Welcome back? Rating Kawhi’s return to Toronto, all NBA reunions
After an offseason of furious player movement — including eight 2019 All-Stars changing teams — one intriguing storyline of this NBA season will be how players are received by fans when they return to the cities they left.
Some will be easier to predict than others. Kyrie Irving in Boston? That reunion was pushed back to March 3 because of an injury, but it won’t be subtle. Anthony Davis and Kristaps Porzingis already felt the wrath of fans scorned. Kawhi Leonard, on the other hand, should receive a hero’s welcome when he returns to Toronto, despite breaking the hearts of Raptors fans when he left for the Clippers.
Throughout the season we’ll gauge each of the reunions with a “Fan Hospitality Meter.”
Here are the reunion tour schedule, anticipated fan reaction and results:
NBA reunion tour schedule
Wednesday: Clippers guard Kawhi Leonard returns to Toronto
Before he left: Leonard was a Raptor for just one season, but he helped deliver Toronto’s first NBA championship, and what a ride it was. Masai Ujiri took a risk by sending one of the franchise’s most popular players ever, DeMar DeRozan, to San Antonio for Leonard, and it paid off. One of the most memorable moments was when Leonard’s buzzer-beater bounced off the rim four times before falling in to eliminate the 76ers and send the Raptors to the Eastern Conference finals.
Anticipated fan reaction: When Leonard was booed on opening night at a Clippers home game by Lakers fans who filled Staples Center, several Raptors fans and Canadians in general took to Twitter to say how Leonard would never be treated that way up north. Leonard should receive nothing but love when he makes his return to Toronto, assuming he plays. He sat out Monday’s game in Indiana because of knee maintenance. Leonard received an enthusiastic welcome in Vancouver, British Columbia, when the Clippers played there in the preseason, but it will be nothing compared to Wednesday night when Leonard is expected to be welcomed like a hero and likely receive his championship ring.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Before he left: For all of the attention that was paid to Kyrie Irving’s pending departure from the Celtics, Horford was almost always seen as a lock to come back, either by picking up his option for the final year of his contract or declining it and agreeing to a new deal with Boston. Reality, however, turned out to be a bit different. Horford decided to opt out of the final year of his deal in June, and it quickly became apparent he and the Celtics wouldn’t be agreeing on a return. Then, when free agency began, Horford stunned much of the basketball world by choosing to head down Interstate 95 and join Boston’s archrivals, the Philadelphia 76ers, pairing with Joel Embiid to give the Sixers one of the league’s best one-two punches in the paint. And while the Celtics were able to recover from losing Irving by signing Kemba Walker, they had no way of replacing Horford’s ability to serve as a Swiss Army knife at both ends of the court.
Anticipated fan reaction: Even though Horford chose to go to a division rival, it’s hard to see him getting a negative reaction when he returns to Boston after never making a wrong step during his three seasons with the Celtics.
— Tim Bontemps
Before he left: No one might have exemplified Boston’s awkward 2018-19 season more than Rozier. He was far from the biggest name on the roster. But after becoming a bit of a local celebrity during Boston’s run to the Eastern Conference finals the season before while Kyrie Irving was hurt — Rozier struck up a surprising friendship with former New England Patriots star Drew Bledsoe and acquired his own nickname, “Scary Terry” — Rozier became an afterthought as Irving’s backup. That, in turn, led to some frustration, as well as the likelihood that, once free agency hit, Rozier would go elsewhere to become a starter … unless Boston needed him to replace Irving. It turned out, though, that things worked out well for both sides. When Irving left, the Celtics quickly moved to sign Kemba Walker — and used Rozier’s restricted free-agent rights to help turn the deal into a sign-and-trade that allowed Charlotte to pay Rozier $58 million over three years and give him both the starting job and financial security he craved.
Anticipated fan reaction: Rozier already played in Boston once during the preseason, and it was smiles all around. When he comes back during the regular season, it won’t be any different.
