Kawhi Leonard thought he had the LeBron James playbook down. Turns out that he had read only the first few chapters.
The Clippers’ collapse in their second-round series against the Nuggets, when they gave up a 3-1 lead despite being up by double digits in the second halves of games 5 and 6, is proof that Kawhi has more work to do. Both stars tried to build a title contender from scratch in Los Angeles. The difference was that it was not LeBron’s first time doing it. Kawhi, like LeBron before him, will have to learn from what went wrong.
The first step for both was picking a costar. LeBron planned out his moves years in advance, while Kawhi seemed to be flying by the seat of his pants. The timetable of LeBron’s relationship with Anthony Davis is hazy, but rumors about LeBron joining the Lakers first began picking up steam in 2017. He signed in 2018, with Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins, who cowrote his open letter to Cleveland in 2014, writing that he viewed the current Lakers players as “assets.” Davis signed with Klutch Sports in the fall of 2018. He demanded a trade in January 2019, and was eventually dealt for many of those assets, including Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, in the summer.
Kawhi had a more haphazard recruitment process. He reportedly reached out to Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George in the weeks before free agency last summer. According to ESPN, Durant was shocked because the two had never spoken much before. Partnering with another star is as much about the relationship off the court as the fit on it. Durant and Kyrie Irving became close while playing for Team USA in 2016, long before they teamed up in Brooklyn. The same thing happened with LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh in 2008. Kawhi never played for Team USA. He was playing catch-up in a game LeBron had been playing for more than a decade.
George is a natural partner for Kawhi. He makes sense on paper because he can defend multiple positions, space the floor, and score without dominating the ball. But he also might have just been the best costar that Kawhi could get in the moment. LeBron seemingly zeroed in on Davis at least a year beforehand. It’s like the scene in Training Day when Ethan Hawke’s character suddenly realizes that Denzel Washington’s character has been setting him up. Denzel responds with a knowing smile: “I’ve been planning it all week, son!”
LeBron remade the Lakers roster in his image. The only players left from before his arrival are Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a fellow Klutch client, Kyle Kuzma, and Alex Caruso (who was just a two-way player then). Everyone else is the type of veteran role player that James preferred in Miami and Cleveland—JaVale McGee, Danny Green, Markieff Morris, Rajon Rondo, and Dwight Howard.
LeBron doesn’t like playing with younger teammates. He needs players who will buy into their roles and sacrifice for the good of the team. LeBron already knows how all the pieces should fit together. Before his second stint in Cleveland, he held a players-only meeting in which he laid out exactly what he expected from the entire roster, from Kyrie and Kevin Love to the 15th man. But it’s hard for younger players to accept limitations on their games. Dion Waiters lasted only a couple of months before being shipped out. Kyrie asked for a trade even after winning a title with LeBron because he wanted to run a team of his own. It was only after he had that responsibility that he realized how difficult it was, calling LeBron and asking him for advice on how to manage younger versions of himself.
Winning in the playoffs requires sacrifices. The Lakers had to bench McGee and Howard in their second-round series with the Rockets to match up with a smaller team that didn’t play centers. The Clippers should have done the same thing with Montrezl Harrell against the Nuggets. The advanced numbers were screaming for them to make a change. The Clippers had a net rating of minus-11.7 with Harrell on the floor in the series and plus-8.8 with him off. It plummeted to minus-27.1 in 72 minutes when both Harrell and Nikola Jokic were in. But it’s harder to make that move with younger players than it is with established veterans like McGee and Howard. There are no big contracts in their future. They have already made their money in the NBA.
Everyone on the Lakers roster, with the exception of LeBron and Davis, has to have that mentality. They are all chess pieces who can be moved around the board depending on the needs of their team in a given series. Howard is 34. Rondo is 33. Green and McGee are 32. Morris is 30. They all have enough playoff experience to understand what might be asked of them. Even the youngsters who stuck around in Los Angeles aren’t lottery picks who expect to be handed big roles. Kuzma was picked 27th. Caruso went undrafted.
