Kawhi Leonard’s lone season in Toronto reflects his unprecedented nature

Michael C. Wright

Michael C. Wright NBA.com

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Dec 10, 2019 6:59 PM ET

Kawhi Leonard could become the first player to capture Finals MVP honors with three different teams.

The Toronto Raptors have constructed a special pregame championship ring presentation for LA Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard ahead of Wednesday’s matchup (7 ET, ESPN) at Scotiabank Arena.

As Leonard returns to The Six, where he helped the Raptors bring home their first NBA title, we take a look at six unique aspects that have made the self-described “fun guy” an unprecedented star player.

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1. One-year superstar rental: Raptors president Masai Ujiri rolled the dice in trading for Leonard, who was entering the final season of his contract, and set to become a free agent after last season with no guarantee he would re-sign in Toronto. But the move paid off significantly as the only successful one-year superstar rental in recent history with Leonard taking the Raptors on an exciting championship run.

We can’t credit Leonard solely for the title, as the San Antonio Spurs also sent one of the NBA’s premier three-and-D players in Danny Green to Toronto as part of the trade. But you can’t deny Leonard’s impact in averaging 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists during his load-managed 60-game regular season, only to take those numbers up another notch in the playoffs (30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists) on the way to the championship.

 
Look back at Kawhi Leonard's incredible season in Toronto.

2. Traded twice for a team’s beloved player, the right move both times: San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich readily admits the difficulty he experienced in trading point guard George Hill -- one of his favorite players -- to Indiana on Draft night in 2011 for Leonard, a relative unknown at the time, as well as Davis Bertans and Erazem Lorbek. In fact, many of the team’s veterans such as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili took exception to the move.

"Yeah, that was tough [to trade Hill]," Popovich said in 2016. "I always made the joke with you guys that he was my favorite player. Then I called my favorite player and told him he wasn't here anymore. So that was really tough. But those kinds of trades are the best because it worked out for both teams. It was what Indiana needed, and it was what we needed.”

Fast-forward to July 2018, and it happened again, this time with Ujiri moving Toronto fan favorite DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, in addition to a first-round pick in exchange for Leonard and Green.

In both instances, the trade proved most beneficial to the team landing Leonard, as the forward followed up by capturing NBA Finals MVP awards at both stops.

 
Relive the Raptors' run to the 2019 NBA championship.

3. Went from being drafted outside the NBA lottery with no jump-shot to becoming an all-around elite player: First off, you have to remember the Spurs front office needed to convince Popovich to approve the Draft-night trade for Leonard. At the time, pundits viewed Leonard as capable of developing into a great defender. But nobody expected him to shoot 49.3% overall and 37.6% on 3-pointers as a rookie. By the time Leonard’s fifth season rolled around, he was knocking down 44.3% from range, finishing the 2015-16 season ranked just behind J.J. Redick and Stephen Curry in 3-point accuracy. Credit Spurs assistant Chip Engelland with Leonard’s development as a shooter along with former San Antonio assistant Chad Forcier.

Interestingly, just a year after Leonard joined the Spurs, Popovich declared the forward the future of the franchise before the club’s first practice headed into his second season. That’s quite a feat for an unheralded player from San Diego State drafted with the 15th pick by Indiana. 

4. Stealthily lures another superstar with years left on his contract: Everyone knows Leonard is not a big talker in public settings. But behind the scenes is a different story. Leonard’s successful recruitment of George, who signed a four-year max contract to stay in Oklahoma City in 2018, illustrates the point.

With the LA Clippers vying for Leonard’s services as well as the Lakers and Raptors, the two-time Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year told Doc Rivers and Steve Ballmer during a free-agency meeting that he wanted to play with George, who was locked into his OKC contract. Leonard reportedly reached out with a recruiting pitch to George and the rest was history. Coincidentally, both Leonard and George were drafted by the Pacers in successive years. Now, they’ve got a shot at deleting the Clippers off the list of one of three NBA franchises to never advance to a conference final.

5. Load management: Leonard certainly didn’t invent “load management” as it has been around for several years, but he’s helped to popularize the practice due to the results. Remember, Leonard missed all but nine games of the 2017-18 season because of tendinopathy in his right quadriceps, leading to distrust between the forward and the Spurs that ultimately led to his exit to Toronto. But the truth is Leonard hasn’t actually played in both games of a back-to-back set since the 2016-17 campaign.

Once Leonard arrived in Toronto, the Raptors adopted a load management program that limited the forward to just 60 regular-season games. The forward showcased the benefits of the program on the floor in the playoffs by averaging 39.1 minutes with increased production in scoring, rebounding and assists while shutting down Giannis Antetokounmpo over the last four games of the Eastern Conference finals.

 
Kawhi Leonard secures his second Finals MVP trophy.

6. Realistic chance to become first to win Finals MVP with three different teams: If Leonard leads the Clippers where they’re expected to go, he could become the first player to capture Finals MVP honors with three different teams.

On the way to killing two NBA dynasties -- the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors -- Leonard took home Finals MVP trophies. This time, the competition will be stiffer with an improved Bucks team lurking out East and a gauntlet to face out West, led by the Lakers, featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But Leonard winning another Finals MVP award with a third team definitely isn’t unrealistic. 

It would indeed be unprecedented.

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him  here , find his archive here  and follow him on Twitter .

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