He's the forgotten superstar.
Two seasons ago, Kawhi Leonard was a consensus top-three player in the NBA and regarded by many as the best behind LeBron James. The path that got him here after he limped off in Game One of the 2017 Western Conference Finals has been complicated, to say the least. Having played 60 regular season games, his 2018-19 season was going to be remembered for popularizing the term "load management." Safe to that after putting up a playoff-high 45 points, he is back in the conversation for best in the game.
The series opener against the 76ers was just a reminder of how dominant he can be on both ends of the floor. Despite having a mechanical approach to the game, his command on the floor is something to behold. Despite posting a career-high 26.1 PPG during the regular season, his status from superstar was demoted down to solely a "really great player" or "All-NBA caliber." For the average star, those titles are enough to cement a legacy. But Kawhi reminded us that he is leaps and bounds ahead of even most superstar players.
He is in contention for the best player in the NBA (and I conveniently forgot to mention him when I actually wrote about it). Besides who will dethrone Golden State, this is the title that every superstar is gunning for, given that LeBron James is sipping on a cocktail in April. His 45 point effort could not have come at a better time given that Kevin Durant closed the Clipper playoff run with an effortless 50 points.
He had teased us before in the Raptors First Round series against the Magic. Following a shocking Game One loss, Kawhi responded by scoring 37 points on 68% from the field. In a Game Four route, Kawhi scored 34 on 60% shooting. So far, he has posted playoff career highs in FG%, eFG%, TS%, and PER. He cooked whoever was guarding him with nobody on the 76ers even beginning to bothering him.
His ability to step it up in the postseason is reminiscent of most superstars in the modern game. But let's not forget that Kawhi was never projected to be the face of a franchise. When Indiana took him with the 15th pick, he was seen as a solid defensive player with plenty of work needed before he could have a reliable jumper. His status as a roleplayer grew to the point where he became known as the best perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen after guarding LeBron in back-to-back Finals. Even after winning Finals MVP in 2014, Kawhi was still seen as a cog within the San Antonio system. Even after the Spurs molded their team for Kawhi to take the reins, the NBA world continued to see him as a part and not the face of the post-Tim Duncan Spurs.
His offensive arsenal has expanded over the years with an improved handle and cleaner shot. Not only can he post up, but Kawhi is now devastating ball handler in the pick-and-roll. While is not the offensive point-forward like a LeBron or Giannis, his court vision and passing cannot be underestimated.
The 2017-18 season was the epitome of player tanking. A blank slate did nothing but leave us with an ungodly number of questions. Was he really injured? How big a falling out did he have with Coach Pop? How influential is Uncle Dennis? How did his circle manage to hide him when Spurs staffers wanted to meet with him in New York? But the ultimate question from the saga was: would the wait be worth it?
Every superstar every sport has had a defining moment that cemented their name in the annals. Kawhi competition - Durant, Giannis, Harden, and Curry have all revolutionized basketball in their unique ways. Durant's jump shot is the most unguardable short since Kareem's skyhook - maybe ever. Giannis is simply a freak of nature who can own both ends of the floor. Harden's stepback three has forced defenses - and referees - to relitigate defenses and how the rules that govern basketball. Curry has stretched the court and changed offense for the better. Kawhi does not bring anything new to basketball. He's a through back wing, and that might be the defining statement of his career.
Like Jordan, he can simply suck every last shred of hope out of opposition teams. He can get his shots no matter who's guarding him and can lockup any perimeter player for 40 minutes. Despite lacking the flair of some of the other wings, he still manages to control both ends of the floor. Knocking down tough shots does not make him a superstar. It is the fact that he does with ease. He picks his spot, uses the slight shoulder fake to create some space, and rises up for a perfect mid range jump shot. And on the other end, he can stop anyone without getting in foul trouble.
His allure is that he is unaware of the noise and hoopla that exists around basketball. Forever underrated. And the best part, Kawhi doesn't even know it.