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Kawhi Leonard and the New Championship Blueprint

The Finals MVP used to only go to LeBron and the player who guarded him. Now the best player on a title team is the one who plays LeBron’s role.

There was never a question about who the NBA Finals MVP would be if the Raptors won. Trading for Kawhi Leonard changed everything for a franchise that ended the past few seasons as roadkill because of LeBron James. But Kawhi didn’t alter Toronto’s fate simply because he’s a top-five player. The Raptors are NBA champions because he is the type of top-five player that has become key to winning a title: a supersized combo forward.

Look at the past eight Finals MVPs:

NBA Finals MVPs

Year Player Team
Year Player Team
2012 LeBron James Heat
2013 LeBron James Heat
2014 Kawhi Leonard Spurs
2015 Andre Iguodala Warriors
2016 LeBron James Cavaliers
2017 Kevin Durant Warriors
2018 Kevin Durant Warriors
2019 Kawhi Leonard Raptors

Kawhi (6-foot-7 and 230 pounds) isn’t as big as LeBron (6-foot-8 and 250 pounds), or as long as Durant (7 feet and 240 pounds), but he’s the densest of the three. There are only a handful of players who can guard any of them. Iguodala is one, which is why he is the only player in the 2010s who broke into their exclusive club. The rule of thumb for almost the entire decade was that the Finals MVP went either to LeBron or to the player who guarded him in the series. Now it may go only to the guy who best plays LeBron’s position.

Leonard has elevated his game since winning his first Finals MVP with the Spurs in 2014. He went from a raw offensive player to a fully formed product over the past five seasons. He averaged 30.5 points on 49 percent shooting, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.7 steals per game in this season’s playoffs. The most telling number might be his 2-point percentage: He shot 53.6 percent from 2 on 14.6 field goal attempts per game. It’s almost impossible to score as much as Kawhi while being that efficient from inside the 3-point line. There have been only six players who have done it while averaging at least nine rebounds and three assists in the same postseason: Kawhi, LeBron, and four of the most dominant big men (Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, and Hakeem Olajuwon) in NBA history.

The best player in the league has always been the one who could score at will in the paint and create open 3s for his teammates. Those players used to be the 7-footers who played out of the post. Over the past generation, however, those players have drifted out to the perimeter. Kawhi, LeBron, and Durant all combine the offensive dominance of a great big man with the perimeter skill set of a guard. There is nothing even an elite defense can do to stop them. Kawhi doesn’t need someone to get him the ball in the post. He can initiate the offense himself and score from every part of the floor. He puts so much pressure on the defense that he makes life easy for everyone else. All he has to do is make simple reads as a passer to set up his teammates. And like the greatest big men, Kawhi can also take over a playoff series on defense. He flipped the Eastern Conference finals when he began guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 3. His impact in the second-round win over the 76ers was even more dramatic: The Raptors went from a net rating of plus-5 in his 278 minutes on the floor to minus-12.7 in his 58 minutes off.

Supersized combo forwards are nuclear weapons who even the odds in any series. What the Warriors have done over the past five seasons is proof. They were one of the greatest teams in NBA history before they signed Durant, winning a record 73 games in the 2015-16 regular season. But they still had one weak point: matching up with Durant and LeBron. They were down 2-1 to LeBron in the 2015 Finals even though the Cavs didn’t have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love; they were down 3-1 to Durant and the Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference finals before narrowly escaping; and they lost the 2016 Finals to LeBron. It all changed once they signed Durant. He canceled out LeBron in the 2017 and 2018 Finals, and not having him was the difference against Kawhi in 2019.

A healthy Durant would have changed everything against the Raptors. Kawhi copied the essential parts of the blueprint LeBron used to beat the Warriors in the 2016 Finals. Leonard created high-percentage shots for himself and his teammates, controlled the tempo of the game, and roamed around the floor on defense. He was the primary defender on Draymond Green for 132 possessions in the series, on Klay for 55, and on Steph for 46. He wouldn’t have been able to guard those players had Durant been on the floor for more than the 12 minutes he logged in Game 5 before tearing his Achilles. (Leonard guarded him for nine of KD’s 22 total possessions.) Durant would have forced weaker defenders to guard his teammates, defended Kawhi for stretches of the game, and given the Warriors a third scorer to prevent the Raptors from overloading on the Splash Brothers. The types of lineups Golden State used would have been different with Durant, too. They didn’t play Draymond at the 5 as much as they usually would have in the series because Durant’s absence meant they didn’t have enough two-way perimeter players.

These Finals could have elevated Leonard and Durant to the next great rivalry in the NBA. It’s so hard for teams to match up with elite combo forwards that they often advance through the playoffs until they face someone like them. LeBron played one of the two in three of the past five Finals before this season. This would have been the first time Durant and Kawhi faced off on the biggest stage in the sport. One of the most exciting games of the regular season was an overtime shootout in November when Durant went for 51 and Kawhi had 37. Now, with KD’s future up in the air as he recovers from the most devastating injury in basketball, they may never meet again at full strength.