The next step is having a coach who knows how to move those players around. LeBron has little patience for coaches he doesn’t think can keep up. He chopped the legs out from under David Blatt, one of the most legendary coaches in European history, when he was in Cleveland. The Cavs fired Blatt halfway through his second season, despite reaching the Finals in his first and owning the East’s best record at the time. They replaced him with assistant coach Tyronn Lue, who had a much better relationship with his star player. Lue was criticized for his relatively simplistic offense, but all LeBron needed was the ball and the space to make plays and everything else would work itself out. His coach just needed to make the correct lineup adjustments over the course of a playoff series, something Lue showed an incredible feel for in Cleveland.
The same process played out in Los Angeles. LeBron reportedly began pushing for Luke Walton to lose his job within a few months of his arrival. He was replaced last offseason by Frank Vogel, whom LeBron had squared off against in many playoff battles when he was coach of the Pacers. Vogel has proved himself in the bubble, quickly course-correcting after losing Game 1 against both the Trail Blazers and Rockets. Maybe Walton would have done as well in the same scenario. But LeBron saw enough in their brief time together to question that.
Kawhi has to ask himself the same questions about Doc Rivers. He’s a championship coach who has a huge voice in the locker room and is one of the most respected figures in the NBA. But he came into the season as the only coach to ever lose two series with a 3-1 lead. Now he’s the only one to do it three times. The way he managed Harrell’s minutes against the Nuggets tells you all you need to know about whether those implosions are a coincidence. It’s not all his fault. The Clippers were a flawed team that laid an egg in Game 7. But that only makes the need for a more flexible coach even more important. Rivers falls in love with players who should be replaceable. If you have seven different players whose roles you can’t adjust in the playoffs, then you can’t make adjustments at all.
But it would not be as easy for Kawhi to get rid of Rivers as it would for LeBron. The latter star plays the public relations game better than most politicians. Look at what happened to Walton.
The bigger issue is that Rivers is one of the leaders of the Clippers, while Kawhi is a quiet guy who prefers to lead by example. That approach by Leonard allows others to assume leadership roles in a way that makes him vulnerable to the flaws of those leaders. LeBron handles all of that stuff so the people around him can be hypercompetent in their specific roles. He doesn’t need someone like Rivers running his team. He does it himself.
Everyone knew LeBron would have the final say when the Lakers were deciding whether to stay in the bubble a few weeks ago, on the heels of the Bucks’ protest. Lou Williams, not Kawhi, was the voice of the Clippers. It’s hard to know how much of an impact that type of leadership has. I’ve talked to plenty of people around the NBA who say that it means something. The Lakers have been locked in all season, and made quick work of both the Blazers and Rockets. The Clippers seemed to pick and choose when they wanted to turn it on. It’s almost like they expected to win because they had the most talent on paper.
In that respect, their season looked a lot like the Heatles’ first campaign in Miami. The Clippers, like the Heat in 2010-11, spent the whole offseason celebrating the type of team they put together. Patrick Beverley was taunting Steph Curry in the first week of the season about how his Clippers would run the NBA for the next five years. Their crosstown rivals played it cooler. There wasn’t even a press conference when LeBron signed with the Lakers, just a tweet from his agency. He had learned the hard way about counting his chickens before they were hatched.
LeBron was playing in the Finals when Kawhi was still in high school. Now, he’s on his fifth NBA contract. Kawhi is on his third. This was Leonard’s first chance to run his own team. It’s not like Toronto, where he was the final piece of a ready-built contender. He is at the same stage of his career after his first season in Los Angeles that LeBron was in after his first season in Miami.
Experience is the best teacher. The reason that LeBron was able to avoid some of the mistakes that Kawhi made this season is that he’s already made them. Kawhi should be better because of what happened to the Clippers. There’s no reason for them to panic. It’s hard to build a championship team in one season. Kawhi is 29. George is 30. They will be back.
But Kawhi may never have as much experience as LeBron has now. James is in his 17th season. Most players who have been around as long as he has can no longer play at a high level. Kawhi doesn’t move as well as he did when he was younger because of lingering leg issues. He may be out of the NBA by the time he can see the game as well as LeBron.
LeBron’s longevity has given him the best of both worlds: He has the wisdom of an older man and the game of a younger one. The Western Conference finals were supposed to be the Battle for Los Angeles. But LeBron didn’t need to beat Kawhi in the playoffs. He beat him the summer before. There’s still a lot that Kawhi can learn from him. But he’s running out of time to learn it.