Kawhi Leonard: Finals MVP, destroyer of drama

by

SAN ANTONIO–We were headed for another classic seven-game series. Truly we were. The San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat traded shots in Games 1 and 2 and it was reasonable to expect five more games of this.

And then Kawhi Leonard made the star leap.

When R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich made the decision to trade George Hill for Kawhi Leonard and change, including the draft rights to Davis Bertans and Erazem Lorbek, they were solving for pattern. The Spurs needed more perimeter defense to combat the likes of LeBron James and other bigger wings around the league. They also needed improved rebounding as Tim Duncan aged.

These were the obvious things that Kawhi Leonard provided coming out of the draft. He was a power forward with the size and relative athleticism of a small forward. So Pop and R.C. took the risk and made the deal. They traded for the rights to a guy who still had cornrows. In 2011.

That risk and emotional hit—everyone on the Spurs, especially Pop, loved George Hill and trading him wasn’t easy—has paid off time and time again for the Spurs over the last three years, but never more so than over the last week.

“[Leonard] came in here after a lockout season, worked hard with us during that summer and I can’t say I saw the player that I saw tonight at that point,” Tim Duncan said after the confetti had fallen and the champagne bottles drained. “What R.C. and Pop saw in him for him to become the player he is today, it’s amazing because that summer I was like, ‘Hey, we gave up someone—it was George Hill—who had been playing really solid for us.’ ”

After two pedestrian performances in these NBA Finals in which he averaged nine points and two rebounds a game, Leonard stepped his game up. In doing so, he turned an even matchup equated to a coin toss earlier in the series to decidedly clear picture of who the best team in the NBA is by a significant margin.

Over the next three contests, Leonard averaged almost 24 points a game on fewer than 12 shot attempts per contest, shooting 69 percent from the field. He also contributed 9.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, two steals, two blocks a night. He was aggressive offensively, taking the pressure off of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili to lead the charge, and he frustrated LeBron James defensively.

His offensive game was expanding before our very eyes. He knocked down spot-up 3s like he had grown accustomed to, but also isolated on the wing and drained midrange jumpers and forced the action in transition. In one eye-opening play in the first half of Game 5, Leonard got a rebound, dribbled up the middle of the floor in transition and sank a pull-up 3-pointer near the top of the arc. It was an indefensible play that can make him such a dangerous player in his career if it becomes a recurring theme.

The San Antonio Spurs are NBA champions for many reasons this season, but Leonard’s development from the 15th pick in a weak draft to a Finals MVP is chief among them. To get to that point, Leonard put in the work. He stayed late, worked on his weaknesses and wore everyone around him out in an effort to become a great player.

“He walks the walk,” Gregg Popovich said in his postgame press conference. Clearly there’s no way Leonard would be one to talk the talk, as that would involve extensive use of his vocal chords, but I digress. “I mean, he is there early, he’s there late. He wants more. He wants me and the coaches to push him.”

Push him they did, and the results are what you see before you today. Leonard is now the second-youngest NBA Finals MVP, a couple of years older than Magic Johnson was when the Laker great won his first Finals MVP in 1980.

“He wants to do it all and he plays with a confidence that is just amazing,” Duncan said. “I’m honored to be on his team right now because he’s going to be a great player for years to come and I’m going to hold on as long as I can.”

When Duncan, a top-10 all-timer, says he’s honored to be playing with you, you’re doing something right. And Leonard is. In fact, he’s doing most everything right. The Spurs have brought him along slowly since his arrival in San Antonio. Just 20 years old when he was drafted, the Spurs brass allowed him to be a young kid and let him grow up at his own pace.

He’s had more on his plate this season—Popovich actually calling plays for him, appearances in HEB commercials—and he’s developed with it all. Muscles don’t grow bigger without stress and Leonard took everything thrown at him in stride.

Because of it all the Spurs have their future star. Any question about whether or not Leonard can be the player expected to lead the silver and black into their next iteration, whenever that may be, has been answered. Leonard will need help, sure, but R.C. Buford and his staff have shown the ability to find players in a number of ways.

Leonard was an afterthought outside of San Antonio in a weak, pre-lockout NBA Draft back in 2011. He was a kid with huge hands, a sharp suit and cornows. We know he’s still got the hands and the cornrows, no word on the suit. But he’s also got a dynamic and improving offensive game and an insatiable appetite to improve.

Now he possesses a Finals MVP to go along with it all and a lasting legacy of turning what should’ve been a classic championship series into a five-game destruction. He’s got the league in the palm of his hand right now and good god there’s a lot of room still available.

  • The Beat Counselor

    Kawhi “E.T.” Leonard the Vulcan

  • BiggestSPURSfaninChicago

    Tears in my eyes… as I watch this vine and read this article. Spurs best team ever in all of sports. well-deserved.

  • Kristian Holvoet

    It was fun watching Kawhi get some of his due, but it was also a little awkward. FWIW, check youtube for H.E.B. Spurs commercials. That will tell you Kawhi could be a fixture in SA. I worry that while he has the talent and work ethic to be a franchise avatar, he doesn’t have the personality. I think that is the part of the difference between Pippin and Jordan. To be sure, having the best years of Pippin 2.0 would not be a hardship. Still, if the laconic Duncan and Abdul-Jabbar can be franchise players, I can hope the Kawhi will grow into it. At 22, he still has time.

