The Kawhi Leonard haters are pretty quiet at the moment, and rightfully so. The Toronto Raptors superstar just led his team to an historic championship run, and in the process, proved all of his doubters wrong.
This recent accomplishment by the 27-year-old is simply remarkable, and his tremendous performance in the recently-concluded Finals series only cements his legacy as a Hall of Famer once it is all said and done for him. For those that may still have some doubts about this (I'm not sure why there would be any at this point, to be honest), let us try and convince you otherwise by pointing out the exact reasons why this epic Finals performance puts him in the category of one of the greatest to have ever played the game.
Last season was awful for Kawhi. He sustained a rather mysterious quad injury that cost him pretty much the entire season. Leonard was only able to suit for for the Spurs on nine occasions throughout the season, and to make matters worse, there were some who began questioning his desire to play. At one point, he was even accused of faking the injury.
Fast forward a few months later and a revitalized Kawhi started playing like he never missed a beat. Now with the Raptors, Leonard was a man on a mission, as he set out to tell everybody that it was as if he never left.
The culmination of his comeback year took place on Thursday night, as he held the championship trophy on one hand and the Finals MVP on the other. This was the very moment Kawhi had worked so hard for over the past two years, and to have proven that he remains to be one of the best players in the game today is certainly the best form of vindication.
Toppling a Giant
Let's not forget that at the start of the season, most of us believed that this year was already a foregone conclusion. After adding DeMarcus Cousins in the offseason, the Golden State Warriors were widely considered to be the favorites to bag their third straight NBA title, and in the process further establishing their dynasty.
Even during the Finals, despite Toronto absolutely dominating the defending champs in Game 1, many still believed that the Warriors were still in a position to overturn the deficit.
Well, Kawhi and his Raptors had other ideas. The fact that Leonard led Toronto — a team that he had just joined in the offseason — to a series victory against arguably the most talent-packed squad the NBA has ever seen is simply amazing. Sure, the Warriors were absolutely banged up, but this cannot take away from the fact that Kawhi and the Raptors achieved something here that will definitely go down in history.
The Alpha Dog
It would be foolish to say that Kawhi single-handedly lifted the Raptors to glory. This would simply be inaccurate, as a lot of factors came into play in the Finals that all contributed to the team's success: Pascal Siakam's coming out party, Kyle Lowry finally breaking the Lowry Playoffs curse, Serge Ibaka turning back the clock, Fred Van Vleet playing like an All-Star, and head coach Nick Nurse's boldly effective tactics, to name a few.
However, one man served as the team's leader both on and off the court — Kawhi Leonard. He was the team's steadying force and stepped up whenever his team needed him. This title run was undeniably brought about by a collective effort by the entire Raptors team, but it is also without question that Kawhi is this team's alpha dog.
At just 27 years of age and entering his ninth season in the league, there is no reason to believe that Leonard won't be able to play at this exceptional level for the next few years. As he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, he will be in a crossroads in his career, with his decision having a tremendous impact no only in his own future, but on the landscape of the entire league as well. Very few players can cause such a huge ripple effect throughout the NBA, and regardless of where he ends up playing next season, it should still be more of the same for Kawhi Leonard next year.
With all that he has achieved this season and throughout his tenure in the league, it is quite difficult to find any compelling reason why he should not be a shoo-in to the Hall of Fame a decade or so down the line.