Kawhi Leonard: The Super Team Slayer

The year is 2013, the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs are engaged in a grueling game five, it’s 2 minutes to the end of the first half, the Heat are trailing by 6 points and LeBron James it at the free throw line for 2. LeBron misses his first free throw and as he lines up to shoot a second shot, he spots Kawhi Leornard re-entering the game at the corner of his eye. He grudgingly nods and mutters expletives under his breath as he returns to the free throw line.

It’s only five games in into Kawhi Leornard’s first playoff encounter with a super team and he has already left a mark on arguably the best player to ever play the game. He would lose the series in 2013, but that was his coming out party. His exploits with the Spurs in 2014 led him to a title and a finals MVP. What happened next was beginning of his legacy as the Super Team Slayer. LeBron James jumped ship and the Super Team that was supposed to win, not 2, not 3 not 8 titles, was no more.

The circumstances that surround Kawhi Leonard in the finals in 2014 and 2019 are oddly similar. In both situations Kawhi is facing up against an all-time great team on the cusp of joining the Lakers, Celtics and the Bulls as the only teams to ever win a three peat. In both situations he is facing up a super team with arguably the best player in the game who is about to be a free agent. In both situations he is facing up against a team that handed him his last playoff defeat in cruel misgivings of fate. In 2013 the Spurs lost to the Heat due to ‘the shot’ by Ray Allen that was largely attributed to Coach Pop sitting Duncan for that possession. Flash forward to 2019, the last time he lost a playoff series in which he participated in was in 2017, against the Golden State Warriors, and he didn’t feature much due to the reckless abandon of Zaza Pachulia. In both situations, he has a score to settle; he has the home court advantage and he is playing the best basketball of his career. Lastly, in both situations, Kawhi is coming to play with a team with a better bench and a better defensive presence.

In the 2019 regular season and playoffs Kawhi has showcased all the skills necessary to give the Golden State Warriors problems. On defence, he is the klaw. His hands dictate the tempo to whom he is guarding will play. His gargantuan hands coupled by his 7 foot 3 inches reach and his exquisite timing makes him a monster at picking of steals from the elite ball handlers of the NBA. His off-ball defence, his ability to cause havoc while helping on rotation by using his reach to disrupt passing lanes, and his IQ on defence are the reasons why Kawhi is the top 20 in the league in steal rates. His on ball defence coupled by the length and defensive versatitlity of Pascal Siakam, Danny Green, and Serge Ibaka are enough to bother the Golden State Warrirors guards when bringing the ball up the Court and when passing.

Another element of his defence Kawhi’s strength. Kawhi Leonard’s strength also helps when he is running through screens. The two time defensive player of the year has amazing ball denial, and part of the reason why is his ability to power through screens like a knife through butter as shown below.

When he doesn’t have to power through the screen, he is light on his feet to dance round the screen in a way that does not give up an open shot to his match up as shown below.

His ability to navigate screens will be critical in stopping the Splash Brothers from getting easy looks.

Kawhi’s strength, length and reach also enable him to guard Bigs on the post; something he has done quite often due to switches on defence. Other than Leonard’s ability to defend bigs, the Raptors might also have the perfect antidote to Draymond Green’s rebounding, ball handling and playmaking. Consider the raprtos ability to place a small ball line up of Lowry, Green, Kawhi, Siakam and Ibaka that can ran up and down the floor with the Warriors and that can switch everything. This is especially so when you consider that on wear and tear Draymond Green will face on defence. Draymond Green will have the unenviable task of guarding Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. In their last series vs the Blazers the Warriors had a problem containing Kanter’s offensive rebounding and in Game 4 Miles Leonard exposed the kink in the Warrior’s armour when it comes to defending big men. He put up 25 points in the first half in situations that Gasol and Ibaka thrive in; that’s knocking down pick and pops, running down the floor for a fast break and getting some buckets on the post. The defensive and offensive versatility of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol might be too much for Draymond Green and Kevin Looney to contain.

On offence, Kawhi has been on a tear! He is putting one of the greatest offensive playoff runs of all time. Kawhi is currently averaging 31.2 points per game, second behind Kevin Durant (among active players). He is the playoff points leader with 561 points, more than 100 higher than the next closest player. And while you’d expect his high usage to result in low efficiency as the case usually is with all great scorers, Kawhi reneges that by shooting 50% from the floor; 39% from three and 89% from the free throw line. He is a percentage point away in two categories from averaging 50/40/90 in the playoffs. That’s absurd. And we haven’t even mentioned his big shot heroics. He managed to get the only series ending game 7 playoff buzzer beater ever vs the Sixers! And that wasn’t the best part of that shot, the photo while the ball was bouncing on the rim will far outlive that amazing stat.

His weakness on offence is his play making. This season he has averaged 3.8 assists; this is significantly low considering he has a usage rate of 32.1%, the 6th highest in this year’s playoffs. He is an average passer at his position. Kawhi tends to over dribble and this limits the Raptor’s efficiency. An extra dribble or two can undo an advantage created by screens or off ball action. It’s just the amount of time that elite defences need to put back things in place. Look at the play below how Kawhi has three defenders on him, his roller is open, and he has an easy pass at the top of the Key. He takes an extra dribble while spotting the pass, and a soft pass fizzles the play out.

But against the Bucks he showed shades of improvement. He had 9 assists in game 5, the most he has had all season. When he had to pass the rock, he set up his team mates in a way that only Harden, Giannis and LeBron James can, the difference however being that elite passers like LeBron James and James Harden anticipate passes, they see the pass before it happens, Kawhi passes after all lanes to the basket are closed, it’s a secondary consideration. His passing is what stops him from being considered with Kevin Durant and LeBron James as the best player in the league.

The last thing the Raptors have over the Warriors is a better rotation. When Kevin Durant and Boogie Cousins were healthy, the Warriors could rotate their team in such a way that they had 2 all-stars on the Court throughout the game. With Durant and Boogie out, they can only afford to have one allstar in the game with a rather depleted bench. Beyond the allstars, the Warriors do not the better offensive players in the bench. While the Raptors have Marc Gasol, VanVleet, Powell, Anunoby, Jeremy Lin and Patrick McCaw coming off the bench, the Warriors have Quin Cook, Jerebko, Jordan Bell, Bogut, Mckinnie and Shaun Livingston. Apart from Shaun Livingston, the Raptors bench has the edge defensively and offensively.

If you combine all of this, and consider that Kevin Durant and Boogie Cousins might not be fit to play in this series, you come to the conclusion that Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors have all the tools necessary to stop the Golden State Warriors from winning a three peat. This opportunity comes ata a time when

Kawhi Leonard, again, has the opportunity to end the fortunes of a Super Team with a title and Finals MVP. With Durant having one foot out of the door, and with the contracts of Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant expiring. Durant has one foot out the door while Klay goes into the finals without the option of signing a super max because he failed to be voted in the All NBA teams. Check out his reaction below.

Klay’s only incentive for staying with the Warriors would be winning titles, throw that out of the window and he may depart to where he can win.

This all culminates for a rather unique legacy for Kawhi Leonard. It will pit Kawhi’s legacy as a Super Team Breaking hero, who restores parity to a lopsided league. He did it and hopefully he can do it in 2019. Long Live the Super Team Slayer, long may he reign