What we’ve learned about Kawhi Leonard personally over the past two weeks is not considerably more than what we knew before. While he is reluctant to talk, to market himself like many of today’s athletes — refusing to tell you what he’s going to do before he does it and keeping the same emotional balance 95 percent of the time — we did learn that he’s a true winner.
The lone time that he unleashes emotion is when it’s about winning, such as that Game 7 four-bounce-on-the-rim shot to beat the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, and again on Thursday, when he raised his chiseled right arm and screamed in jubilation after he used his strength and skill to bulldoze the Toronto Raptors past the Golden State Warriors to win Canada’s first NBA championship.
Leonard was named Finals MVP, becoming the first player to win the award playing for a team in each conference. Leonard, who will turn 28 in two weeks, has established himself as one of the elite players in the world, and with a significant injury to Kevin Durant and LeBron James six months away from turning 35, Leonard may well be the best player in the world.
Now that Leonard has stacked all of these accomplishments on his résumé, he may need some training in how to handle personal success. Twice during his media sessions following Toronto’s clinching win, Leonard literally forgot to take his Finals MVP trophy with him.
The first time he just walked away from the podium after his interview and a Raptors public relations staffer had to retrieve it. The second time he walked away from an NBA TV interview with the award still on the desk and had to be reminded to grab it.
That says so much about Leonard. He’s not obsessed with personal accomplishment or even interested in it. He just wants to win, be great, and enjoy this small window of opportunity to be one of the best in the world. On his way out of the interview room, Leonard ran into Stephen Curry, who told him to “enjoy the champagne,” meaning do not take this success for granted.
That won’t be much of a concern for Leonard, who has been through a tumultuous two years since the summer of 2017 when he developed tendinitis in his right quadriceps and missed part of the San Antonio Spurs’ preseason.
The injury eventually became more serious than either the Spurs or Leonard anticipated, and while the team believed he could return sooner and team doctors cleared comeback dates, Leonard maintained he was still injured and wasn’t ready to return.
Suddenly, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich and even players on the team were publicly questioning Leonard’s desire and toughness, causing a rift that couldn’t be mended, thus sparking his trade demand.
Five years after helping the Spurs to their last league title and winning Finals MVP, Leonard remains motivated by the skepticism of the severity of his injury in 2017-18, still hurt by the perception that somehow he didn’t want to play the game that obsesses him.
“They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for the team,” he said. “That was disappointing to me that that was out in the media, because I love the game of basketball. Like I always say, if we’re not playing this game, if we’re hurt, I mean, you’re down. So me just going through that, and I just knew that I would have to make myself happy and no one else. And I have to trust myself. And whatever, it doesn’t matter what anybody has to say about me.
“I know who I am as a person, I know how I feel, and always just trust yourself. And that was my goal and my focus. And that’s why that’s one of the things that I take on the floor. I don’t care about what the media has to say about me or if they want me to score or whatever, 30 points, because I did the game before, I’m going to come out and play the right way, I’m not trying to make headlines. And that’s just things that I pretty much learned just throughout this journey of being in the NBA. So that’s how I just keep growing up as a man and that’s why I say, I just think about my past life and try to learn from situations and be wise and learn from others.”
Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri took a major, potential job-threatening risk of acquiring Leonard from the Spurs for the Raptors’ all-time leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan. Leonard wanted to play for a Los Angeles team. The Southern California native did not have Toronto on his wish list GPS — until he got there.
“Last summer was tough. I was still rehabbing and just trusted the process, really, with myself. I told myself I would be back,” he said. “I wasn’t going to come back until I could be the player I am today. I wanted to come back in the same shape and form without coming out playing five games and then reinjuring something. I wanted to be able to play the season — or what did I play this year . . . I wasn’t able to play 82, but I’m happy that I got to the 60 games.
“Just being able to win this championship this year is just something special for me because you know how the last year everybody was looking at me, and I stayed true to myself, and I had a great support system. And once I got here to Toronto they understood everything and kept moving from there.”
Anyone who doubts Leonard’s love for the game or how much he views the basketball floor as a haven should research 11 years ago, when Leonard was a high school junior at Riverside (Calif.) King. A night after his father, Mark, was murdered at a Compton car wash, Leonard played in a game against Manuel Dominguez High School at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion.
The murder has never been solved. Eleven years later, the lesson that Leonard took from the tragedy is profound.
“Once it happened, I thought about it a lot. But as I got older, I pretty much just really stopped thinking about it,” he said. “I think it just gave me a sense and feel that life and basketball are two different things and just really enjoy your time and moments. This is basketball — just go out there and have fun. These are going to be the best years of my life, playing this game.
“Being 27, this young, you shouldn’t be stressing in life about things that really don’t matter. As long as your family is healthy, you’re able to see the people that you love and you’re able to walk, run, you’re not injured. So all those things go into account. Go out here, lay it all out on the floor, do the best job I could possibly do and try to win.”
Warriors facing major decisions
Not only did the Warriors lose in the Finals, they lost two franchise cornerstones to major injuries during the series. Impending free agent Kevin Durant ruptured his right Achilles’ in Game 5 and is expected to miss all of next season.
