There are a plethora of sub-plots and games within the game that have already delivered a compelling and dramatic opening two games of the 2014 NBA Finals thus far.
After Game 1, members of the Peanut Gallery rejoiced with their concept of Lebron-ing, which they seemed to define as someone needing to be carried off the court while missing significant, crucial, game-ending minutes due to extreme muscle cramping.
I figured those folks must have never seen the man play, that was the only excuse I could render for such foolhardiness.
Because to those who understand this beautiful game and LeBron James’ ascending place in it, Lebron-ing can truly be defined by his performance in Sunday’s Game 2, which encapsulates the scope of his bizarre brilliance, when he scored 14 emphatic points in the third quarter en route to his game high of 35 on 64% shooting, while also snagging 10 rebounds, handing the decisive assist out in the critical closing moments to Chris Bosh, and guarding every position on the floor at an All-Star level.
San Antonio’s Tim Duncan was also superb in Game 2, finishing with 18 points and 15 rebounds. Along with his 21 points and 10 rebounds in Game 1, it’s apparent that the rumors of Timmay's eminent demise have been wildly exaggerated.
The stirring element of this nail-biting series is delving into the diverse nuances and variables of this specific matchup. Although they are the two best and most visible examples of their franchise’s success, when you peel back the layers, you’ll see that the outcome will hinge on much more than simply the performances of James and Duncan.
On the Spurs side of the ledger, in the shadows of two of the game’s giants, Tony Parker has quietly moved past Michael Jordan on the career postseason assist list and Scottie Pippen on the postseason scoring list. Just let that marinate for a second.
Manu Ginobili, whose skills appeared eroded and worse than Bokeem Woodbine’s acting on the Soprano’s in the 2013 Finals, has again regained his form as the league’s most devastating weapon off the bench.
And Boris Diaw often looks like he’s channeled the mind boggling congolmeration of Magic Johnson, Benoit Benjamin and Derrick McKey simultaneously.
But there is one particular aspect of the 2014 Finals, above all others, that points towards the Spurs bright future. Despite the eventual retirements of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, the emergence of third-year small forward, Kawhi Leonard assures that San Antonio has already secured the franchise cornerstone of the post-Duncan era.
Leonard has quietly become one of my favorite players to watch. There are some elements within his skill set that lead me to conclude that he is heading toward the Scottie Pippen, Sidney Moncrief and Alvin Robertson category of once-raw athletes who morphed into amazing, elite all-around players. He has the size and instincts to guard multiple positions and rebound, the forceful and devastating offensive weaponry to score in the paint, from the perimeter and off the catch-and-shoot. And he is a certifiable monster in the fluid transition game.
I am not saying that he’s there yet, as evidenced by his pedestrian scoring and rebounding numbers at this early stage of the Finals. But his destination is certain. At the age of 23, his future appears to be ten-months-pregnant with possibility.
Most NBA players feign humility. The majority of them have been coddled and catered to from the moment they cracked the top 10 recruiting rankings in high school. But Leonard’s story is a little bit different.
When you peruse the Rivals class of 2009 top prospect ranking, it’s almost comical, in hindsight, to see names like Tiny Gallon, Michael Snaer, Mouphtaou Yarou, Abdul Gaddy, Dante Taylor, Latavious Williams, Ryan Kelly, Milton Jennings, Reginald Buckner, Rakeem Buckles and Jerrone Maymon ranked ahead of him.
As for the heavyweights in that class like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors, Leonard admits that he wasn’t as skilled in terms of his teenaged development during his early high school stage.
But what the ranking gurus missed was that no one could outwork him.
That supreme work ethic was evident when he would open up the 100-Percent Hand-Wash car wash that his father Mark owned in Compton, California early on weekend mornings. He would utilize those massive, claw-like hands to scrub and dry car exteriors until they sparkled, from 8:00AM to 6:00PM.
“It was hard work,” Leonard once told FoxSports.com. “But I loved it.”
Leonard enjoyed working and bonding with his dad, learning the business and the fulfillment and inner rewards of a long, honest day’s labor. But he doesn’t talk much about those days, because the memories are too painful.
In January of 2008, when he was just 16 years old, he received a phone call from his sister, informing him that his dad had been shot at least ten times. He was murdered in the car wash that was the epicenter of some of his fondest recollections.
“I’m not sure what happened,” Kawhi told FoxSports.com. “I really don’t know anything other than someone random came to the car wash and shot him. I think it’s better for me not knowing who it is.”
Despite the fact that he was named California’s Mr. Basketball and, along with current Chicago Bull Tony Snell, led Martin Luther King High School in Riverside to a top-10 national ranking, Leonard was not seen as a can’t-miss-prospect.
