Kawhi Leonard is not known for showing emotion. His reputation is that of a stoic, stone-faced man who performs his on-court duties mechanically while trying to have as few off-court obligations as possible, at least as few as a player of his magnitude can get away with. Despite his media day claim that he is indeed a “fun guy,” the idea is there and will likely never be gotten rid of no matter how loudly he yells after a series clinching buzzer beater, or how euphorically he dances in the locker room after winning his second championship and second Finals MVP. The reasons to abandon this conventional narrative are there, but they remain, anecdotal as they may be.
Kawhi does indeed play basketball with a precision that few have ever approached. Every move he makes seems studied, thought out in advance, with his mistakes seeming like a miscalculation, rather than a result of rash or impulsive play. It reflects and informs the public image of him, but the laconic nature of both his verbiage and his play belies a fierceness lying just below the surface, ready to erupt and take over whenever necessary. And take over he did in this postseason, night after night, making a claim to be the best player alive, showcasing his profound abilities on both sides of the ball while simultaneously leading the Raptors to their first title in franchise history and making a case for himself as one of the all-time greats.
When Kawhi entered the league, not even the most optimistic scout could have predicted he would have blossomed into the player he is today. Derrick Williams, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo, Brandon Knight, and Jimmer Fredette were all drafted ahead of him after all. He was supposed to be a defensive specialist, a bit of a project whose shot-making abilities were suspect at best. Yet somehow, throughout his eight seasons in the league, he has developed not only into the best version of the defensive force some imagined, winning two Defensive Player of the Year trophies in the process, but a scoring savant who is as gifted at creating, and making, his own shot as anyone in league history. Amazingly, apart from the 17-18 season where he played just nine games, his scoring average has increased every single season of his career as his skill set has just kept expanding. Yet he somehow even raised his game another level throughout this postseason, leading all performers in minutes, points, steals, and offensive rebounds. It was a performance for the ages and while it will take some time to fully make sense of what we witnessed these last two months, it is no stretch to say that in recent years, what Kawhi has done has been equaled in this millennium by only a handful of players, players with names like Shaquille, LeBron, Dirk, Duncan, and Durant, players whose company Kawhi absolutely belongs in.
There’s an old folk saying about how the people who kill legends are footnotes while the legends themselves remain, well, legendary. We all know who Jesse James is, but Robert Ford is a bit less famous, and a lot less infamous. Kawhi Leonard, by stopping two potential three-peats by two of the greatest would-be dynasties of the last decade, has established himself as a giant killer, the NBA’s version of those legendary dragon slayers of yore. I think this is a case, though, where that old pattern will not exactly reverse itself, but be amended a little bit. Leonard, in these victories, has shown himself to be equal to the task of standing face to face with some of the greatest players in NBA history and then defeating them with a barrage of well placed swipes at the ball and deflections, a ton of rebounds, and a historically great scoring ability. There is little he fails to do well and much that he does transcendently, and all season long, it felt like the Raptors were elevated by his mere presence, feeling themselves capable of something they had doubted possible before.
Kawhi had absolutely nothing to lose entering this postseason. The Bucks and Warriors were favorites to make the Finals and there would have been no shame in falling to either one of those teams, but he and the Raptors rose to every occasion, outlasting and outplaying all opponents and in doing so, he has gained so much. He is the undisputed best player on a championship team, the player who took down a seemingly indomitable Warriors team with deadly precision, rarely appearing to break a sweat even as he barreled into and through defenses possession after possession.
However, there is an uncertainty now about what comes next. Will Kawhi re-sign with the Raptors this offseason and try to run it back and repeat, or will he leave for the Clippers or another team and try to win a third championship with a third team? Whatever team he suits up for next year will be an automatic title contender by the virtue of his presence alone. Even if he does leave, it’s impossible to imagine any ill feelings towards him from Raptors fans. He has delivered and the demons of the Raptors’ past, those years of alternating between utter futility and playoff let-downs, have been exorcised. His future may be uncertain, but his place in the hearts of Raptors fans, and in history, is already assured.