Kawhi Leonard: Finals MVP, destroyer of drama
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.