— Tim Bontemps
Dec. 22: Clippers forward Paul George returns to Oklahoma City
Before he left: He didn’t ask to be traded to OKC, but the Thunder made a deal for him anyway with the seemingly impossible hope to persuade him to stay. And against all expectations and outside forces, he did, declaring alongside Russell Westbrook with cigars in their hands: “If you didn’t quite get it … I’m here to stay.” George elevated every part of his game in OKC, playing, by his account, the best basketball of his career, becoming an MVP candidate. But the lasting image of George’s tenure in OKC will be stamped with his flailing arm reaching for Damian Lillard right before Lillard’s 3-pointer eliminated the Thunder in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series. Lillard then waved goodbye to the Thunder as we knew them.
Anticipated fan reaction: George’s trade request set the wheels in motion for the dismantling of the Thunder and, by extension, got Westbrook traded as well. Some fans will hold bitterness for George signing with OKC, seemingly setting the Thunder up for multiple runs at contending, and then bailing out a year later. But in reality, George’s re-signing was a gift in every way. He could’ve left in free agency, leaving the Thunder with nothing in return. Instead, while departing under unseemly circumstances, he leaves the Thunder with a treasure trove of draft capital.
— Royce Young
Before he left: Brogdon started for the Bucks for the majority of the 2018-19 season, but he was diagnosed with a plantar fascia injury that sidelined him for the first two rounds of the playoffs. He rejoined the team in the Eastern Conference finals. Over the past three seasons, Brogdon played himself into the $80 million contract range. Heading into free agency, many believed the Bucks would struggle to justify matching such a significant offer sheet, considering the fact they were also aiming to re-sign Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez. Brogdon wound up signing a four-year, $85 million deal with the Indiana Pacers.
Anticipated fan reaction: Brogdon was beloved in Milwaukee. Anything short of an ovation for Brogdon’s return would be surprising, and the Fiserv Forum crowd will more than likely give him a warm welcome.
— Malika Andrews
Before he left: Over the past few seasons, Richardson became the latest success story from Miami’s vaunted player development program. A second-round pick in 2015 after a four-year career at the University of Tennessee, Richardson turned himself into one of the better defensive guards in the league with the Heat — not to mention slowly becoming a more well-rounded offensive player along the way. He was rewarded for his efforts with a four-year, $42 million extension early in September 2017 — a deal that quickly made him into one of the league’s more intriguing trade assets if the Heat were ever going to get their hands on another star player. That wound up finally happening this summer, when Richardson became the carrot with which Miami was able to execute a sign-and-trade with the 76ers to bring Jimmy Butler to South Beach. Philadelphia, on the other hand, was thrilled to get its hands on Richardson, whose low salary, length and defensive instincts — not to mention being a career 37% 3-point shooter — made him a perfect fit alongside Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Al Horford in Philadelphia’s newly renovated lineup.
Anticipated fan reaction: There should be nothing but love for Richardson, a hard-working player on the court who never asked to leave and helped the Heat finally get some star power again by being part of the Butler trade.
— Tim Bontemps
Before they left: When Ball was a star freshman at UCLA, his father, LaVar Ball, famously spoke it into existence that his son would complete his destiny and be drafted by the Lakers. Ball was supposed to be the centerpiece of a Showtime reboot, with Magic Johnson calling the shots and Ball, Ingram and Hart coming along for the ride. When LeBron James arrived in the summer of 2018, the timeline for expected success was accelerated, and by the time James told ESPN in December it would be “amazing” if Los Angeles traded for Anthony Davis, everyone knew the young core’s days were numbered. All three ended the season on the injured list, with Hart missing the last 11 games, Ingram missing the final 19 and Ball sitting the final 35 games before being sent to New Orleans in June.
Anticipated fan reaction: If the Lakers are rolling in the new year, there should be nothing but cheers for this young group that made this season’s team possible in the Davis trade. But if the Lakers are struggling and the Pelicans are surprising, it could be a strange scene at Staples Center with fans not quite sure what to do, like when James passed Michael Jordan in scoring last season and the moment fell flat because of the disappointing season.
