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Thursday, October 24, 2019

In 2019 Season Opener, Kawhi Picks Up Where He Left Off

The last time we saw Kawhi Leonard on a basketball court in a game that counted, he destroyed Golden State's dynasty and won the Finals MVP after leading the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title. As I wrote in my 2019-20 Western Conference Preview, Leonard is a "dynasty killer." He ended the Heat's dynasty in 2014, winning his first Finals MVP as his San Antonio Spurs beat the brakes off of Miami, four games to one--with each San Antonio victory boasting a margin of at least 15 points. Then, Leonard ended San Antonio's dynasty: the Spurs won 61 games and made it to the 2017 Western Conference Finals in his final full season with the team--but he sprained his ankle in game one of the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs blew a huge lead and then were swept by the Golden State Warriors after Leonard was not able to return to action. Leonard played just nine games for the Spurs in 2017-18 before landing in Toronto last season. The Spurs won 47 games in 2018 and they won 48 games last season, losing in the first round both times.

On opening night, Leonard put a dent in the "dynasty" of the 2020 paper champions, the darlings of the "stat gurus," the L.A. Lakers. Many commentators warned that Leonard's L.A. Clippers would get off to a slow start because Paul George is sidelined as he recovers from shoulder injuries. Meanwhile, the Lakers--who have not made the playoffs since 2013, the last time that Kobe Bryant played a full, healthy season--have what has been breathlessly described in some quarters as potentially the greatest duo of all-time, featuring the aging LeBron James and Anthony "I won one playoff series in my first seven seasons" Davis. Apparently, we are all now living in a universe in which Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Magic Johnson, Moses Malone/Julius Erving, Larry Bird/Kevin McHale and Bill Russell/pick a Celtic do not exist.

What could Leonard do when facing the greatest duo ever?

Nothing much--just 30 points on 10-19 field goal shooting in 32 minutes without doing a fancy dance, or trash talking or even changing his facial expression very much. Meanwhile, investigators have been dispatched to find out who kidnapped Davis and James at halftime; they put up decent numbers in the first half and then disappeared when the game was up for grabs as the Clippers cruised to a 112-102 win.

The "LeBron James is the greatest player of all-time" articles are really cute, but before we compare James to Jordan and the other elite players who preceded James are we really, really sure that James is better than his contemporaries such as five-time champion Kobe Bryant and five-time champion Tim Duncan? Are we sure that James is better than peak Kevin Durant? Are we even sure that James is better than peak Leonard? Have we even seen peak Leonard yet?

TNT's Charles Barkley--who once said that the next person who compares James to Jordan should be punched in the face--noted that Leonard is like Oscar Robertson in that both players always play at their own pace and do not let the defense dictate to them. That is a very apt and perceptive observation. Doc Rivers, Leonard's current coach, once wrote a wonderful little book titled Those Who Love the Game.  That book has more insight on any given page that you can find in a whole book by Bill Simmons, who has been a vocal critic of Rivers. In Those Who Love the Game, Rivers described Chris Mullin as the "King of Tempo," emphasizing that what matters in basketball is not being fast so much as being able to change speeds to keep the opposition off balance. Leonard is a level above Mullin--who, as a Hall of Famer and original Dream Team member, is no slouch--and Leonard can control tempo to an even greater and more powerful extent than Mullin could.

It would have been great to see Leonard stay in Toronto and try to carry the Raptors to back to back titles, but this Clippers team has a chance to be special. Last season, they were tough, scrappy, defensive-minded and well coached, but they lacked star power. Now, they have added Leonard's transcendent talent and George's ability to be a complementary star (the notion that he is or should be an MVP candidate is silly, but he is perfectly suited to being the second option), without losing their toughness, their scrappy nature and their defensive mindset.

After James the general manager builds a team, it generally takes a while for James the player/coach to figure out how to get the team to function well together; we saw that in Miami, and in Cleveland during James' second stint in Ohio. So, it is entirely possible that the Lakers will be a force to reckon with, and not a fourth quarter farce, by the time the 2020 playoffs begin--but the Clippers are a force now, and even if James builds a dynasty caliber team he will not win the championship unless he figures out how to beat the "dynasty killer" four times in seven games. Maybe James the general manager will sign Zaza Pachulia, whose dirty footwork took Leonard out in game one of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. Pachulia is the only player who has slowed Leonard down during the playoffs in recent years.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:54 AM



At Tuesday, October 29, 2019 5:36:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Lakers seem to be on right track lately,Dwight seems to be happier than his stint in 2013.

But I am pissed James Harden getting 22 FTs at will,is really refs rigged?I remember Kobe getting hacked and whacked completely and no foul calls,I hope you write a piece about this travesty.


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