Over the last two months of the NBA playoffs Kawhi Leonard has averaged 31 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists, led the Toronto Raptors to the brink of the first title in franchise history, all but closed the curtain on the Warriors dynasty, become Exhibit A in the case for shortening the NBA season, was the subject of one of sport’s funnier hoaxes, elbowed his way into the “Best Player in the NBA” conversation, and perhaps positioned himself as the most desirable free agent this summer. What did you do this spring?
Let’s take a quick run through the above bullet points:
Here’s a list of players who’ve averaged 31-9-3 during a playoff run (minimum 16 games): Lebron (4 times — 4!), Shaq (twice), Kareem, Olajuwon, and Leonard. That’s some mighty fine company.
The Raptors are up 3-1 in the Finals and are home for Games 5 and 7. Kevin Durant will probably play Game 5, but only because it’s DefCon1 for the Dubs. Klay Thompson’s still not 100 percent, DeMarcus Cousins has been ineffective, and Draymond Green hasn’t been able to maintain the production that helped them go 12-4 through the first three rounds. It’s really tough to imagine a scenario where the Warriors turn the tide. Only once in NBA history has a team overcome a 3-1 deficit in the Finals, and that was the Cavs in 2016 against the Warriors. So Golden State knows it can be done, but still…
There have been grumblings for a few years now as teams have been resting their players at times throughout the regular season. Fans and the league office hate it because it means missing out on watching superstars do their thing. Teams love it because it keeps their guys fresh and healthy for a deep run in the playoffs. The other day Leonard told Rachel Nichols that the “load management” program he and the Raptors put in place this season — he missed 22 games — was key to his performance during the playoffs. This all dovetails nicely with another thing people have suggested for a few years: shortening the season. Imagine if instead of Kawhi playing 60 of 82, fans got to see him play 55 of 60 and still be fresh come April. It will never happen, because it would mean 25 percent less revenue for all parties involved, but it’s nice to think about.
Kawhi started this NBA season by becoming its first meme, thanks to his deadpan claim that he was a “fun guy” and his ridiculous laugh. More recently, The Athletic talked to some of his old San Diego State teammates and learned about his penchant for bizarre trash talk, the highlight of which was “Board man gets paid.” This led to the circulation of a story that claimed during a team dinner with the Spurs, rather than ordering food, he whipped out a bag of two apples, declared “Apple time, apple time,” and proceeded to eat all of them — with a fork and knife. Sadly it proved to be a joke, but a hilariously believable one. On, and let’s not forget the stone cold dis he gave a teammate in need of a fist bump:
As the regular season wound down it seemed pretty clear that Giannis Antetokounmpo had locked up the MVP race and established himself as the best player in the NBA. Then he ran into the buzzsaw that is Kawhi Leonard as he and the Raptors beat the Bucks 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Kawhi posted 30-10-4, while Giannis managed 23-14-6 on .448 shooting, well off his regular season mark of .578. Who would you put ahead of Kawhi? The Ringer had him at #8 at the All-Star break, saying “The only thing stopping him from vaulting back into the [MVP] conversation” was the missed games. Looking at the guys listed ahead of him, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s obviously better.
Which leads us to Kawhi’s pending free agency. He holds a player option for next season at $21.3 million, one that he will certainly decline. The only other free agent in this upcoming class anywhere near Kawhi’s level is Kevin Durant, who is a legit all-time great, like, top 20, easy. Maybe higher. But he’s three years older than Kawhi, has played nearly 20,000 more minutes (including the postseason) and is nowhere near the defender that Kawhi is. This is to take nothing away from Durant, who, again, is an all-timer and clearly has a better overall resume than Kawhi, but at this moment in time, who would you think is going to be better over the next five years?
Leonard is just days (maybe hours) away from putting the finishing touches on one of the greatest playoff runs in the game’s history and it has been a joy to behold, and he’s done it all with a bum leg, the most overlooked injury of the postseason. Even if he somehow falls short of closing out the Warriors, he’ll still be worth every penny he gets this summer.
Watch Game 5 of the NBA Finals at 9pm ET Monday on ESPN3. You can watch Game 6 at 9pm ET on Thursday and Game 7 on 8pm Sunday, if necessary.