- How would beating the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals alter Kawhi Leonard's legacy? The Open Floor podcast debates.
After years of frustration in a LeBron-led Eastern Conference, Masai Ujiri made a huge gamble when he traded DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs in exchange for Kawhi Leonard. While Kawhi will be a free agent this summer, the investment has paid off. Leonard has been dominant this postseason—he beat the Sixers in nail-biting fashion and locked up the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference finals. Kawhi now faces his toughest challenge yet as a Raptor with a determined Golden State in his way in the NBA Finals.
In the latest Open Floor podcast, Andrew Sharp and The Washington Post's Ben Golliver discuss Kawhi's legacy, make comparisons and much more.
(Listen to the latest Open Floor podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Ben Golliver: I think the legacy implications here for Kawhi are actually huge. And I understand the house money idea. They're the underdogs but if Kawhi leads Toronto to the victory, I think his reputation entirely changes because remember his title that he had in San Antonio, he was like the third or the fourth option. I mean he averaged like 12 points a game during that regular season. I think his usage rate was like 18 in the playoffs that year. He was like Siakam basically for Toronto.
Andrew Sharp: That is true and people have talked about it like how could anybody question 'Playoff Kawhi'? And I have not been one of those people who question 'Playoff Kawhi' but like that Finals he was great but it wasn't the type of career defining performance that should have changed the way we talk about him for the next 10 years. And some people have retroactively pretended as if it was and we've always been ignoring it. It's been kind of weird to watch.
Golliver: When it happened it seemed like it was going to set up a decade of greatness for Kawhi and San Antonio. That was the story. But you look at the last five years, it has been a long strange journey for Kawhi. Everybody knows about the injury against Golden State and the lost season and all that but before that he got outdueled by Kevin Durant in the playoffs. He actually got benched at times in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against the Clippers and they lose in the first round coming off of a title year, which was a stunning defeat when that happened.
So he's had some phenomenally efficient postseason games and some really impressive like head-to-head series wins against guys but he's also had his share of lumps along the way too. He had to very gradually and steadily build himself into that MVP level candidate and once he got there he disappeared off the face of the map for almost two years because he wasn't able to finish that Western Conference finals and because you know he missed the entire season.
So from a legacy standpoint, if they win the series people are going to call him and probably rightfully so, the best player in basketball. People are going to say he won a title on his own terms—he dethroned a dynasty, he was able to do what LeBron couldn't do in 2014 and overcome an entire defensive scheme full of Hall of Fame level defenders who are geared around slowing him down. So it's almost this role reversal he's got himself into where he's taking on this LeBron alpha dog role for Toronto after five years ago he was trying to slow LeBron down and being in a much smaller almost niche role for San Antonio. So it's pretty fascinating from a story standpoint and if he does it, I don't think the Durant injury honestly will provide much of an asterisk. I still think Golden State deserves to be strongly favorite in this series even without Durant. If Kawhi is able to pull it off, he deserves total credit given all the craziness he's got in the last five years and how much he's improved as a player and changed his style of play and his role in impacting games offensively he will deserve all the credit no asterisk whatsoever.
Sharp: Yes, I agree with pretty much everything you said. I think Kawhi, It felt like two years but it was really only about a year and three months that he full on disappeared.
Golliver: But it was two full postseasons right? Because he doesn't get to play games 2, 3 and 4 and so that covers that entire postseason in 2017 and they didn't show up.
Sharp: He was also unbelievable in the first round against the Grizzlies…
Golliver: But from a narrative standpoint they could have won the title in 2017. I don't think that was gonna happen right? But like they're up in Game 1 and his story is kind of like a tape that just stopped after Game 1 of that series. So how would we discuss Kawhi if he is like a top two or three MVP player in the 2017 season and he somehow beats the Warriors in that series?
His reputation and his legacy even if he loses the next season due to injury is in a totally different place and that is kind of what I meant about his arc—like his arc has been so curvy and going different directions that it just disappears from the map because he hasn't had that very traditional like 'OK let's judge him in this year and then this year and then this year and then this year' because he's got basically blank spots in 2017 and 2018 for the playoffs.
Sharp: What I wonder about. When I think about the last six or seven years of his career, I think his genius is the ability to internalize coaching and address weaknesses in his game and get not only incrementally better... What Kawhi has done is different than Giannis adding like a half-assed jump shot to keep the defense honest, Kawhi has taken his weaknesses and not only been decent but suddenly dominant and that's a skill that we've just never seen before. When you look at Durant what makes him special? We'll all remember him by being the smoothest scorer of all-time. Steph is the best shooter of all-time. LeBron is one of the best all-around players we've ever seen. Maybe the best ever. Kawhi, his genius is the ability to just build out his game in ways we've never seen before and what he's turned himself into is legitimately shocking.
And along those lines I don't know how we would talk about him If he goes out and wins this title because I guess not since [Tim] Duncan but even Duncan had more of a public persona. Like Duncan was in deodorant commercials, he was David Robinson's little brother like we knew who Duncan was, he was the 'Big Fundamental'. Kawhi is just a blank slate and that's not a shot at him but it would be very strange to come out of his playoff run with him as the undisputed best player in the league. That would be a weird deal for the NBA and a weird thing for basketball fans to wrap their heads around.
Golliver: I do think that should be clear. If he wins this series, I mean he's overcoming all the Hall of Famers who I laid out when it was Harden facing them and I think some people would say it all like ‘you're being too easy on Harden’ and no like the Warriors are loaded with or without Durant, with or without Cousins. So it would be easily the crowning achievement for his career because of the circumstances he's in because of the type of team that he's inherited, because of the role they've asked him to play, because of that four bounce game-winner against Philly, because of his lockdown defense on Giannis. I mean this would be a crazy story that not many people could have predicted and I think it's one of those things where we shouldn't hold it back in any way. Durant would obviously tip the scales for Golden State in a major way. Their match ups in terms of how to handle Kawhi, how to handle Siakam are so much easier if you've got Durant in those lineups then trying to make do without him.
Their depth is so much better when Durant's healthy than when he's not out there. Golden State will find itself I believe in this series. I’m not sure if it's going to be immediately from Game 1, but at certain points of this series there's no question in my mind, they're going to be thinking 'man we wish we had Durant out there'. But that should not detract from Kawhi in anyway. I mean this would be a crazy crowning achievement.