Mind Games: What Kawhi Leonard was and wasn’t for the Clippers

Mind Games is a series that explores different psychological elements that shape the whys of the league we love and the hows of the game we sometimes hate.

When Kawhi Leonard joined the Los Angeles Clippers last summer, many thought they would be the L.A. team raising the trophy after all was said and done. He had just delivered a title to the Toronto Raptors in spectacular fashion and the so-called Clipper Curse was hoped to be a thing of the past.

The Clips had just made a surprising run to the playoffs with a core of young talent, supplemented with wily and gritty veterans. They had money and an owner with the enthusiasm to spend it. They had the cap space and availability in the rotation to be a major player in free agency. They also had the unexpected opportunity, at least temporarily, to make hay in a town ruled by the Los Angeles Lakers.

So Kawhi went out and did very un-Kawhi Leonard-like things — gaming the Lakers a bit and actively pursuing Paul George in free agency, making funny commercials as a basketball cyborg — being more out there as a face of the franchise in the name of engendering public goodwill. It was all a surprising turn, but he had earned the right to do whatever he wanted on the court and reinvent himself off of it if that’s what he wanted.

But, these two seasons of Kawhi Leonard, first with the Toronto Raptors and then the Los Angeles Clippers, maybe the most fascinating case study ever to be done on that mystical sports quality, chemistry, and why it ends in brilliance for some teams while blowing up in other’s faces.

Really this is an exploration in themes of psychology: egos and aspirations, group dynamics versus catering to the needs of the individual, jealousy, inequality, sacrifice and self-determination. It becomes not just a game anymore when grumbling starts coming out of the locker room. But why couldn’t the Los Angeles Clippers make it work when the Toronto Raptors could? Despite the Clippers seemingly more talented, more pedigreed at coach, and in a better position to win it all with a deep and versatile roster that should have been able to suffocate their opponents on defense like the Los Angeles Lakers did on their way to a title.

The constant variable is Kawhi Leonard. That sentence seems like it should be the NBA’s most aptly terse player descriptor rather than the basis for any test of team chemistry. Kawhi Leonard put up the same numbers in this disappointing playoff run with the Clippers as he did in the magical one with the Raptors.

He upped his rebounds, steals, assists and blocks per game averages while cutting down his turnovers from 3.1 to 2.5. The changes in his usage, shooting percentages and scoring average were negligible. He also followed similar routines of load management and was recognized as the star of both franchises with some of the associated perks of that status.

What was Kawhi Leonard for the Los Angeles Clippers?

Truly one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, not a word I use lightly, living not only in the shadow of the Lakers but in the very same house; the Los Angeles Clippers most promising era from a few years ago was quickly snuffed out in typical Clipper Curse fashion. The taste for winning was not, however, and after a few seasons together, rebuilding in the ashes of what could have been; Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverly led a young Clippers team back to relevance.

Getting Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, not to mention the in-season acquisitions, must have put the remaining Clippers’ title aspirations into full focus, but the feeling of starting something from scratch, from the beginning, is a powerful motivator when your role gets changed immediately and knocked down two rungs in the pecking order. Money, contracts and endorsements, as well as egos, are all on the line every day for stars and hopefuls in professional sports; opportunities are not.

Kawhi Leonard had shown the year before what he was capable of and made no secret of his belief that the load management plan he undertook was instrumental in that outcome. Teams knew what it would take to get him and I’m sure they offered those benefits accordingly.

Do Lebron or KD or Harden or CP3 not have some perks in mind come contract time or the ultimate say in when they want to come in or out of a game? Do you think Kobe and MJ couldn’t dictate the rules a bit when they wanted? Don’t answer that. People get treated differently at every job in every profession, every day out of every year.

It’s not like Doc Rivers was trying to hide it. He told the media “…everyone’s not treated the same, they shouldn’t be.” and “They all get special treatment. I would say all 15 of my players get special treatment at some point and they’re going to continue to get that.” He said these things back in January.