— Dave McMenamin
Before he left: Whiteside was a classic example of a talented prospect who flamed out before being resuscitated in Miami. He literally wound up playing around the world — including Lebanon and China — before hooking back on with an NBA team when the Heat signed him in November 2014. By the end of the season, Whiteside had become a fixture in Miami’s rotation, gobbling up rebounds, blocking lots of shots and finally realizing the talent inside his massive 7-foot frame. He was eventually rewarded with a four-year max contract in the summer of 2016, and while he remained productive the past three seasons, he saw his minutes drop each season as he squabbled with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra on a regular basis. Eventually, Miami shipped Whiteside out this summer in a salary dump, trading him to Portland for Maurice Harkless — whom the Heat later moved to the Clippers — and Meyers Leonard.
Anticipated fan reaction: Despite the way Whiteside’s time in Miami began, expect him to get a negative reception when he arrives on the shores of Biscayne Bay for the first time since the trade. Whiteside’s ups and downs came to symbolize Miami’s mediocrity in recent seasons, and that’s what his tenure will be remembered for.
— Tim Bontemps
Before he left: “The most important player in franchise history” is how Westbrook has been described by Thunder general manager Sam Presti. Westbrook was the talisman for the first era of Thunder basketball, overseeing the evolution of a franchise as he simultaneously grew up right alongside it. He made history, he won awards, he won games. He planted his flag in the wake of Kevin Durant‘s departure, he gave a city confidence and hope, he represented something bigger than basketball. The Thunder have a firm footing in Oklahoma City and a globally recognized brand, and it’s been in large part because of Westbrook.
Anticipated fan reaction: The Thunder have never done a tribute video for a player, claiming it’s a policy of sorts. That will almost assuredly change for Westbrook’s return. It will be an emotionally visceral night for everyone in the building. And then the game will start, Westbrook will beef with someone on the Thunder, snarl and cuss after a tough and-1, and everyone will say to themselves, “Oh, I get it now. … This is why everyone else didn’t like him.”
— Royce Young
Before he left: Russell became an All-Star in Brooklyn and got his career back on track after being traded by the Lakers. He spent only two seasons with the Nets, but he did help lead the organization back to the playoffs and helped create the culture that allowed the team to land Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
Anticipated fan reaction: He should be welcomed back warmly by a city that watched him mature on and off the floor.
— Nick Friedell
Before he left: Rubio developed close friendships with teammates while embracing the Salt Lake City community on personal level only to see the organization move in the opposite direction with Mike Conley. Instead of pouting, Rubio moved on by getting to work earlier than usual this summer in Spain, signing a three-year, $51 million contract with Phoenix in July and then leading Spain to a FIBA World Cup title while capturing MVP honors.
Anticipated fan reaction: Rubio didn’t leave any bad blood in Utah, and in fact, he still wears Donovan Mitchell‘s signature Adidas sneakers, so it’s likely that he’ll receive a loud ovation when Phoenix rolls into town.
— Eric Woodyard
Before he left: Harris played only 87 games as a Clipper, but he was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder and helped the Clippers start down the path of an unexpected playoff run before being traded. He helped make a lot of games more competitive than many expected for what was a rebuilding team.
Anticipated fan reaction: Harris could ultimately help the Clippers win a title if all goes right. Harris was the main piece acquired in the trade that sent Blake Griffin to Detroit in 2018, helping the Clippers continue a big rebuild. And then Harris was traded in 2019 to Philadelphia in a deal that brought back Landry Shamet and two first-round picks, including Miami’s 2021 pick that went in the five first-round-picks package sent to Oklahoma City for Paul George. Beside that, Harris’ likeable demeanor and steady consistency was always appreciated and should be received well in his return to L.A.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
March 3: Nets guard Kyrie Irving returns to Boston
Before he left: Last October, Irving declared during a season-ticket holder event that he would remain in Boston as a free agent “if you’ll have me.” Things basically went downhill from there. The Celtics spent the season failing to live up to their lofty preseason expectations, culminating in Boston’s lackluster loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. By the time the series ended, everyone knew what Irving once said no longer applied. And, come June 30, it was official: Irving left as a free agent, teaming up with Kevin Durant on the Brooklyn Nets, while Kemba Walker replaced Irving in Boston.
Anticipated fan reaction: Of all the players making their respective returns to various cities across the league, none is more certain to get a specific reaction than the vitriol Irving will receive from the Boston faithful after the way the past year played out. Irving missed the Nets’ first game in Boston on Nov. 27 because of a shoulder injury.