This season may have been a changing of the guard at the most important position in the game. Kawhi turns 28 in two weeks. He’s entering his prime and his two biggest rivals are no longer standing in his path. LeBron turned 34 in December, the same age as Michael Jordan in his final season with the Bulls, and suffered the worst injury (pulled groin) of his career this past season. The Lakers aren’t favored to sign any of the major free agents this offseason, and need to win the Anthony Davis sweepstakes to stay relevant. Durant turns 31 in September, and may never be the same player again. Kawhi’s biggest concern going forward will be his health. He missed almost the entire 2017-18 season with a quad injury, and he was favoring the same quad in these playoffs. No matter where he signs in the offseason, Kawhi will likely continue the “load management” that limited him to only 60 regular-season games with Toronto.

If injuries don’t get in his way, Leonard now controls the balance of power in the NBA. The Raptors will rebuild if he leaves, and almost any team would become a contender if they signed him. Most people around the league have long assumed that he will ultimately sign with the Clippers. Los Angeles is his hometown, and the Clippers can create enough room under the salary cap to sign two players to max contracts. Winning a championship in Toronto may have changed his plans, but there’s no way to know for sure. He doesn’t owe the franchise anything. They had no margin for error in the playoffs, even with Kawhi playing like an all-time great. Raptors president Masai Ujiri, assuming he doesn’t leave for the Wizards, will have to convince Kawhi that he can keep a title contender around him for the rest of his prime.

The first question for Kawhi is what types of players he should want to fill out his supporting cast. The common factor in the most recent championships for Leonard, Durant, and LeBron is that they were all playing with an elite pick-and-roll guard as their no. 2 option: Kyle Lowry, Steph Curry, and Kyrie Irving, respectively. Each partnership was slightly different in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of the two players, but the collective impact of the one-two punch was similar. Lowry focused less on scoring than the other two guards. This season, he averaged the fewest points (14.2 per game) and lowest field goal percentage (41.1) since his first season in Toronto in 2012-13, yet set a career high in assists (8.7 per game).

It’s unclear how much longer Lowry can perform at an elite level. Players with his profile (undersized guards without great athleticism) don’t tend to age well, and he turned 33 in March. He was already up and down throughout the playoffs: He closed out the Warriors with 26 points and 10 assists in Game 6 of the Finals, but he also averaged 13.1 points on 39.8 percent shooting and six assists in the series against the 76ers. Pascal Siakam, who broke out in his third season in the NBA, is the more likely bet to remain an All-Star-caliber player through the rest of Kawhi’s prime. The problem is the two don’t fit all that well together. Siakam is an inconsistent 3-point shooter whom teams don’t guard when Kawhi has the ball, and also isn’t an elite playmaker who could run the offense without Lowry.

There will be a lot of stars available in free agency this summer, even with Durant and Thompson rehabbing. Kemba Walker is the best pick-and-roll guard available. He is coming off the best season of his career, averaging 25.6 points on 43.4 percent shooting, and 5.9 assists per game. But pairing up with him would have some risks for Leonard. Walker is even smaller (6-foot-1 and 184 pounds) than Lowry, he’s nowhere near as good defensively, and he has barely any playoff experience in eight seasons with the Hornets. The upside of that combination is that Kemba is a much better scorer who turned only 29 in May, which means he won’t be the same age that Lowry is now until the end of his next contract should he leave Charlotte. He could sign a five-year supermax contract if he stays with the Hornets, but that would likely mean never playing on a title contender for the rest of his prime. He would at least listen if Kawhi asked him to join him on the Clippers.

A team with Kawhi and Kemba would be a title contender for the next few seasons, assuming the team could fill out the supporting cast around them. What would turn them into a potential dynasty is rounding out a Big Three with an elite big man. The Clippers are a dark horse in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but they have reportedly refused to add Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a promising rookie point guard with as much potential as any of the young players who have been made available for Davis, into any potential deal. Kawhi could change that with one phone call. It would be the kind of move that could reshape the NBA. A Big Three of Kawhi, AD, and Kemba combines three All-NBA players in the sweet spot of their careers: They are all near the height of their physical powers without anything left to prove individually.

Few players have ever improved as much as Kawhi. He went from a defensive specialist with a shaky jumper to one of the most dominant scorers in NBA history. But all that work on the court is only the beginning. What he does off the court is just as important if he wants to string together multiple championships. LeBron won three titles by building Big Threes around him in Miami and Cleveland. Durant won two after he signed with Golden State, effectively ending LeBron’s run. This offseason is Kawhi’s chance to put his fingerprints on the league. He has two Finals MVPs and two championships at the age of 27. He can make a run at Jordan. Whether he does or not depends on how ambitious he wants to be.