No matter how hard Harrell and Beverly worked to make the NBA, or how invaluable Lou Williams has shown himself to be as a scorer off the bench at various stops in the league, everyone should know the rules by now. But that doesn’t mean it feels good. Distrust and unhappiness with those in charge of allowing the advantages is not good for that thing known as chemistry. The release of the title-winning coach, Doc Rivers, is evidence that a change in that area was in order. Tyronn Lue’s history of being able to manage high profile players like LeBron James, a task that may have been overblown by LBJ’s noted buy-in to Frank Vogel’s vision for a Laker champion, and knowing the situation inside the Clippers organization were brought up upon his hire.

Players also expect other players to back up their statuses and words with actions and there have been reports that Paul George’s contributions and preferential treatment haven’t matched his rhetoric or optimism; becoming more the issue than Kawhi Leonard’s. This was evidenced by the “eyerolls and bewilderment” he was met with after a speech he delivered following their Game 7 loss to the Nuggets and a televised, heated exchange he had with Harrell during a timeout in Game 2. Teammates were trying to cover it up with loud clapping to muffle the curses. Chris Broussard even reported that some role players feel they are just as good as George despite his top-3 finish in the MVP voting last season and numerous All-NBA nods. Not good.

But the signs were there earlier. After a Jan. 4 home blowout to the Memphis Grizzlies, Harrell vented to the media, saying they weren’t a great team and stressing that two new players had never played with the team before. There were others who hadn’t played with the team before, but Harrell seemed to infer what the factions were with sources confirming to The Athletic  the difficulty the Clippers were having integrating the “demands of adhering to the new stars…while simultaneously sustaining the cooperation of the old guard of the roster…”

Harrell also stated he didn’t know what the vibe in the locker room was among players and took more accountability for himself than the group. Unhappy with his public comments, there were some Los Angeles Clippers who felt Harrell would act differently depending on his individual performances on particular nights and felt he was only consistently motivated on offense.

In the end, it seems that group dynamics, the misinterpretation of them by management and the unwillingness to address them adequately by coaches is what undid this Clipper team with so much promise. It seemed to have become two cliques, the new stars versus the old guard, and the role players who would choose sides between them. In an atmosphere like the bubble, not to mention just under normal circumstances of tight quarters in locker rooms and airplanes or within constant and close proximity like a professional basketball team is, separate groups within the group can be poisonous.

For Kawhi Leonard’s part, by all accounts, he just isn’t the type of guy that is going to hold you accountable for doing your job to his standard. He seems like the kind of person who expects other professionals to be as serious about basketball and the work put into it as he is. He knows when it matters most, knows what time he gets paid for; gets endorsements for, is able to give generously to charity for and wants to protect himself for it. Although all players would enjoy the opportunity to do the same and dictate their own rest schedules, all players should know that is not a blanket option for everyone under the CBA.

Kawhi Leonard is not going to motivate you and he is certainly not going to punch you in the face or howl at you like he wants to rip your heart out. MJ and Kobe got plenty of special treatment; the difference is they were always playing and left no question who was running the show. Through injury, pain and risk, they couldn’t turn off that competitive fire and desire to play. They would overrule a coach, punch a teammate, challenge you as a man and do anything to win.

This is not to say Kawhi Leonard doesn’t do some of those things because he was seen limping throughout the season and playoffs with talk of an ailing knee. What he has shown is that he’s a winner and competitor, but who’s to say he really wants to be a leader like that or one at all? Without Kawhi Leonard assertively taking the reins of the team or the lack of belief in Paul George’s words by some Clipper hold-overs, there appeared to be a leadership vacuum among the players that was allowed to fester all-season by the coaches; leading to uncertainty and distrust at the moments when the Los Angeles Clippers needed just the opposite.

People pay a premium for the proven commodity and though Kawhi Leonard did have two sub-par games for the Clippers in their match-up against the Denver Nuggets, including a 6-of-22 clunker in Game 7; he averaged 29 points in the other five along with 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 steals and a block over the seven games. While the choke job for the Los Angeles Clippers was real, and Kawhi Leonard could apparently do little to stop it, he wasn’t the reason they lost on the basketball court. But he may have been one of the reasons they lost off of it.

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