Klay Thompson tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in Game 6 and he’s likely to miss most of next season. Attrition brought down the Warriors just as much as the Raptors did, but now comes some difficult decisions in how to rebuild or retool the franchise.
The Warriors are expected to offer Durant and Thompson maximum contract extensions, meaning the franchise could move into the pristine new Chase Center next season with two of its best players unavailable but each making more than $30 million per season.
If that’s the case, the Warriors are going to have to do something to enhance a roster that’s aging in some areas and inexperienced in others. What has hurt the Warriors is a lack of recent success in the draft. Because of trades, the only two Golden State picks on the roster from the past four drafts are center Damian Jones and shooting guard Jacob Evans.
Veterans Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala are still productive in stretches but may not be depended on for major roles in the future.
So the Warriors could take a long-term approach and essentially sacrifice next season, perhaps trying to get a premium draft pick and then prep for 2020-21, potentially with Thompson and Durant coming back for another title run.
“Yeah, I think everybody thinks it’s kind of the end of us,” forward Draymond Green said. “But that’s just not smart. We’re not done yet. We lost this year. Clearly just wasn’t our year, but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes. But yeah, I hear a lot of that noise, it’s the end of a run and all that jazz. I don’t see it happening, though. We’ll be back.”
The Warriors are offended by the perception that their run is done and feel as if their accomplishments are underappreciated. Iguodala has one year left on his deal and may see his role diminished next season, but he’s appreciative of the ride. If you recall, observers thought the Warriors were foolish to sign Iguodala to a three-year, $48 million deal in 2017.
“We just built something special here,” he said. “It’s never been quite appreciated, but we know what we’ve done and we know what we’ve built and what we’ll continue to do for this community and organization. We understand that there is pain through it all, or sometimes, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ll be fine. We’re very confident.”
For Stephen Curry, the lone healthy Warriors cornerstone, there could be tremendous pressure on him next season. He just signed his super-max contract and will be the face of the franchise as the team moves over the bridge to San Francisco.
Do the Warriors completely build around Curry next season, try to field a competitive playoff team? Golden State is well over the salary cap, so adding premium free agents is not an option. Coach Steve Kerr acknowledged that the team may not be able to afford to bring back center DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins is a free agent coming off an injury-prone season. He’ll have value on the market, but all Golden State could offer is the mid-level exception.
“It’s a tough feeling being on this side of losing in the Finals,” Curry said. “But I think a lot has been proven about who we are as a team and the fight that we have and all the adversity that we dealt with in this entire playoff run. It’s a one-possession game to keep our season alive [in Game 6]. So we’ll be thinking about this one, it’s tough.
“But our DNA and who we are and the character that we have on this team, I wouldn’t bet against us being back on this stage next year and going forward. So really proud of the way that we fought until the end and this five-year run’s been awesome, but definitely don’t think it’s over.”
No team has won three championships in a row since the 2000-02 Lakers. It is one of the toughest things to do in sports and perhaps the Warriors’ prolonged greatness will be appreciated eventually. But for now, they’ll have to figure out how to return to that level while several teams make runs to take their place.
“I think the way that we have talked and described this journey and whatnot, I don’t think there’s ever been a situation where we have taken anything for granted,” Curry said. “And that’s something I can look back and just hold. We all can hold our head high that we gave it everything we got.
“To your point about two guys who go down and the game’s kind of taken away from them in those moments, it’s not a good feeling at all. And it’s kind of a helpless feeling in terms of two freak plays that send [Durant and Thompson] back to the locker room. So it’s tough, but it’s part of basketball, it’s part of the game. Again, I just hope their recoveries are strong and they come back better than they were before.”
As the league’s attention shifts from the Raptors’ stunning Finals run to the draft, the Celtics hold three first-round picks (Nos. 14, 20, and 22) but are not likely to keep all of those selections. Boston is expected to make two of those picks and likely stash or trade the third. The Celtics are intrigued by this draft, which is considered filled with players with high ceilings but also bust potential. A player to watch is Southern Cal guard Kevin Porter Jr., who worked out for the Celtics. Porter is trying to shake the tag that he’s difficult to coach after being suspended for nine games last season after an incident with coach Andy Enfield. Porter is an explosive and talented point guard and may be worth taking a chance on with one of those mid first-round picks . . . The Charlotte Hornets are in a difficult position, having to decide whether to re-sign All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, their most talented and dedicated player, to a contract extension. Because Walker made the All-NBA team, he is eligible for the super-max — upward of $40 million per season — which would put the Hornets in a precarious position of having one highly paid superstar but little else. General manager Mitch Kupchak has to try to rebuild a roster that has failed to reach the playoffs two years in a row with players such as Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Frank Kaminsky, all major draft disappointments. The super-max contact was designed to help smaller-market teams such as the Hornets keep their star players, but it has created a more difficult situation of putting those same teams in the luxury tax. The Hornets have never been a high-spending team, despite being owned by Michael Jordan. Walker told reporters this past week that he’d be willing to take a discount to stay in Charlotte, but even if that is $35 million as opposed to $40 million, that is still a salary cap-crippling contract considering the club doesn’t have talent around him.