In an age where personalities seem to be more and more dominant, Kawhi Leonard doesn’t have one. In an age where over-exposure is just personal branding and privacy is a forgotten relic, Kawhi Leonard keeps to himself. The man is without doubt the finest two-way player in the league these days, his lockdown defence even is better than his methodical and reliable scoring, and he’s just won his second NBA championship with his second team, winning Finals MVP with each – something only Kareem Abdul Jabbar and LeBron James had ever previously achieved. He may not quite know how to laugh properly but the man is an absolute delight.
Twelve months ago his reputation wasn’t in such a great place though. A beloved and understated star at the San Antonio Spurs, things started to go south when an injury absence turned mysterious. Having missed the first 27 games of the season with a ‘right quadriceps’ complaint he returned in December but five weeks later was ruled out indefinitely. The Spurs doctors said one thing, Kawhi’s own doctor said another thing. The Spurs doctors cleared him to return after a while but he did not return. Tensions simmered and then tensions boiled over in a players-only meeting where Kawhi was not so subtly accused of quitting on his guys. He wouldn’t play again that season and he’d ask for a trade in June 2018.
A lot of this played out through the media as the Spurs organisation was left more and more exasperated by the silent Kawhi. A month after the trade request they relented and flipped him off to Toronto, where the Raptors were going through a reckoning of their own. Years of moderate success with the Kyle Lowry/DeMar DeRozan duo wasn’t leading them as deep into the playoffs as they were supposed to go. So they changed tactics. They went all in on Kawhi Leonard in the final year of his contract. Masai Ujiri, Raptors GM, made the gutsy move. The rest is now history.
Which is why it’s easy to forget just how wrecked Kawhi’s reputation was after he fell out with and then forced his way out of the San Antonio Spurs, the trademarked Best Run Team in the NBA. He was the dude who replaced Tim Duncan and he wasn’t supposed to do them that way. It didn’t help that he’d only played nine games the previous season and had pretty much been out of picture for doing that one thing that his reputation was built upon: playing basketball. There was so much confusion over the injury situation and over the influence of Uncle Dennis and, against a sturdy force like the Spurs, Kawhi simply had to cop that. But he’s a painfully shy guy at times, old Kawhi. When others would set about repairing that public image, he just laid low. Then he turned up in Toronto and told everybody that he was a fun guy. Convincing? Not at all. But you get what you get with Kawhi Leonard. That’s why he’s such a treasure in this complicated world.
Things didn’t have to work out so perfectly for Ujiri and the Raptors. A close run would have been more than they expected with the old core… but they went all the damn way. They went all the damn way and they did it the hard way too. It’s easy to say that Leonard, Lowry (and let’s not forget the Street MVP Fred van Vleet) and all them caught an injured Golden State Warriors team and it wouldn’t be a lie. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson’s injuries certainly affected that series but it ain’t like Steph Curry didn’t average 30 points per game or anything. The Dubs were hobbled, no doubt. But even when Klay and KD were both missing that still left them three All Stars. The Warriors have benefited from injuries against them in the past, these things happen and they don’t invalidate anything.
But even then, just look at what they had to do even just to get to the Finals. The Orlando Magic didn’t put up a monstrous effort but they weren’t pushovers and the Raps did ‘em in five. Then the Philadelphia 76ers… that was a clash for the ages. Second round but they pushed the eventual champs the entire way. This shot remains the finest moment of the entire playoffs, the only thing that comes close is Damian Lillard’s cold-blooded carpark effort… but that wasn’t in the last second of a game seven.
Oh yeah and they beat MVP in waiting Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Finals. No small task that one, either. They had to win a game seven, they had to knock out the MVP, they had to knock out the defending champs… that’s a champion team if ever there was one.
The last time that Kawhi Leonard won an NBA title, it marked the end of the Miami Heat dynasty. A four year stretch with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, which netted the Heat two titles and four Finals appearances. But The Klaw saw the end of that one and LeBron soon returned home to Cleveland to mark the beginning of a new era. That very next year was the first year that Steve Kerr took charge of the Golden State Warriors and the first of five consecutive Finals appearances that they would make (a streak which is still active). They won three championships in that time and blew a 3-1 lead in another… which they responded to by bringing Kevin Durant into their Curry/Thompson/Green triumvirate.
Except that now Kevin Durant is likely to miss all of next season as he recovers from the Achilles injury he suffered trying to get back out there in game five of these Finals. Klay Thompson could well miss a large chunk as well. Both of them, as well as Boogie Cousins, are free agents coming up and Draymond Green will need a new contract the year after. Klay will probably stay, especially now that he’s injured. KD… well, let’s just say that nobody will be shocked if he doesn’t. Boogie could go either way. We might not have seen the end of the Warriors Dynasty quite yet, only time will tell, and they certainly won’t stop winning games any time soon… but the days of them being untouchable are surely now over and who do we have to thank for that? A certain Kawhi Leonard. Quietly going about busting dynasties.
Thing is, a true superhero knows when their work is done. They don’t hang around to enjoy the aftermath, they leave to where further baddies need defeating. Kawhi’s time in the East might only last this one, glorious season – he’s a free agent himself and there’s a force amassing in the West over in Los Angeles where Anthony Davis has joined LeBron James in purple and gold and the Lakers have the cash to maybe even add another max contract if they shuffle the dollars around. So where is old mate Kawhi being most heavily linked to? Not the Lakers but the Clippers. You know, that other team which plays at Staples Centre. The one without the banners. A hero’s work is never done.
Anyway, shout out to Kawhi Leonard. It’s not that the hyper-aware personal branding crew don’t have their benefits – LeBron James is one of the smartest and most respectable men in all sports with the way he carries himself – but how boring would it be if everyone was the same? Kawhi Leonard goes against the grain. There’s no right way just as there’s no wrong way, everybody’s just out there trying to do their best even amongst the finest NBA players on the planet. But Kawhi’s a little different and that’s worth appreciating. After all, Board Man Gets Paid.
So in celebration, here are some Kawhi moments from all the celebrations…
Oh yeah and this is from a few months back but it would be a shame, nay a sin, to ignore the time that Serge Ibaka served him beef penis on his webshow (which is great, by the way… the show that is, never tried the beef penis so can’t really judge)…
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