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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.
The calendar has turned to March and the madness is about to begin. Yes, that might have been a reference to college basketball but that still doesn’t change for the NBA. Last week I covered the Eastern Conference.
The playoffs bracket in the West is closer in terms of playoff positioning, but the Los Angeles Lakers sit at the top led by all-time great LeBron James. Can we consider LeBron a legend even though he is still active? We can get to that next week when I’ll be diving into some of the more debatable topics this league provides its fans.
Previewing the Western Conference Playoffs
The Lakers have a sturdy 5.5-game lead on the Los Angeles Clippers who many consider the favorite to come out of the West. The Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Dallas Mavericks are all separated by 5.5 games. These last few weeks could help win homecourt advantage for certain teams that thrive in there home arena.
Home-court advantage is going to be critical. If Denver gets home court over the Thunder (which would happen if the playoffs started today). Both teams are significantly better at home than on the road. Think about if Oklahoma City stole home-court advantage and was able to win their first-round series. That could change the outlook on the franchise.
The current seventh-seeded Mavericks actually boast a 21-11 road record, so they could play spoiler in a series. Luka Doncic is built for the playoffs. They might lose their first-round series, but there will be fireworks because of the Mavericks averaging 116 PPG, which ranks third in the NBA.
Last, Not Least
Other potential suitors for that eighth and coveted spot are the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs, and New Orleans Pelicans. All of these teams sit no more than four games back. The most compelling story is the upstart Pelicans who are led by rookie sensation Zion Williamson. But we have to respect what Memphis has done here. Their schedule after the all-star break was second in difficulty, and with a little over a month to go, they have a solid three-game lead. The Grizzlies are led by another rookie sensation in Ja Morant.
Look at the top-seeded Lakers. They have two of the top-five players in the league. Some are here to argue that Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best in the league and I have no qualms about it. I would be remiss to say that LeBron is still the number one player in the world given his incredible IQ, distribution, and understanding of the game and what needs to be done to win a title.
Still Up There
At this point, we are tired of LeBron and it skews our view on him in terms of greatness. In any best-of-seven series, the Lakers will have an all-time great as the best player on the floor. But will his supporting cast be able to do enough to get him to the finals?
The number-one threat to the Lakers returning the NBA Finals is the Clippers. After an intense six-game series where the upstart Clippers pushed the Warriors to the brink with inspiring play, free-agency ended with them having acquired the defending Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, a two-way superstar who could help the Clipper reach the promised land. The Clippers have the star power and defensive prowess to wear the Lakers down and are 2-0 against their cross-town foe.
But this reporter has seen this before. Who remembers when the 2011 Chicago Bulls went against the Lebron James led heat? Yes I know, we have different levels of stars. And Leonard and George are lengthy defenders who can combat LeBron. But when it comes down to it in a best-of-seven, give me LeBron.
Keep an Eye On
The Nuggets and Rockets are third and fourth in the Western Conference. The Nuggets main question still remains. Do they have the star power to get to the finals? Simple answer. No.
Denver is a good team, don’t me wrong. But right now they would face the Thunder in the first round; no easy out. In the second round, they would face the Clippers. They don’t have the bodies to guard the likes of Leonard and George. The athleticism of the Clippers would be too much.
The Rockets are a gimmicky team trying to beat you by spreading the floor and being unconscious from the three-point line. They have the superstar power to get to the Western Conference Finals but those stars haven’t punched their ticket to finals since 2012. That was when James Harden and Russell Westbrook were with the Thunder.
How It Plays Out
Throughout a seven-game series, the Rockets will be worn down. If they come out of the first round, they’ll be minced meat for either the Lakers or Clippers. The bottom-four teams in the playoffs have young (to a degree), up-and-coming teams that will have their title window soon. Just not quite yet. The Thunder are the surprise of the season.
After trading Westbrook and George, everyone thought the team would tank to hopefully draft their next superstar. That is not the case. Chris Paul and company are having a fantastic season and look to ruffle some feathers in the first round. Utah is a defensive dynamo led by Rudy Gobert. Unfortunately, they do not have enough pop to get to the finals. Hopefully, they’ll see Donovan Mitchell pop in the playoffs again. The Jazz are just hoping to advance to the second round.
As for the Mavericks and the Grizzlies, the only thing I want to see is the blossoming of Doncic and Morant. These two young players are on another level, and I hope to see them raise their game in the playoffs. Doncic has been in big moments for nearly a decade and you can tell in his early career he has the makings of being something special. He is currently averaging 28.5 points per game, 8.8 assists, and 9.3 rebounds.
One for the Road
Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year in my opinion. Trust me I love Zion just as much as the next guy. But Ja has been nothing short of special for this upstart Memphis bunch and a playoff appearance in his rookie season is nothing but a sign of great things to come.
It is March and that can only mean one thing. The basketball world will come into the focus with the NCAA tournament and the NBA playoffs to follow shortly after. These are all the things I am looking for in this year’s playoffs. If you read last week’s article I chose the Boston Celtics, and for this week. I believe the Lakers will meet them in the NBA Finals, and the winner will be in next week’s article.
If you have anything you want to discuss you can hit me up on twitter @illiniRyan7