It is no secret that the Spurs organization has been building consistent success for almost two decades now. It started with the Admiral David Robinson. Next, they won their first NBA championship during Tim Duncan’s second year in the league. San Antonio followed suit two years later and won their second championship during Tony Parker’s second season and Manu Ginobli’s rookie season. Now, in his third season, Kawhi Leonard led the San Antonio Spurs to its fifth NBA championship during his third NBA season; as a result, he appears to be following in the footsteps of his teammates by winning himself the Finals MVP, as he establishes himself as the future of the team.
There is something remarkable with this San Antonio franchise. No matter how many count them out as contenders, they always keep on coming back. More miraculous is that despite winning five championships in 17 years, they continue to develop and add quality talent that fits into Greg Popovich’s system. Unlike teams like the Miami Heat though, they do not improve merely from buying the top players in the league. Instead, they do it by drafting the right players and molding them over time.
Leonard was drafted in 2011, and now he is an NBA champion and finals MVP. What makes his story more interesting is no one is more surprised than the man himself. As evident from his interviews during these playoffs, he is a very humble player. He speaks of how he will do anything for his teammates to help get a win. Like the big three of Duncan, Parker, Ginobli and everyone else on the Spurs, he has been taught that it is team play that wins championships. He understands this, which is why he may very well be one of the most complete NBA players as he exemplified in these finals.
During this series, despite his calm demeanor, he was able to match up with the 4-time MVP LeBron James. No, he did not start these finals well. The first two games of the series he averaged 9 ppg on 42 percent shooting for an average log of 28 minutes. However, something happened during Game Three. San Antonio had just lost a heart break of a loss at home, but Leonard was determined he would lead these Spurs to a win, and he did exactly that with 29 points, two blocks, two steals and four rebounds in Game Three, resulting in a 111-92 massacre of the Miami Heat. It did not end there. He reaped in 20 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks and three steals in Game Four that the Spurs obtain a 107-86 win and a game away from the championship. This final game, Leonard did it one last time with 22 points, 10 rebounds, a block and a steal as they finished the Heat off 104-87.
Some may see someone like Leonard as a controversial choice as MVP of these finals. After all, he did not play up to par the first couple of games. However, there is not much doubt that without his stellar play during these last three games, the Spurs would not have a championship in hand. Additionally, this is a team like the 2004 Detroit Pistons. Simply put, there was no clear cut player. There is not a Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Michael Jordan on this team. They are selfless and play as a team; as such, they are the 2014 NBA champions.
Leonard deserves this award. He worked James on both sides of the court and prevented the MVP from ever completely taking over the game. Furthermore, it can be argued that no one has played James quite to the extent that Leonard has in these playoffs. On the flip side, despite James’ defensive capabilities, the 4-time MVP seemed unable to stop Leonard offensively. He shot 11 three-pointers, and most of the time was able to go to the basket whenever he wanted.
What is intriguing about this young man though is that he seems to be able to play well despite what is on the line. He was on the grandest stage of them all, and played toe-to-toe with, arguably, the best player in the league.
This was not the first time Leonard stared adversity in the face though. Six years ago, Leonard was a high school junior. He scored 17 points against Compton Dominguez while playing for Martin Luther King High School. Unfortunately the team lost. That may not seem impressive at first, but he managed to pull his team within eight after finding his father, Mark Leonard, 43, had been murdered less than 24 hours prior to the game. Undoubtedly, despite the loss he made his father proud that night six years ago.
This is what makes his NBA finals victory more impactful for Leonard. Six years removed from his father’s death, Kawhi Leonard won his first championship and finals MVP on Father’s Day. As such, Leonard once again made his father proud.
He may be humble. He may be shy when it comes to public speaking. However, when it comes to the game of basketball, Kawhi Leonard appears to be headed toward the great legacy of San Antonio Spurs players. These finals cements him as the future of this franchise, however, in his mind he is just another player. In his mind, he is a small part of the collective of one of the greatest franchises in sports history. Regardless of what he thinks though, it is Leonard now who has a target on his back. If his past history means anything, he is up for the challenge of defending his first NBA championship.
Commentary by Simon Mounsey