— Tim Bontemps
March 13: Pelicans forward Derrick Favors returns to Utah
Before he left: For much of Favors’ 8½ seasons in a Utah Jazz jersey, the big man remained cool, calm and collected as his name was repeatedly linked to trade rumors. Finally, the Jazz dealt him this offseason by sending him to New Orleans. Favors continues to express his love for Utah. He ranks fourth in franchise history in total rebounds, seventh in blocks and 10th in games played. Favors is now playing his natural center position in New Orleans, but he played a pivotal role in Utah’s resurgence from a 25-win team in 2013-14 to making consecutive playoff appearances the past three seasons. He missed the Pelicans’ Nov. 23 game in Utah because of back spasms.
Anticipated fan reaction: It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Jazz put together a short tribute for Favors when he returns.
— Eric Woodyard
March 24: Lakers guard Danny Green returns to Toronto
Before he left: When Kawhi Leonard was sent to Toronto in the summer of 2018, Green’s inclusion was almost seen as an afterthought. But after he played through a groin injury — and, as a result, played below his usual standard — in his final season with the San Antonio Spurs, Green was back to his old self with the Raptors. He provided a potent combination of 3-point shooting, wing defense and championship experience to the Raptors during their run to the 2019 NBA title, and he was one of the personalities that had the biggest impact in the team’s locker room. And while he could’ve been back if Leonard had re-signed with the Raptors this summer, Green followed Leonard to Los Angeles — only joining the Lakers, rather than the Clippers — after Leonard did not.
Anticipated fan reaction: Green will undoubtedly get a standing ovation. He became a beloved figure in Toronto, immersing himself in the community and endearing himself to fans with his own podcast. He, like Leonard in December, will be celebrated for his part in Toronto’s first-ever championship in his first visit back there.
— Tim Bontemps
March 25: Raptors center Marc Gasol returns to Memphis
Before he left: The Raptors and Grizzlies agreed to a deal just before the 3 p.m. trade deadline on Feb. 7, sending Gasol to Toronto for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a second-round pick. The deal proved to be a master stroke for the Raptors, as Gasol gave them the perfect defensive presence to throw at Joel Embiid when Toronto faced the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the playoffs, and he was a catalyst for the Raptors going on to win the first championship in franchise history. He then opted into the final year of his contract this summer to ensure he stayed in Toronto for another season. Gasol honored his time in Memphis by having “Grit ‘N’ Grind” inscribed on his championship ring, to celebrate the many years he spent playing alongside Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph with the Grizzlies.
Anticipated fan reaction: Like Conley at the start of this season, Gasol is sure to be warmly received in his return to Bluff City. The combination of him being a beloved figure and the Grizzlies having a new guard-big man tandem to build around in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. gives everyone a chance to just celebrate how fun those great Grizzlies teams were, and to prepare for the eventual retiring of Gasol’s No. 33 jersey to the rafters of FedEx Forum.
Before he left: It’s been a long 16 years for Carter and Raptors fans, as he’s gone from a despised former star to an adored one. They say time heals all wounds, and that’s certainly the case here, as the animosity that surrounded Carter forcing himself out of town has slowly ebbed away — to the point that Carter was received with a thunderous standing ovation when he appeared at Scotiabank Arena during the NBA Finals.
Anticipated fan reaction: Carter will be given a resoundingly warm welcome in what is expected to be his final game in Toronto, and deservedly so. The ending might not have been great, but Carter arguably helped keep the Raptors in Toronto, and he has helped play a part in basketball’s explosion in Canada over the past 20 years.
— Tim Bontemps
AD returns to New Orleans
Anthony Davis hears the boos from the crowd as he’s introduced in his first game back in New Orleans.
Before he left: Davis was the best player in Pelicans franchise history, averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds over six seasons; no other active player has a streak longer than three. But after winning just one playoff series in his first six seasons, Davis decided he wanted out. Davis started the exit process when he let the franchise know before the trade deadline that he would not re-sign as a free agent. His seven-year tenure in New Orleans came to an end over the summer when he was dealt to the Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and a slew of picks.