  • Mike Smith

    Gentleman’s Sweep!!!

  • Caui sounds better than kawhi

    Kawhi made the leap. Next year the hard part will begin. I’m betting they’ll try to work on his post game… mainly making him stronger so he can post up bigger guys. But most importantly, they’ll try to develop his Pick and Roll. We’ll see. Whatever happens, he already is great, and we’ll enjoy him for a long, long time.
    Go Spurs. Thank you for so much joy!!!!!!!!!!

  • Chok

    “I’m honored to be on his team right now because he’s going to be a
    great player for years to come AND I’M GOING TO HOLD ON AS LONG AS I CAN.” – Tim Duncan

    Does this mean he’s on board for another season (or seasons)?!?!

    #OneMoreYear
    #Duncan2015

  • Chok

    This might sound strange, but wouldn’t Chris Bosh make a great Spur (in about 2 years)?

  • I need more cowbell

    I think your giving Kawhi to much credit. The spurs system always elevates the game of players who buy in. With or without him i think we still would have won. Danny Green, Boris Diaw, and Patty Mills also were key players in this series. And don’t forget about Manu, if we had this year Manu last year we would have won.

  • Mac Mac

    TD always said he planned on playing out his contract. The idea that he might retire this summer has come strictly from the media and has NO basis in reality. Tim doesn’t care about the storyline, he just wants to compete. As for holding on as long as he can, he might be thinking about playing another season after next one.

  • td4life

    I said after last year’s Finals that I didn’t see KL making the leap to all-star or 20-point scorer, and that the best thing for him and the team would be to continue to refine his defense and spot up shooting from all around the arc, while keeping him in reserve as secret weapon when we needed it most. The element of surprise aided his effectiveness in these last two Finals, but his brand of dominance is difficult to contain regardless, especially in this offense. And he’s going to get his rebounds, steals, and blocks no matter what. The stop-n-pop three in transition shows me I was wrong about his all-star and scoring potential. He’s amazing. As he continues to work on his passing, he can make teams pay when they key in on him next year. If he becomes a top option, and go to player next year, that’d be interesting… but I still like the strategy of keeping his high gear in reserve until late in the playoffs for one more year.
    Congrats to a fantastic team for a fantastic season! Love all those guys!

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    We can have Pau Gasol now if he’s willing to take a pay cut. He’s better than Splitter, can shoot with range and pass. High IQ, if a little sensitive and whiny. I’d take him.

  • Jimbo

    That’s a really intriguing idea. I think he could be a bit of a “rescue” project like Diaw. The guy can still play but seems like L.A. has beaten him down. He would be an awesome get, although as you say he’d have to take a big pay cut.

  • DorieStreet

    NO to Bosh.
    I’d rather the Spurs set themselves up to get DeMarcus Cousins.

  • DorieStreet

    You are delusional. That is all.

  • fkj74

    Sweet sweet sweet. Perfect team win.

  • camnpat

    Pau better than Splitter? Splitter has improved year over year while Pau reached his top years ago. Splitter has shown he is a great passer, is much quicker than Gasol, a better defender, good free throw shooter, and is not as injury prone as the Spaniard. And he can shoot away from the basket (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1NM8vXWOdE) but that’s not his role in the Spurs’ system. Besides, he can be trained like Leonard was and develop a better shot even.

    Why there is so much hype about a player like Gasol who hasn’t been a factor since the Lakers won the championship since 2010 is beyond me.

  • camnpat

    Diaw already had those skills. That’s why he was picked. Why rescue a guy 5 years younger that is not even remotely as durable as Duncan?

  • Riotsmoke

    DeMarcus Cousins?! Seriously?! That guy is an absolute basket-case who’s better at throwing temper-tantrums than he is at playing basketball. He’s exactly what this team DOESN’T need..

  • Riotsmoke

    He gets hyped up because he’s a big with playoff experience under his belt. I agree he’s only a shell of what he used to be, but at the same time the media tends to inflate these guys a little. It’s just the nature of post players these days. It’s why we had to pay Tiago what we did, all this hype was made on Greg Oden making a comeback, and more than likely why someone’s gonna overpay Gasol.

  • Tyler

    No chance they even get out of the West without Kawhi.

  • Tyler

    Tiago is certainly not overpaid. He is paid what he is paid based on the market for his services, not media hype. In fact, we matched what Portland was reportedly going to offer Tiago. Take a look at what starting caliber centers go for…..

    Gasol will get paid based on what the market will bear, not the media.

    Also, Gasol can still be a big factor for a contender if his minutes are controlled. I wouldn’t hesitate to throw the non-taxpayers MLE at him, although he’ll probably get offered more elsewhere.

  • Tyler

    What’s wrong with adding talent?!? A foursome of Duncan, Tiago, Diaw and Gasol would be the best big foursome in the league. Skill-wise, I think he would mesh well with our style. He’s a phenomenal passer from the high post, he would add the ability to score on the low block (something we really don’t have) and while he’s not known for being a defender, he’s certainly not a minus on that end. If his minutes are managed, he can still be a factor.

