Other reasons mattered too, of course. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were defying age, while Gregg Popovich engineered a system that, at the time, appeared to be the pinnacle of what five players could do with one ball.
But Leonard was the reason. For long stretches of those Finals against the Miami Heat he was the best overall player on a court that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.
It was a career-shaping series in which he out-duelled James. It was why he won the Finals MVP as a 22-year-old — becoming the second-youngest player to ever do so, behind only Magic Johnson. It was why Popovich said this after San Antonio clinched:
“He walks the walk. I mean, he’s there early, he’s there late. He wants more. He wants me and the coaches to push him. So I just talked to him about not being in that defer sort of stage. The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game. You are the man.”
High praise. But what Leonard’s done in guiding the Toronto Raptors to the first NBA Finals in franchise history, freeing a city from the amber of playoffs past they were all but fossilized in, is his most stunning achievement yet.
Statistically speaking, Leonard’s 2019 post-season performance for the Raptors blows his 2014 Finals MVP numbers out of the water to the point that comparing the two side-by-side is a comical exercise.
|Kawhi 2014 Playoffs||23||32||5.3/10.4||51%||41.90%||14.3||6.7||1.7||1.7||0.6|
|Kawhi 2019 Playoffs||18||38.7||10.8/21.3||50.70%||38.80%||31.2||8.8||3.8||1.6||0.6|
Reduce that 2014 sample down to just the Finals though, where Leonard took over as the Spurs’ most important player instead of being a tertiary option, and the chasm shrinks.
In the first two games against the Heat, Leonard struggled, scoring just 18 points while picking up nine fouls and four rebounds in 54 minutes on the court. After that, though, he ascended. In Game 3 Leonard scored 29 points on 76.9 per cent shooting from the floor and went on to finish the Finals with three consecutive 20-plus-point games — the first time he had done so in his career — while shooting over 68 per cent across the series to the tune of 23.7 points per game.
An impressive stretch, to be sure. But few players in NBA history have posted numbers like Leonard’s this post-season.
Take your pick: there’s him joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players in post-season history to have at least 11 games of 30-plus points before the Finals; there’s his seven 35-point games, which put him on a list of players who have done that before the Finals in the last 20 years that previously only had James; there’s his 3.7 win shares — an estimate of how many wins a player adds to a team — which means that having Leonard is worth almost an entire playoff series’ worth of victories.
Those numbers exist in a different air space than what he did in 2014. Some of that discrepancy comes from Leonard morphing into the crux of Toronto’s offensive system as opposed to his role in San Antonio — where everything he did during the 2014 run came as a byproduct of the Spurs’ ball movement, but was never the objective of it.
“I haven’t called a play for him the entire playoffs,” Popovich said after the series. “I don’t call his number. Everything that’s there for him is out of the motion of the offence.”
To say the strategy in his Toronto tenure has been different would be a gross understatement.
Leonard’s usage rate with the Raptors is sitting at a playoff career-high 32.7 per cent. In the 2014 Finals that number was just 20.5 per cent, the lowest of any Spurs starter, and even that was higher than the 18.9 per cent he posted throughout the whole playoffs.
With that increased usage have come changes to how he operates with the ball in his hands. A little less than one third of Leonard’s possessions this year have ended with him as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll and he’s managing to score about 48 per cent of the time — good enough to place him in the 87th percentile among qualified players.
As the 22-year-old future of the Spurs, Leonard rarely ran pick-and-rolls or operated in isolation, with 50 per cent of his made shots in the playoffs being assisted. As the 27-year-old hero of the Raptors, only 32 per cent of his field goals have come off direct set-ups from his teammates.
The way he executes those situations has changed as well. The occasionally reckless, headlong sprints through defenders towards the basket that could be seen in 2014 have been traded out for a more methodical and controlled approach that leverages his strength to force his way into wherever he wants to be on the court.
Notably, whether Leonard’s shots came off the pick-and-roll, in isolation, or as a result of ball movement, his 2019 shooting percentages mostly sync up with what he did as the most important player in the 2014 Finals — the significant outlier being an absurd 13 per cent increase, from 44 to 57 per cent, in connecting on corner threes.
Sometimes, though, a lack of change can be just as telling. Sustaining near league-best efficiency while taking on a drastically increased role on offence isn’t something many players can do. But with Leonard, the defensive work can never be overlooked either.
In the 2014 Finals Leonard shouldered the task of guarding James and although he didn’t shut him down entirely by any means — James averaged 28.2 points on 57.1 per cent shooting from the field — without Leonard it’s reasonable to think James could have re-shaped the Finals in his image, again.
Take Game 3, for example, during which James had a then series-high 73 offensive touches but attempted only 14 shots — en route to a, for his standards, pedestrian 22 points with seven assists and seven turnovers — while being guarded by Leonard on 65 per cent of all his possessions.
How much more does James accomplish with a lesser defender assigned to him? None of that, of course, should be unfamiliar to anyone who watched how Leonard mitigated Giannis Antetokounmpo’s impact in the Eastern Conference Finals, or Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons before that.
The numbers have grown, the workload has too, but if a single through line exists between 2014 and now it’s the way in which those numbers end up in the box score. Whether for the Spurs or the Raptors, when a timely three-pointer, a devastating dunk or a defensive stop on the other team’s best player was needed, Leonard delivered.
“He’s not worried about just doing the little things, he wants to do it all, and he plays with a confidence that is just amazing. I’m honoured to be on this team right now because he’s going to be great for years to come,” Duncan said after the 2014 Finals.
Five years after that first championship, Leonard became a blend of those San Antonio legends he won alongside in 2014: Duncan’s demeanour and poise under pressure; Parker’s instinctual knack for playing passing lanes and then scorching down the court for fast-break buckets; and Ginobili’s penchant for nailing, timely, logic-defying jumpers.
The most crucial difference between then and now though, of course, is that he’s doing it wearing red and white instead of silver and black.