Fan reaction: As the lights dimmed in the Smoothie King Center for the national anthem and a calm came over the crowd, one Pelicans fan let Davis know exactly what he thought about his return to the city he once called home: “AD’s a sellout!”
It was just a precursor to the type of night Davis was going to receive on Wednesday as the Lakers forward played his first game in New Orleans since an offseason trade. From the moment Davis hit the floor in warm-ups, the boos came crashing down from the top of the Smoothie King Center. Pelicans fans relentlessly booed Davis any time he touched the ball.
— Andrew Lopez
Before he left: On paper, the offseason additions of Bogdanovic and Mike Conley Jr. put the Utah Jazz in the spotlight with one of the deeper rosters in the league. After averaging a career-best 18.0 points off 49.7% shooting in 81 games for Indiana last season, Bogdanovic inked a four-year, $73 million deal in Utah this summer. He also proved his ability to stretch the floor after shooting 42.5% from beyond the arc while shouldering the load and still leading the squad to the playoffs following the injury of All-Star guard Victor Oladipo.
Fan reaction: Indianapolis is a die-hard basketball community that isn’t always kind to players outside of its fan base, but Bogdanovic was well respected for the work he put in for the Pacers, plus that toughness that’s beloved in the Midwest. While Bogdanovic received cheers upon pregame introductions, he was showered with chants of “We don’t miss you!” at the free-throw line early in the first quarter.
— Eric Woodyard
Before he left: When the Philadelphia 76ers traded for Butler last November, they thought he was the final piece they needed to become a championship team. They were nearly right. If Kawhi Leonard’s iconic 3-point shot from the corner at Scotiabank Arena doesn’t somehow fall through the basket, perhaps the Sixers win that game and go on to win their first championship in more than 30 years. But Leonard’s shot did fall through, of course, and Philadelphia saw its season end in heartbreak instead. Butler then wound up leaving Philly this summer, going to the Miami Heat in a sign-and-trade for guard Josh Richardson, part of the latest dramatic makeover of Philadelphia’s roster over the past few years.
Fan reaction: The fans in Philadelphia gave a loud, angry greeting to Jimmy Butler upon his return to the City of Brotherly Love, showering him in boos as he was introduced for the first time prior to Saturday night’s game against the Miami Heat. Butler, who went to the Heat in a sign-and-trade back in the offseason that brought Josh Richardson to Philadelphia in his place, exchanged a long, friendly greeting with Sixers star Joel Embiid prior to the opening tip. Then, when the game started, Butler was loudly booed every time he touched the ball, as the fans here lived up to their longstanding reputation as one of the toughest crowds in the league.
— Tim Bontemps
Before they left: Parting with a treasure trove of five first-round picks and the right to swap two more first-round picks for Paul George wasn’t easy for the Clippers. But having to part with promising point guard Gilgeous-Alexander made the haul the Clippers gave up feel even more enormous. The Clippers were extremely high on SGA, and they loved the popular Gallinari, who also was part of the deal and beloved in the locker room. SGA’s return to Staples Center will remind the Clippers of how promising his future is and what they had to give up.
Fan reaction: It was a homecoming of sorts for three Thunder players. Chris Paul heard boos during the starting lineup introduction, but fans welcomed former Clippers Gilgeous-Alexander and Gallinari back with warm applause. The Clippers also played a welcome back video during the first break in action. Among the highlights was Gallinari spraying the Clippers’ locker room with champagne and Gilgeous-Alexander in his suit on draft night. Doc Rivers loved coaching both, especially the young point guard.
“I think he’s going to be a superstar, I said that last year so I’m not breaking news here,” Rivers said. “But you rarely get a kid that’s such a good person, easy to coach, wants to get better. For me, those are the guys that give you life in coaching, there’s times when you just want to quit and retire, go home and then there’s times you want to coach forever and guys like Shai allow that.”
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Mike Conley receives a standing ovation as he’s introduced for the first time as a visitor at the FedEx Forum.