    From what he’s said, I think Pau just wants to win. At this point in his career, he’s probably not looking for a payday. Undoubtedly he could make more elsewhere, but maybe he wants another title. He certainly respects the Spurs organization and sees the success they have had with foreign players.

    It’s certainly worth a call….

  • Layton Harman

    -= Is Kawhi Leonard set to become the NBA’s next big star? http://kcsportsninja.com/kawhi-leonard-nbas-next-big-star-and-face-of-the-spurs/

  • Dapimp Ofdayear

    Pau Gasol of 2014 (if healthy) is a better basketball player than Tiago Splitter has ever been, or will ever be,

  • Ryan McShane

    I think he’s saying that’s how little he wants Bosh.

  • Riotsmoke

    Tyler I never said Tiago was overpaid, I was simply saying the market dictated his value which is why we had to pay him what we did. I’m sure Buford would’ve loved to get him cheaper considering how he fared in the playoffs last year, but it was simply the nature of the game and bigs in this league. That’s all water under the bridge now, because I agree he’s definitely earned it.

    Regarding the media hype, however, it’s totally legit. It’s why Bowie went before Jordan, why Oden went before Durant, and why Dwight Howard is.. well.. Dwight Howard. The media, and teams, put premiums on these guys because in the past it’s always been shown that great teams had a dominate force in the middle. Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers, Russell with the Celtics, Shaq with the millennial Lakers, and Tim/DRob with the Spurs. The Bulls are the only team that doesn’t really fit that model (you could argue Kukoc, but I think that would be a stretch). Anyway, you get my point.. Only recently (~last 5-6 years) are teams starting to trend more towards small ball and seeing how effective it is in the long run (OKC and MIA as of late).

    This leads to my point about Gasol. I agree with you, I think he could be a project guy who’d have an interesting role given his history, however, someone or some team, for the reasons mentioned above, is gonna pay him a ridiculous amount of money, hence why I say the media hypes up bigs. He may not be that particularly good, or as good as he used to be, but he’s still gonna command a lot.

  • Riotsmoke

    Yeah, the sarcasm in that one totally flew over my head :)

  • Anwar Winston

    Pau Gasol even in his current state is a superior player to Tiago Splitter. Let’s not get crazy here. I love what Tiago brings to the table, but if I’m choosing someone to play along Duncan I’m taking Pau 9 out of 9 times. Lol. Not a knock on Splitter, but Pau is a better basketball player. Would he fit in our system as GREAT as Tiago? That remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t mind finding out.

  • Tyler

    I’m kind of confused. First you said it’s the media that inflates salaries, but then in the same sentence you say team’s put premiums on bigs (the latter of which was my point entirely).

    And while I’m too young to remember Bowie in college, from everything I’ve read and the 30 for 30 on him, he was widely regarded by teams as an elite prospect. The media didn’t create that environment (especially not the type of media they had in 1984). He went #2 b/c Portland thought he was a better prospect that anyone else, not b/c of media hype. The same can be said for Oden (who would be anchoring a contender if not for injuries – he was the best prospect in that draft and every single GM would have taken him first overall). And Dwight Howard? While I despise his attitude, there’s no questioning the fact he’s still widely regarded as a top 3 center and capable of anchoring a contender. I dislike him too, but he’s really really really good, that’s why he is paid the what he is.

    Maybe we’re just confusing each other, but my belief is that nearly every GM doesn’t base player salary on media hype. And if they did, they’re probably not a GM for long.

    One more point too – big men get paid more on average strictly b/c they are harder to come by – simply put, it’s supply and demand.

  • phillip mabry

    Honestly, the same could be said of Green and Mills.

  • Tyler

    Most definitely.

  • Pingback: As the confetti settles: A Finals dispatch from San Antonio

  • ImwithStupid

    Gasol is better than Splitter offensively, but Splitter is the better defender. They are both good passers. Gasol does have him by an inch of height and an inch in arm length, so he does play bigger than Splitter. Once we lock up Diaw and Mills and extend Leonard, I would love to see Gasol in Silver and Black (and I am a faker hater). He isn’t the big that can carry a team anymore (we saw that last year when Kobe was out), but he is smart, a great passer, and team guy. He could also want to stick it to the LA fans who have been on his case for years, while extending his career a couple extra years with a veteran friendly system. Most importantly, we don’t have a Spaniard on the team yet…

  • camnpat

    That’s the point: Pau WAS great player and if something is clear in the Spurs’ system is that you are not immediately put in it, specially when you need to become a role player. Remember the Jefferson experiment a few years back? Also, coaching quality notwithstanding, Gasol played very poorly as a role player in LA when Howard was brought on board. He is not used to the Spurs type of basketball system and it would be two years until he is fully in the system, at which point age would play a major factor specially with his fragile body.

  • camnpat

    Pau Gasol of 2014 WAS a better basketball player than Tiago Splitter has ever been, or will ever be, FIFY

  • camnpat

    Ha! You are right: we still have nobody from Spain on the roster. ;)