Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers are headed home after the Nuggets came back from being down 3–1 to advance to the Western Conference finals. While Leonard has won two NBA Finals MVPs—how badly will the loss to Denver impact his legacy going forward? The Crossover staff weighs in.
It’s a blemish, sure, but Kawhi is still a two-time Finals MVP, an NBA champion and one of the best playoff performers of this generation. Who this loss really stains is Paul George. If the series ended in Game 6—when George dropped 33 points while shooting above 40% from the floor and the three-point line—he would have been a hero. But after a 10-point, 4-of-16 from the floor, 2-of-11 from the three-point line, five-turnover clunker, George adds another page of playoff disappointment. He compounded things by bizarrely claiming that the Clippers didn’t look at this season as “championship or bust.” Huh? The Clips aren’t the 2010 Thunder. They aren’t a plucky upstart with years of predictable success in front of them. George and Leonard are in their primes. Montrezl Harrell is the Sixth Man of the Year. Doc Rivers is a championship coach. L.A. was plagued by problems during the restart, but this isn’t a team built to win for the next five years. Especially with a star (Leonard) with a shaky knee. The Clippers will be among the favorites next season. But years from now we could look back and say this year was L.A.’s best chance to win.
Nope, nope, nope.
Yes, Leonard shot 6-for-22 in Game 7. Well, Kobe Bryant once shot 6-for-24 in Game 7 (the 2010 Finals). Bryant's team won that one, but in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals, with the Lakers down 3–2, Bryant shot 7-for-22 and his team lost by 39. Did that hurt Kobe's legacy? Every great player has some duds. We forget them for everyone except, inexplicably, LeBron James, who gets reminded of them all the time. Leonard is a two-time NBA champion. He will always be (at least) a two-time NBA champion. Every time a star chooses a new franchise, there is pressure to win there to justify the move. Leonard and the Clippers were a disappointment this season, but it was a wild year, shaken by the pandemic, and it is only Year 1. When we talk about Kawhi Leonard in 20 years, this game will barely come up.
I think it’s too soon to say much about legacy here. What’s going to matter more is how the Clippers respond next season, which will reflect on their best player and how he decides to move forward from this. Kawhi wasn’t the only one at fault for the collapse. L.A.’s chemistry was weird all season, and their defense was overrated. If the Clippers do this again next year and Kawhi decides to leave, then yeah, it’ll become a real talking point. But I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt and another year to get things in order. Keep in mind that the Clippers’ situation wasn’t like Kevin Durant’s walking onto the Warriors, or even Leonard’s joining the Raptors—situations where superstars joined cohesive, focused teams with previous playoff experience. But clearly, Leonard and George have a lot of work in front of them, and this failure is an opportunity for growth. I think we all overestimated the Clippers, which doesn’t excuse blowing the 3–1 lead, but also doesn’t make this just one person’s fault.
No, Leonard has proven himself after leading the Toronto Raptors to a title last season. This is more of a reflection of the Clippers. The curse is real. They’ve never advanced past the second round of the playoffs in their 50-year franchise history and then blew a 3-1 series lead when they finally had a great opportunity to do so.
When you are in the kind of conversations Kawhi Leonard was, the standards are incredibly high, especially if you are going to be mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James. And for Kawhi, since he doesn’t have the same statistical profile as the true greats, much of his reputation was based on a winning mystique. A performance like Leonard had in Game 7 as the Clippers blew the series to the Nuggets while the Raptors team he voluntarily left had a spirited title defense in going just as far as he did does hurt a bit. However, even if some can retroactively nitpick the championships he did win or question him as the true leader of a squad, the guy is clearly still a great player, and what he did in Toronto was special. I don’t want to discredit that. There are levels to this.
Winning a third title with a third team would have greatly enhanced Leonard’s legacy, but I don’t see his reputation taking a big hit after Tuesday’s embarrassing Game 7 loss. Leonard remains perhaps the top two-way force of his era, and his playoff mettle was proved in last year’s postseason. Leonard will have to hear the 3–1 jokes all offseason, and the Clippers' title chances will be treated with an abundance of caution entering 2020–21. But looking long-term, Tuesday's loss won't impact our view of Leonard’s legacy. He’s a surefire Hall of Famer and one of the best players of the 21st century. We won’t be discussing 2020’s second-round exit when Leonard takes the podium in Springfield.
How can it not be? At least just a little bit. Leonard was so heroic in Toronto’s championship run last year and it felt as if it was only a matter of time that he was going to rescue the Clippers from their postseason lulls this time around. That time, however, never came and Leonard shot just 6-of-22 for 14 points in LA’s Game 7 loss. Now, Leonard and the Clippers are left with countless questions about what went wrong. And the aura of Leonard being an unstoppable postseason player has seemingly vanished. Leonard is still undeniably one of the best players in the league and one of the top postseason performers of his era. But Tuesday night showed that creating a blemish-less career resume is next to impossible. He will face a largely deserving wave of criticism for his most recent struggles. But at the same time, would it be entirely surprising to see Leonard the Clippers atone for their early exit next year? Absolutely not.