Mind Games: What Kawhi Leonard was and wasn’t for the Raptors

Mind Games is a series that explores different psychological elements that shape the whys of the league we love and the hows of the game we sometimes hate.

Kawhi Leonard went to the Los Angeles Clippers with visions of becoming the first player to be Finals MVP with three different teams. We know how that ended despite the wealth of talent, experience and defensive mettle they appeared to have. But looking back on how it all played out, is there much doubt that had Kawhi Leonard remained with the Toronto Raptors, that they would have had as good a chance to win it all as the Los Angeles Lakers and bring back-to-back titles to the North?

Before they won the Larry O’Brien trophy, the Raptors were known for their own playoff struggles and disappointments as much as the Clippers were. The narrative surrounding that team was that Kyle Lowry, while a hard-nosed, high-IQ, chip-on-the-shoulder bulldog, had some disappointing playoff performances, while even getting a case of the yips some years back. Pascal Siakum was still developing before making a more everyday player kind of leap this season. Fred VanVleet was Kyle Lowry-lite without the playoff experience. Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol’s best days were behind them. OG Annouby was injured. Norman Powell hadn’t broken out as he did in this year’s bubble and Danny Green, while a solid role player, is not a game-changer in pursuit of a championship.

On top of all, Toronto had a rookie head coach leading this group, with Kawhi Leonard coming off a 60-game regular season and questions about whether his load management would kill the Toronto Raptors’ chemistry. Sounds a little familiar? After all, Lowry was a vocal critic of the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the team because it required jettisoning Toronto Raptors’ pillar and loyalist, Demar DeRozan.

More than that, it was personal because he was losing his friend and someone who understood what the Raptors had been through. They also had to face stiffer competition as the 2018-19 editions of the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers were arguably better versions of themselves compared to this year’s Eastern Conference playoffs (most definitely in the Sixers’ case).

It didn’t look good, to say the least, but due to four magical bounces and a team ready-made for the roles and hierarchal positions they would take with respect to starring and leadership; the Toronto Raptors turned their time with Kawhi Leonard a title while the Los Angeles Clippers fell into failure. The circumstances were roughly the same with how Kawhi Leonard was managed and he IS the constant in the equation. The variables are the surrounding players and how they viewed the opportunity in light of the situation, with a few key differences, versus where and”what they were in their careers, individually and as a team.

What was Kawhi Leonard for the Toronto Raptors?

First off, it must be said that reports of locker room jealousies and inequity came out after the Los Angeles Clippers collapsed against Denver Nuggets. There was an incident in January when Montrezl Harrell spoke more candidly with the media about internal issues than Doc Rivers and teammates would have liked. When you are labeled a failure as a collective and your individual performances have been called into question, it’s easier to get defensive and point fingers.

For the Los Angeles Clippers whose grumbling was loudest, they were at a different stage in their journey. The previous year, they were leading an up-and-coming team, a new iteration connected with the fans because of their hard work and scrappiness. Without an All-Star, they won 48 games and challenged the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. They didn’t go through the disappointments yet; they hadn’t experienced the failures (together) that may have worn on them over time from multiple fruitless trips to the playoffs after regular season successes. The Toronto Raptors had, and lots of them.

Kyle Lowry and a few of his teammates were there for all the losses at the hands of LeBron. While he was vocal about the cold business side of the NBA, he must have been aware of the immense opportunity that Kawhi Leonard, a champion and Finals MVP, brought in LeBron’s first season in the West. He also probably realized that Kawhi Leonard was a likely one-and-done candidate since he had specified some preferred trade destinations and the Toronto Raptors weren’t one of them.

The fact that Danny Green was part of the trade was significant. He might have been a gateway to a player that is known as distant and somewhat aloof, someone Kawhi Leonard could feel comfortable with as they shared seven seasons with the San Antonio Spurs before the move up North together.

