Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard is learning, the hard way, a lesson that LeBron James had to learn in the same fashion. That lesson is that it’s easy to assemble talent, but far more challenging to build a team. In a Game 7 on Tuesday night against the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the NBA playoffs, the postseason’s most consistent performer tried to fly in the face of history but wound up flying too close to the sun.
LeBron’s 2010 Lesson Being Learned By Leonard
We all remember when LeBron sat down for that ESPN special, which was the idea of a fan, by the way. The NBA world watched with bated breath as he, in search of his first championship, took his talents to South Beach. Teaming up with his friends Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, they would go on to bring the Heat organization its second and third titles.
Instant success was elusive, though. That first postseason the Heat ran through each of the first three rounds in five games apiece and were third in opponent points per game. But they ran into the buzzsaw Dallas Mavericks, the third-highest scoring team in those playoffs, and fell in six games, cementing the legacy of Dirk Nowitzki and casting another shadow on that of James.
If he couldn’t win with his handpicked team, then would he ever get over the hump? He obviously did, but his 17/8/7 line left a lot to be desired and led to the J.J. Barea memes. James and Leonard would meet in back to back Finals but the 2010 series is where Leonard’s current path, wholly different to this point, has caught up to James’ from a decade ago.
The Same Difference
Kawhi’s legend grew from his defense of James. Even though the latter averaged 26.7/9.3/5.5 the former proved to be a James agitator; much like a bigger (and quieter) DeShawn Stevenson. The result was a Finals MVP in 2014. Leonard would see his scoring jump the following season as he made his first All-Star appearance but the Spurs lost in the Western Conference Semifinals and Finals in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Three years after winning his first championship and Finals MVP, Leonard found himself embroiled in a months-long dispute with the organization that had developed him. The issue at heart, a lingering quad issue, and the organization’s questionable (at best) handling of it. From lost faith in the team medical staff to teammates publicly comparing the severity of their injuries to his.
It all concluded with a blockbuster deal that sent Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. The season they had was storybook, winning 58 games and, ultimately the championship. Leonard earned another Finals MVP as the Raptors downed a Golden State Warriors squad that lost Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson during the series.
Catching the King
Success breeds expectations and this is where Leonard finds himself in James’ shoes of 2010 now in 2020. Leonard’s new team, the Los Angeles Clippers, whom he spurned the Raptors for, were eliminated in seven games by the “year away” Denver Nuggets. Kawhi was as steady as they came, but a supporting cast that was often touted as the deepest in the league frequently left meat on the bone.
In what was Leonard’s quest to match James’ ring total, ended in a flurry missed flailing layups from Montrezl Harrell, short jumpers from Paul George, and Lou Williams’ greatest contribution being highlighting the wings named after him at a strip club. They flashed the greatness we heard about all season but they rarely displayed any consistency outside of Leonard.
He averaged 24.3/8.6/5.9 for the series, having only two games with fewer than 23 points. But he saved his second-worst performance for the worst time. He averaged 31/10/5 against the Mavericks, a team that gave the Clippers enough issues to take notice, in the first round but found himself putting up two games of scoring in the low-teens, including 14 points on 27% shooting in Game 7.
A King’s Lesson
Kawhi may have had a poor performance in Game 7 but he had been carrying his team for the majority of the playoffs up to that point. A dud game was due even if it came in an absolutely awful situation. The bigger issue may have been the lack of cohesion from his squad that cropped all too often.
Head coach Doc Rivers can talk about conditioning being the major factor for L.A. and Harrell about locker room issues but it sure did look like the lulls in scoring and lapses in defense were the results of a team that didn’t play together much in the regular season and lacked a true point guard. It became clear they were an impressive collection of talent but not a top-flight team.
The Clippers, much like Toronto the year before, had a great record without Leonard. But with early distractions to Williams and Harrell combined with ineffectiveness from his “Robin”. George, in particular, was a disappointment in these playoffs. He averaged 18 points in the Mavs series on 36% shooting (27.5 3P%) before upping it to 21 points on 43% shooting and 38% from deep except he fell back into what has become a meme about him and scored 10 points while shooting 25% in Game 7.
Heavy is the Head
Kawhi’s earlier success this postseason doesn’t absolve him from blame. Scoring 14 points on 27.3% shooting (28.6 3P%) in a win-or-go-home situation is not the stuff superstars are made of. Except that’s exactly what they are made of. We have seen it play out right before our eyes with James in 2010 following a similarly poor showing in the postseason.
Of course, LeBron’s shortfall was in the Finals and Kawhi’s came in just the second round. But, beyond the success each had before, Leonard’s 2020 is shaping up very much like James’ 2010. How he responds will go a long way to solidifying his standings in the NBA. Standings that, right now, should show he (and everyone else in the NBA) is a step below LeBron James. For now he will just have to take solace in knowing. It’s easy to assemble talent but far more difficult to build a team.