“History is written by the victors.” In a way, this truism also holds true for sports. History will always be kind to the victors and cruel on the losers, as the recent NBA Championship has demonstrated.
Last year, Kawhi Leonard was hailed to high heavens after bringing the Toronto Raptors to their first-ever championship. Last year, Lebron James was vilified no end for trying to peddle off most of his Laker teammates in order to score Anthony Davis. Both Kawhi and Lebron were new transferees to the Raptors and the Lakers respectively; with Kawhi tasting sweet success while Lebron languished in hoop hell.
This year, it is Lebron’s time to be hailed a hoop hero, bringing the crown to the Lakers for a record-tying 17th time, after 10 years of ignominy. Kawhi, on the other hand, has been cast as a villain. He must now suffer a year’s sentence of agony and ridicule, especially after that humiliating loss to the upstart Denver Nuggets.
Kawhi’s recent success had been one of the reasons why Lebron’s credentials for the GOAT has been in peril. Prior to this year’s championship, Kawhi and Lebron were the only active players with NBA Finals MVPs in 2 or more teams. Lebron took MVP honors during his stints with the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavs; Kawhi got his with the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors last year. Only 1 other player has had the distinction of winning the Finals MVP for different teams: the venerable Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who acquired his MVPs with the Milwaukee Bucks and the LA Lakers. Lebron’s case for the GOAT would have suffered a huge hit, had Kawhi taken a 3rd NBA Finals MVP, surpassing Lebron in the process.
For Kawhi, it has been a huge letdown from the success north of the border to the humbling crash in the Pacific coast. For Lebron, it has been a great resurrection from the misery and disrespect of last year, to the glory that is this year’s.
So what series of events conspired to transform last year’s nightmare into a dream come true for Lebron? What happened to twist a great adventure into a tragedy for Kawhi? Each one has had his time as king of the hoop world; each one has endured some missteps from where we can draw valuable lessons from.
Health played a key role in the drama of the last 2 NBA seasons. Lebron got injured last year, stopping the Lakers’ campaign dead on its tracks. On the other hand, as luck would have it for the Raptors, injuries to the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant, Demarcus Cousins, Iggy Igoudala and finally, Klay Thompson would pave the way to Kawhi and the Raptors’ ascendance as kings of the hardcourt for the first time.
This year, injuries to Giannis Antetokounmpo ruined the Milwaukee Bucks’ chances, and the Miami Heat lost starters Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic in majority of the Finals series, paving the way to a clearer track for the Lakers.
Of course, a strong roster will always be the big factor in the success of any team. Lebron found this out early, seeing how he could not win it alone in Cleveland. Migrating to Miami to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he assured himself – and the Heat fans – of “not one, not two, not three … championships”. And he did deliver 2 championships in his 4 seasons with the Miami Heat.
Going back to Cleveland, he orchestrated a new Big Three, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Once again, the blueprint worked. Despite Golden State’s most-feared “Strength in Numbers”, the Cavs would be able to eke out 1 championship in that Warrior era.
Moving on to the Lakers, the strategy was for Lebron to develop and lead the young, talented, yet untested core of players to cage mecca. It didn’t work. The talent level was simply not enough to compete against the likes of the Golden State Warriors.
Hence, Lebron reverted back to the old strategy of recruiting proven stars to solidify the team. With Anthony Davis, his Big Three formula was almost complete. But, when Kawhi declined the Lakers’ offer, the Laker management had to move fast to bring in strong veterans on short-term contracts. With the likes of Rajon Rondo and Danny Green on the roster, they acquired proven winners who could also provide valuable championship experience.
Kawhi, on the other hand, joined an already strong line-up with the Raptors last year, with a steady leader in Kyle Lowry and a brilliant coach in Nick Nurse. It worked. Kawhi became the darling of the cage kingdom last year, after winning the NBA jackpot in only his first year with the team. He also became only the 2nd active player with 2 Finals MVP in different teams tucked under his belt, making him a direct competitor to Lebron James.
Moving to the LA Clippers this year, Kawhi joined a team with the same strong roster and a veteran coach in place. Unfortunately though, they forgot to bring in team chemistry into the mix. Kawhi had great court facilitators in Kyle Lowry in Toronto and Tony Parker in San Antonio. For some reason, neither Pat Beverley nor Lou Williams would fit the bill.
Next season will be another test for the two superstars, now operating in the same neighborhood. Kawhi and the Clippers will need to work on their team chemistry first, before they can move on from this debacle. If Pat and Lou can take a cue from Kyle Lowry, that would be a great first step for the team. The rest of the crew will have to understand the team hierarchy, with no one trying to outshine the other. There will be no need for a massive overhaul, for so long as everybody simmers down and accepts the new team dynamic.
Lebron and the Lakers, on the other hand, will have to rework their roster, having filled it with short-term contracts. A key milestone would have to be the retention of Anthony Davis, something which many consider a done-deal. Players who could be leaving for better dollars include: Kentavious Caldwell Pope, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Javale McGee, Markieff Morris. The management will have to go all-in during these 2-3 year window of Lebron’s continued high level of performance. After that, things could go south for the team real fast.
With Lebron’s success this year, endless accolades have been poured his way. “Best player in the world.” “Best leader I’ve ever been around.” “It seems like he’s aging backwards.” “If he’s clicking on all cylinders, you’re not going to stop him.” “He has this will to win like no other.” In much the same manner Kawhi was glorified the previous year.
Indeed, if there is one lesson to be learned here, it is that History will always be kind to the winner.
For a clearer view, just click on the pics. Cover photo courtesy of the Silver Screen and Roll. Other pics courtesy of: Republic World, Essentially Sports, Fansided, Yahoo! Sports, Newsday, Spectrum News, ESPN.com, CBS Sports, SB Nation, LA Times, Lakers Outsiders, Cleveland.com, Silver Screen and Roll, John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports, Larry Smith/Shutterstock and Marcio Sanchez/AP Photo.