For Lowry, there was really nothing to lose from his perspective and we never heard anything from him about Kawhi Leonard as a player or his load management. Toronto was different from the Los Angeles Clippers in that Lowry was already there as the undisputed leader on the court and the face of the franchise. His acceptance went a long way into the team accepting Kawhi Leonard’s situation and his natural position as a pass-first and defensive point guard let Kawhi slide in the role of an offensive star without the pressure of being a leader. A true point is also something that Leonard wants the Clippers to get during the off-season and it’s not hard to see why.

Leonard was also just a year removed from playing only nine games for the Spurs with his contentious quad injury, so the incentive and approval of his rest schedule was more important than some believed with the Los Angeles Clippers. There, even though Leonard was dealing with knee issues all year, some may have seen his rest early in the season as preemptive rather than reactionary to any sort of actual problem. The fact that they were losing and looked lost without him on the floor only magnified the issue.

Kawhi Leonard doesn’t really seem to care what anyone thinks about it though, stating his firm belief that he would not have be able to do the things he did in the playoffs for the Toronto Raptors were it not for his rest and management. Earlier this season, he even called it “disappointing” that there is pressure to “…want players to play even if they’re not ready,” while reiterating, “I will have to do what will make me healthy and help this team be successful.”

Since he has already proven it, and breaking the preconceptions from previous champions that one superstar couldn’t pull a team to victory, the Los Angeles Clippers were not fools to believe in lightning striking twice; especially with the widely-accepted “upgrades” in roster and defensive versatility they possessed. They just didn’t have the right group dynamics or the trust in the coaching to make it work.

Players didn’t step up or take hold of the opportunity when Kawhi Leonard was off the floor and the Clippers were a sub .500 team because of it. Contrast that with the Toronto Raptors who went 17-5 during games in which Kawhi Leonard did not play. More importantly, they had the right mix of veteran intuitiveness and undrafted, G-League hunger to excel in his absences.

The box scores for those 22 games are riddled with standout performances from Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, who interestingly enough only played in 65 games themselves and both struggled early that season while the team was finding success with Kawhi Leonard. Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakum also stepped up, with all players exceeding most of their normal season averages and Siakum averaging almost 20 points per game in a foreshadowing of what was to come this season.

A lot of that was due to roster construction that benefited the Toronto Raptors more than the Los Angeles Clippers. Whereas the Clippers were deep and talented, they lacked the traditional line-ups with a coordinating point guard, were forward heavy and played a lot more match-up based basketball compared to the deep and more defined roster of the Toronto Raptors.

A last difference, but what turned out to be a big one, is the coaching. Nick Nurse, as a rookie head coach, was in no position to question the directives of the Toronto Raptors’ brass. Not that he wanted to, but in an area that looked like it would be a major advantage for the Los Angeles Clippers, it turned out the Toronto Raptors were in a better situation once again.

The decisions were effectively taken out of Nurse’s hands of how Kawhi Leonard’s workload would be managed, and he seemed to enjoy the opportunities to adapt and create for the circumstance. He was able to develop his free-wheelin’, defensive and team-first style without the pressure of catering to the new superstar. Doc Rivers, in all his denials that anything was wrong and that things take time, was seen as someone who could and should have done something to address players’ concerns of favoritism. He’s been around long enough to know that once you lose the players’ trust, you’ve lost everything. And with that, he did, in LA anyway.

Despite the perceived and real talent gap, the inexperienced head coach, a new superstar’s preferential treatment and load management; the Toronto Raptors took a chance on a year with all the BS from the past wiped away. They were rewarded in their gamble, but it just goes to show how tenuous a title-winning season can be. It’s usually qualified as hard, but in reality, it’s so fragile, ready to break apart at any moment:  a sudden injury or match-up or fissure in the make-up, the chemistry, the way everything fits together for the health of the organism that shows the team with the most talent doesn’t always win, but the most talented TEAM; together, bonded strong and tight, usually does.

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