Even with all the marquee names that were available in this year’s free agency period, none have gathered more buzz than Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, a two-time Finals MVP entering his 9th season at just 28 years old, certainly deserves all the attention he’s been drawing. Not only did he vanquish The Miami Heatles dynasty, but it looks like he might’ve just done the same thing to Golden State.
After a drama-riddled 2017-2018 season in San Antonio, the Spurs eventually traded Kawhi to the Raptors for DeMar DeRozan. At this point, Kawhi and his camp had one of the worst reputations in the league. The way he handled his injury rubbed many people the wrong way, but it seems like he may have had a legitimate concern that the Spurs’ medical staff weren’t giving him a good opinion.
When Leonard was first traded to Toronto, most assumed it would be just for a one-year rental. Kawhi has previously mentioned his desire to play in Los Angeles, which made the trade by the Raptors extremely risky. However, Paul George also wanted to play in LA, but ended up staying in Oklahoma City due to a bond with teammate Russell Westbrook.
Paul George resigning with the Thunder likely gave confidence to Masai Ujiri, who ultimately pulled the trigger on the Kawhi Leonard trade. While the Raptors certainly aren’t located in LA, they still had an appealing team with much to offer Kawhi. Previous to LeBron leaving for the Lakers, the Raptors were consistently the second-best team in the East.
Even with that label, the Raptors finished just 2nd in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. They finished 58-24, while Milwaukee narrowly beat them out at 60-22. This did come with Kawhi Leonard playing just 60 games, although averaging 34 minutes per match. Leonard had his best season as a pro yet, averaging 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 steals.
As fascinating as the regular season is, nothing really matters until the playoffs start. Against Orlando, the Raptors lost Game 1, but quickly responded with 4-straight wins with fantastic play from Kawhi and Pascal Siakam. Their next series proved much tougher, and provided one of the most iconic moments of the entire playoffs.
The Raptors required 7 whole games to beat Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. Fortunately Leonard was at his absolute best, averaging 34.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 1.3 steals. Game 7 had a storytale finish, with Kawhi scoring 41 points and making a buzzer-beating, series-clinching shot that bounced all around the rim before falling in. Kawhi’s shot marked the first-ever Game 7 game-winning buzzer-beater.
Kawhi was also solid against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. He played well all series, but it took the Raptors 6 games to finally close out the series and MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, sending Toronto to their first-ever Finals. Leonard and the Raptors were solid, but most of the Warriors losing in 6 games can be attributed to major injuries.
Not only did Kevin Durant miss all but 12 minutes of the Finals due to a calf injury and eventual ruptured Achilles, but Klay Thompson also missed Game 3 and was forced to depart early from Game 6 after tearing his ACL, but not before dropping 30 points. That left just Steph and Dray to deal with the hungry Raptors, which simply wasn’t enough.
After 6 games, Kawhi Leonard gave Toronto their first NBA Championship, acquiring his second Finals MVP in the process. He did this is in his first season there, also making it the second team he’s won a title with. Leonard has been regarded as one of the best two-way players in the league for the past few seasons, but his quad injury raised many questions.
Ironically, Kawhi was on the verge of ending the Warrior’s dynasty back in 2017 before Zaza Pachulia committed one of the dirtiest plays ever made, resulting in a series-shifting ankle injury. This opened the door for Golden State to reclaim control and eventually win the series. Leonard would eventually suffer a quadricep injury before the 2017-2018 season began, which limited him to just 9 played games that season.
Kawhi’s quad injury and the surrounding drama from his uncle and how the situation was handled with the Spurs’ organization made many label Kawhi as a diva. This made the 2018-2019 season for the Toronto Raptors a huge gamble, but one that definitely ended up paying out. Leonard showed his quad injury was nothing to be concerned about, and that he absolutely is one of (if not number one) the best players in the league.
Previously, LBJ was the undisputed best player in the world, but the narrative shifted to Kevin Durant last season. Durant did have an extraordinary year and there’s no question he’d still be the face of the league had he not just suffered an Achilles rupture, a historically catastrophic injury that never leaves a player the same. It also doesn’t help that Durant will turning 31 before next season starts, a season he’ll completely miss. This means that Kevin will be 32 before he even begins to play NBA basketball again, 4 years older than Leonard is right now.
Considering how dominant Kawhi was in his first year with the Raptors and the state of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard is now the best player in the league. Toronto was a solid team before adding Kawhi, but there’s nothing more telling than a championship following the acquisition of a superstar player. When you add in the fact that he is just 28 and the quad injury didn’t seem to slow him this season, it is extremely hard to find anyone better than Kawhi right now.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is probably closest to Kawhi and may soon overtake him considering that he’s only 24 years old. The first-time MVP averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.3 blocks in a dominant 6th season. Giannis has improved every single season he’s been in the league, but last season may be hard to beat. This, for now at least, still gives Kawhi the best-player label.
At this point, Kawhi’s starpower is so strong that all three of his likely destinations are within the top 10 of betting odds to win next year’s championship. The Lakers are currently first at +300, but Toronto is tied for 5th at +1000, and the Clippers aren’t far behind at +1600, tying them for 9th with Denver.
Here are the top 10 likeliest teams to win the 2020 NBA Championship:
- Los Angeles Lakers: +300
- Milwaukee Bucks: +800
- Brooklyn Nets: +900
- Philadelphia 76ers: +900
- Golden State Warriors: +1000
- Toronto Raptors: +1000
- Houston Rockets: +1000
- Boston Celtics: +1400
- Denver Nuggets: +1600
- Los Angeles Clippers: +1600
While nearly every other star has agreed to a team and contract, Leonard is the only superstar yet to announce his intentions. He has made his three choices clear; the Raptors, Lakers, and Clippers. It seems likely he will make a decision before the end of the week, but Kawhi has been fairly quiet throughout the process.
Here are updated odds on where Kawhi is likeliest to sign:
- Toronto Raptors: -125
- Los Angeles Lakers: +190
- Los Angeles Clippers: +190
While it is a guaranteed deal, it seems likeliest now that Kawhi will actually resign in Toronto. The entire city has been actively recruiting him, including a personal attempt by Drake. Not only that, but Kawhi also recently purchased a house in Toronto. It certainly doesn’t mean he’s staying here, but it does show a level of comfort with the city. Wherever Kawhi ultimately ends up signing, as the face of the league, he’ll change the landscape of the NBA for the next few years to come.