Kawhi Leonard has had an incredible playoff run. He’s hit 30+ points in 14 games during the post-season, two back of the all-time record held by Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. (Though here’s hoping Kawhi isn’t forced to tie or break that record.)
Leonard is on pace to be the first NBA player since Larry Bird in 1984 to lead the post-season in points, rebounds, and steals. Kawhi also leads in minutes played, field goals and free throws. He’s been a defensive terror, locking up All-Stars like Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Giannis, Steph, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
And even with all that, Kawhi is still, obviously, hurt. At times, late in the Philly series, throughout the middle of the Bucks series, in Game 1 and 2 of the Finals, Leonard has been dragging his leg around to the point where observers wondered if it might doom the Raptors.
Leonard has been effusive in his praise of the Raptors sports science department, led by Alex McKechnie (effusive for Kawhi, anyway). He’s stated that without the Raptors oft-derided “load management” plan, he wouldn’t be playing in the playoffs, that he would have gassed out.
It’s a definite possibility that this is the version of Kawhi Leonard that exists now. That his quad injury might never “heal up”, to the extent that he can go a full 82 games a year, and make it through another 1,000 minutes in the post-season.
It also raises the question about whether Kawhi could have any sort of desire to retire relatively early. His window might be a lot smaller than most 27 year-old superstars. Which means, that while while nobody knows what Leonard is planning, real-estate reports be damned, we should take him at his word that winning is his main concern.
At this stage, the NBA world is expecting Kawhi to play in Toronto or Los Angeles next year — with a few New York try-hards wanting to say they could be in it too. Tons of ink has been spilled about Leonard’s preferences for weather, being close to home, having a country cheer for him, the relative anonymity that Toronto provides, the endorsement, and business opportunities of L.A.
But if we’re talking winning foremost, Kawhi’s health should point him North. This isn’t just because of McKechnie, since the Clippers have become a forward-thinking organization. Anything Toronto can figure out to help Kawhi’s long-term health, Jerry West’s crew can too.
This is because wherever Kawhi plays next, that team must be prepared for him to miss 15-20 games, and deal with what those 20 games might due to their regular season record.
Now, the Clippers are a good team right now. They made the playoffs, took two from the Warriors with Kevin Durant. There are a lot of variables, but it seems safe to say that with their cadre of good young players, and the vets they can keep, or attract with the rest of their cap space, the Clips can put together a very good team even when Kawhi has to sit — especially assuming they add another superstar.
So, sure, if Kawhi goes to Los Angeles and plays 60 games, even if the West keeps improving, they have enough to finish in the top half of the conference. But, what if Danilo Gallianari plays closer to 50 games than 70? What if someone else important gets hurt for 20-30 games? What if the team’s young players stagnate, just a little? What if all that means the Clippers finish fourth — behind say, Golden State, Houston, and an Anthony Davis-fortified Lakers?
The margins for victory are so thin in the NBA. Can the Kawhi-led Clippers beat the fifth best team in the West (Portland? Denver? Utah? A fully healthy San Antonio?), and then win three straight road series to capture a title?
Kawhi knows what the Raptors can do without him. They went 17-5 when he was hurt. In fact, they looked so good without Kawhi, that I wondered what the hell was going on. That record, which famously included a beat-down of Golden State in Oakland, was enough to get them home court for the Finals. It also meant they had home court in Round 2, a fact that may have won them the series. (And it’s worth mentioning Toronto did that with only two players, Danny Green and Pascal Siakamm playing at least 75 games.)
The Raps can bring back the band next season. If anything, they should be even better without Kawhi. No integrating two new ball dominant superstars, no unproven players needing to step up, no questions about which free agent to pay.
There isn’t another team in the NBA, shy of the Warriors, who are so well-equipped to withstand the absence of their best player for 20+ games, and still position themselves to have as “easy” a road as possible to the Finals.
Kawhi Leonard may never be 100 percent healthy again. If you’re a Raptors fan, that may be your team’s ace in the hole for keeping him around.