The blank slate of Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard, #2, LA Clippers, (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard, #2, LA Clippers, (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

The more we learn about Kawhi Leonard, the less we know.

Kawhi Leonard could never stay in San Antonio. We know that now. He was not Tim Duncan, and he was too talented to be anyone else. He was going to buck the system eventually, and he did, upending the franchise’s trajectory more than any bull or bronco ever could.

Kawhi Leonard could never stay in Toronto. It was cold and far from home. The spotlight was shaped like a maple leaf. The sense of camaraderie was perhaps too strong, and being the best player didn’t quite feel close enough to owning the situation. Some people are difficult to love. Maybe they don’t like dinosaurs. Maybe close friendships and accolades make them fear extinction. Maybe they just want to go home, near the beaches, where the sun is warm enough to thaw an assassin’s heart.

Kawhi Leonard went home and asked for more minutes off. Health is important. It’s good to be mindful in the 21st century. It’s good to be good. Being good can fill a life with privileges one wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise. The Los Angeles Clippers deemed Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to both be very good, and they were given privilege over those who came before them.

Maybe such privileges wouldn’t have been granted if he had chosen to play for the Lakers in Los Angeles instead of the Clippers. Then again, maybe a purple and gold uniform comes with privileges too. But purple and gold also come with LeBron and Magic and Kobe and Shaq and a host of other names all recognizable and woven into the banners. There are no Clipper banners. There are only ghost stories of bad breaks, poor attitudes, and despicable management. It takes a special kind of coach to manage privilege.

Gregg Popovich denied such tiers and created a lasting culture out of Tim Duncan’s humility. The coach who probably manages such privilege the best is Phil Jackson, but he is grown too frail to pass on his geometric philosophies. He was always credited with managing stars, but perhaps what he managed best was the supporting cast that bore the brunt of the privilege. Can Tyronn Lue? He once did so in Cleveland with LeBron, and that’s the rub here. Kawhi never was drawn to LeBron. He always wanted to combat him, and now the King’s ex-coach will be the ultimate measuring stick.

To make a legacy in the wilderness is daring, but it’s difficult to determine whether Kawhi stepped out into the world in Los Angeles or retreated back into the home. It’s difficult to read Kawhi. His expressions are so blank one can read anything they wish to see in his listless eyes and occasional winces. He’s not so much Oedipus as he is a mute Sphinx, and yet he is the one who returned home.

His story begins tragically. His father was murdered. Probably nothing Kawhi Leonard experiences will ever strike so deeply. The rest of the world must seem so paper-thin after all that, and after all that, there is also the desire to render Kawhi Leonard into a figure full of deep chasms and legendary willpower. There are tales of him breaking weightlifting machines with his brute strength and the apocryphal of devouring apples wholesale. There are those large hands and long limbs that give him the physical reach and stature of epic folklore.

But the Kawhi of late yawns at all this. He checks out. He does not inspire. He goes 0-for-something in the most important stretch of the most important game. He is teamed with Paul George, and we are all suspicious of the man with two first names. So what gives? Could it be that a blank slate is as thin as a sheet of paper? It would be so much more interesting if that wasn’t the case.

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