OAKLAND, Calif. — After the 2019 NBA Finals had finished buckling the Golden State Warriors’ knees, rupturing their tendons and fracturing their collarbones, Kawhi Leonard lifted both arms in the air. He allowed himself a yell, too. See, he is capable of emotion.
Leonard and the Toronto Raptors could have broken the Golden State dynasty themselves, but misfortune assisted. Gut-wrenching injuries to all-stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, combined with others experiencing more aches than the world has ice, made this strange series feel incomplete and unfulfilling.
But on the other side, you saw Toronto celebrating. Yes, Toronto. The Raptors, often mocked for postseason shortcomings, forever tormented by LeBron James, won their first NBA title Thursday night with a 114-110 victory. And it was Masai Ujiri’s bold acquisition of Leonard that put them over the top. Yes, Leonard. A year ago, he was considered an enigma with a mysterious quadriceps injury and a bizarre desire to force his way out of San Antonio. A year ago, he played just nine games. Today, he has a strong claim to the title of best basketball player on the planet.
That’s the thing about sports, you know. The games break things. Then they provide opportunities to heal. Greatness isn’t defined by immunity from hardship. It is revealed when ease exits the field of play. The setbacks make the Raptors’ rise all the more impressive. Now these invincible Warriors must experience the pain of a fall.
This isn’t necessarily where it ends for Golden State. This is where it gets interesting. After winning three championships and becoming the first team in more than 50 years to make five straight Finals appearances, we now understand the physical and mental limits of the modern NBA team. Four years is probably the max for a team’s core to stay at the pinnacle of the game. At the start of this decade, the Miami Heat went to four Finals in a row, and they were spent at the end, so James returned to Cleveland rather than wait out a minor retooling. As this decade concludes, the Warriors stretched it to five because they received a superstar boost from Durant in the middle, but even though they’re the super-est of super teams, they wore down.
Perhaps you could classify the injuries to Durant and Thompson as freak occurrences. Still, overall wear and tear had to be a factor. Beyond those two, the signs of a weathered team were everywhere. With free agency set to begin in about two weeks, the Warriors have two free agent cornerstones they would love to re-sign, but there’s a catch. Durant is expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season recovering from surgery on his ruptured right Achilles’ tendon. Thompson on Thursday tore his left ACL, which means he could miss much or all of next season, too.
To remain a long-term championship contender, the Warriors need to keep both players. But if that requires maximum years and money on their new contracts, the Warriors will have to commit more than $400 million this summer to two extraordinary players with serious health concerns. Oh, and they probably won’t contribute much of anything on the court next season, meaning there would be about a $65 million hole on the roster. And the Warriors won’t have the salary cap resources to replace them with any highly coveted veterans, even on a short-term basis, unless a couple of players want to take a huge pay cut to come to Golden State next season and not be in the championship hunt.
The dynasty is on hold. But it doesn’t have to be over. Interestingly, for a lesson in persistence the Warriors can look to the underdog that just usurped them.
In particular, Leonard stands as an example that Durant and Thompson should follow. The Warriors hope that their comeback stories don’t include changing teams, but they’d be into the part about Leonard’s reclamation of greatness.
“Last year, a lot of people were doubting me,” Leonard said. “They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team. That was disappointing to me that that was out in the media because I love the game of basketball. Like I always say, if we’re not playing this game, if we’re hurt, I mean, you’re down. So me just going through that, I just knew that I would have to make myself happy and no one else. And I have to trust myself. And, whatever, it doesn’t matter what anybody has to say about me.”
Leonard is only the third player to win Finals MVP for multiple teams. The others on the list: James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. If the 27-year-old Leonard can add durability and longevity to his game, he will be an all-time great. Michael Jordan may be the only premier perimeter defender who also carried his team on the offensive end in a more remarkable manner than Leonard currently does. The greatest two-way perimeter players are usually No. 2 scoring options, a la Scottie Pippen or Joe Dumars.
Leonard shoulders an amazingly heavy load. It’s the way he wants it. He doesn’t cry about needing more help. He’s not looking to team up with another superstar. He just plays ball. And after a lost year, he’s back.
In forcing a trade from San Antonio, Leonard bet on himself. When the Spurs traded him to a place he didn’t want to go, Leonard didn’t just make the most of his season in Toronto. He set a new standard. He became the great player on a very good and deep team. And then the Raptors made the NBA fair again. With all of their versatile pieces and two-way athletes, Toronto was built to give Golden State problems. Given the opportunity, the Raptors did. The accumulation of injuries made this series ridiculous and a little depressing, but make no mistake: The Raptors are a worthy champion.
Leonard, also a free agent, has a tough decision to make. Does he want to follow through on his original plan to go to Los Angeles or possibly New York? Or does he want to stay with the Raptors, who are fully capable of winning another title (or two) if Leonard makes a multiyear commitment?
Either way, Toronto will be grateful. Leonard is free to be himself. He can smile and speak as little as he wants, and he can do it wherever he wants.
“I know who I am as a person,” Leonard said. “I know how I feel, and always just trust yourself. And that was my goal and my focus. And that’s one of the things that I take on the floor.”
For the three-time champion Warriors, the harsh lessons have just begun. They have been dethroned and thrashed. They’re in for a difficult fight to keep their place in a league they seemingly owned just two weeks ago. You could feel sorry for them, but you’re probably too busy welcoming them back to reality. Considering the injuries, the Warriors may have gotten more out of this diminished roster than they did during some of their dominant title seasons. This team emptied the tank. There’s something to be said for that.
“Next season will be next season, and we’ll come back with the right mentality,” Stephen Curry said. “So it’s kind of hard to talk about because it’s a tough way to go out, and it’s tough to lose in the Finals. But the story’s not over yet.”
After he congratulated the Raptors, Curry walked off the court with his head down. He trudged through the hallway toward the Warriors’ locker room. He was so down that he passed NBA legend Bill Russell, who was at Oracle Arena to hold out the Finals MVP trophy. Realizing what he had done, Curry stopped, backpedaled and shook Russell’s hand.
Before disappearing into an offseason of uncertainty, Curry had to acknowledge Russell. In defeat, he knew to appreciate the NBA’s most famous winner. Maintaining greatness, as the Warriors now know, is a painful endeavor.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.