Before he left: Conley was the last man left standing from Memphis’ beloved “Core Four,” having seen the Grizzlies bid farewell to fellow Grit ‘n Grind mainstays Zach Randolph and Tony Allen a couple of summers ago and trade Marc Gasol to Toronto before last season’s deadline. It became clear to Conley that the time had come for him to move on from Tennessee, where he hoped to spend his entire career, particularly after he watched Gasol win a ring with the Raptors. The Grizzlies’ lottery luck that allowed them to land Ja Morant with the No. 2 overall pick ensured that Conley would be traded, and the Jazz jumped on the opportunity to seal a deal they tried to make before the deadline, sending rebuilding Memphis a package headlined by a pair of first-round picks.
Fan reaction: The FedExForum public address announcer had the same enthusiasm calling out Conley’s name in the starting lineup as he did when he played for the Grizzlies. The crowd, which included a lot of fans wearing Memphis No. 11 jerseys, greeted Conley with a thunderous standing ovation. Conley got an even longer, louder standing ovation after his tribute video played during the first timeout, touching on the highlights of his 12-year tenure with the Grizzlies and tremendous impact on the Memphis community, including opening a sickle cell treatment center. Conley was clearly touched, deeply exhaling as he dealt with his emotions.
— Tim MacMahon
Kristaps Porzingis comments on his return to Madison Square Garden and the reaction from the Knicks fans.
Before he left: It all started in late January 2019, and it escalated quickly. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Zach Lowe and Ramona Shelburne reported that Porzingis met with Knicks management and expressed discontent with losing and the franchise’s overall direction. At the time, Porzingis was not playing because of an ACL tear. Porzingis gave the Knicks the impression he wanted to be traded. Two hours later, the Mavericks and Knicks were nearing a trade to deal Porzingis to Dallas in exchange for Dennis Smith Jr. and taking on the contracts of DeAndre Jordan and Wesley Matthews. The Knicks also sent Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Trey Burke to the Mavs.
Fan reaction: Porzingis’ prediction of a negative reception upon returning to New York came to fruition. Fans in a sold-out Madison Square Garden booed and taunted Porzingis at every opportunity Thursday night. A few fans interrupted the national anthem to shout things like, “Traitor” and “Go back to Latvia.” They booed him loudly every time he touched the ball and every time he took a shot. When Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle pulled Porzingis from the floor midway through the first quarter, one fan screamed, “Put Porzingis back in so I can boo him!”
— Malika Andrews
Nov. 7: Kemba returns to Charlotte
Before he left: Kemba Walker is a cherished member of the community in Charlotte, North Carolina, after eight seasons with the Hornets. He was heavily involved in charitable efforts, including with the local Big Brothers Big Sisters chapter. On the court, he is the Hornets’ all-time leading scorer and led the team to the playoffs twice. Walker was heading into free agency, and the Hornets weren’t going to offer the supermax, which might or might not have kept him in Charlotte. Once it was determined Walker was headed to Boston, a sign-and-trade was arranged to bring Terry Rozier to Charlotte. — Eric Woodyard
Fan reaction: After the rest of his teammates and coach Brad Stevens were introduced Thursday, Walker was honored with a 100-second tribute video that was accompanied by multiple standing ovations from the crowd. When it was over, Hornets public-address announcer Patrick Doughty gave Walker the introduction he always did during his eight-year tenure in Charlotte, which was met with yet another standing ovation. Walker appeared to wipe away a tear before huddling up with his new Celtics teammates. —
Oct. 28: Thunder guard Chris Paul returns to Houston
Before he left: CP3’s hamstring strain that sidelined him for the final two games of the 2018 Western Conference finals will always be one of the great what-ifs in Houston sports history. He was playing at a superstar level at the time, but he slipped significantly last season, when the Rockets’ iso-heavy offense suddenly didn’t suit him so well. There was some well-documented creative tension with James Harden, but that isn’t why the Rockets traded Paul. They pounced on the opportunity to get a talent upgrade when Russell Westbrook surprisingly became available.
Fan reaction on Oct. 28: The typically late-arriving Toyota Center crowd offered polite applause with Paul was introduced with the Thunder’s starting lineup. After a tribute video played during the first timeout, most of the fans showered Paul with a standing ovation, which he acknowledged with a wave.
— Tim MacMahon