As a high school junior, San Diego State was the biggest school pursuing him. During his senior year, UCLA, USC, Arizona State, Michigan and Marquette came calling. But he wasn’t enamored with the bright lights and the thought of playing in the Big 10, Pac 12 or Big East.
“I knew I was their second option and that was a big issue for me,” Leonard told FoxSports.com. “San Diego State told me they would give me the opportunity to come in and start. They weren’t going to hand it to me and I’d have to work for it.”
During his two years in college, he proved to be one of the country’s best players. A double-double machine, he led the Aztecs in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore. He guided them to two conference tournament championships, a regular season title and two berths in the NCAA Tournament, including an appearance in the Sweet 16, where they fell victim to Kemba Walker’s brilliant 36 points on his march to 2011 National Championship for the UCONN Huskies.
In merely his third NBA season, Leonard continues to improve on both ends of the floor. He was named to the All-NBA Defensive Second Team this year, becoming only the seventh Spur in team history to be named to an NBA All-Defensive team. He averaged more steals this year than any franchise player in over ten years.
To be dismissive of the 13 points and six rebounds per game that he averaged this year, would be imprudent, considering that, like every other Spur, he plays less than 30 minutes per game, and because he converts close to 60 % of his field goal attempts and 40% of his three’s.
Because there are so many moving parts within the Spurs offense, the best barometer for Leonard’s current worth to this team with three certifiable, future Hall of Famers is on the defensive end. I won’t bore you with advanced metrics and stats. Just look back on the turnovers that he forced Russell Westbrook into during the Western Conference Finals.
If you can tell me that there are ten better players with the awareness, length, strength, lateral movement, straight-line speed and size to effectively neutralize Westbrook in transition, I’ll convince you that Ridley Scott’s The Counselor was an awesome movie, worth every cent of your hard-earned money.
In reality, The Counselor sucked Sasquatch’s ass. And Leonard is atop a very concise list of defenders, like LeBron, that can guard the best and most explosive players at any number of positions.
Offensively, he hasn’t shown the full breadth of what he’s capable of, because he hasn’t needed to. But if you want a small sample of his promise, just look back at their two most recent close-out games. The 22 points, seven rebounds and five steals in Game 5 against the Portland Trail Blazers was rather superb.
And his Game 6 performance against the Thunder – where he scored 17 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out four assists, and kept on rising to the top to deliver a dunk in the grill-piece of shot-blocker extraordinaire Serge Ibaka to set the game's opening tone – would’ve made the Queen of England catch the Rock Steady Holy Ghost!
Leonard is currently an outstanding complementary piece to the Spurs puzzle. Within the current team construct, he blends in seamlessly to their delicious motion offense.
But as this series progresses, watch his defensive presence, how he fights to prevent his man from catching the ball, then crowds them once they do, how he utilizes his great footwork, pursues the ball on the offensive and defensive glass and sucks up loose balls with those Dr. J sized-hands. Peep how, when asked, he can create and finish plays at the rim, while also doing damage off the dribble and being dependable from beyond the three-point stripe.
The only thing standing in the way of him vaulting toward that elite level, the rarified air occupied by the aforementioned Scottie Pippen-Sidney Moncrief-Alvin Robertson category is his ability to improve as a facilitator.
Right now, he’s a decent stationary passer. But gaining entry into that next level requires being able to handle the ball at top speed while attacking the rim in the half-court, and in full-court, explosive transition, while feeding the ball with precision to his cutting teammates.
I’m guessing that we’ll see that improvement, among subtle others, sooner rather than later.
“Everybody doesn’t improve,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich told reporters in April. “But he has a great capacity to absorb things and he works hard. He comes early to practice; he stays after. Our development guys work with him constantly and he wears them out. He really wants to be good and he’s got some talents to work with, so that’s a good combination.”
If you thought the Spurs were a simply stationary, robotic, non-athletic team, think again.
Kawhi Leonard is emblematic of their future evolution, coming of age before our very eyes and providing a peek at the Spurs blueprint for sustained excellence in the years ahead.
So look beneath the obvious layers in these next few games, at the versatile and understated luminosity of the league’s most inscrutable and tranquil emerging superstar. He won’t talk loud or blow in someone’s ear. He won’t say something idiotic on Twitter. As a matter of fact, he’s not even on Twitter.
But what he will do is show up for an honest day’s labor and work his behind off without fanfare or need for recognition, like he did at his dad’s car wash in Compton a few years ago. What else would you expect from the Spurs next superstar?