departure left some understandable sadness within the organization.
“It’s certainly disappointing,” Nurse said. “I think, first of all, he’s a great person. He was unbelievably fun to coach, just locked in and loaded and ready to go. People would ask me, ‘What was it like coaching him?’ And I always said the best thing was I got to stand there on the courtside and watch this guy go to work. That was something that I’ll never forget. Now we got to go kick his ass.”
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In the end, Nurse said that he didn’t think there was anything the Raptors could have done differently to get Leonard to stay. Ultimately, the desire to play in Los Angeles alongside Paul George was too strong to pass up.
“I think when we first got him there were a lot of questions thrown at me like, ‘What are you going to do to keep him?’ And we said, ‘We’re going to take great care of him health-wise.’ We did an unbelievable job, Alex McKechnie and his staff. I thought we managed that to a T. We said we were going to have a good team … and we did that as well. We knew we’d give him tremendous support from our fan base, and we certainly did that. That was amazing, the reaction and support that the whole country gave our team and him.”
Nurse said he had been in touch with Raptors team president Masai Ujiri since Leonard made his decision and was confident the Raptors would be able to get back on track this coming season.
“Look to the future and try to do it again next year,” Nurse said. “I don’t know at this particular time how we do it, but it’s not unlike going into a playoff series. I’d look at these teams and I’d say, ‘I don’t know how in the hell we’re going to beat them,’ and then you go to work and put a plan together. So right now I’m not sure how we’re going to be able to do it, other than we’re going to come out and guard you, and we’re going to move the ball, and we’re going to play with energy, and we’re going to try and play a lot of people, and we’re going to keep developing our guys. And Masai and [general manager] Bobby [Webster] will keep acquiring talent. And I’ll coach the team that they give me, and I’ll do that to the best of my ability.”
Nurse also brushed off the suggestion that tampering by the Clippers might have played a part in Leonard’s decision. He said the Raptors are not pursuing a tampering claim with the league office.
“From my standpoint, I didn’t sense it or don’t have any of those feelings at all,” Nurse said. “I again state that he’s going home, and that’s a heart draw for any of us. If you guys were all playing somewhere else and got a chance to go back and make the most money you make in your hometown … are you going to go home and do it? Again, we’ll wish him well and the best of luck until we have to go against him.”