The NBA needs more of what Kawhi Leonard doesn’t bring to the table.
On the court, he’s the best two-way player in the league, period, and top-five overall. What’s missing with Leonard is all the drama and gossip that dragged the league into Love & Hip Hop New York territory this season and threatens to suffocate the incredible basketball being played by these magnificent athletes.
The NBA has stacked peak cultural currency by embracing what happens off the court. It has leaned into social media and personality-based marketing to reach a place that the NFL, despite many millions more viewers, can’t touch. But it felt like the NBA hit a tipping point this season, with off-court intrigue sucking oxygen away from the games themselves.
Whether it was the impending free agencies of Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, the clumsy trade demand of Anthony Davis or the Game of Thrones that is the Los Angeles Lakers, a negative vibe hung around the league like funk in a locker room. With social media descending a slippery slope from entertaining to toxic, plus the tendency of certain stars to play into the drama rather than rise above it, the atmosphere sent Durant into a sulk and made Irving proclaim basketball was “not fun.” Even NBA commissioner Adam Silver admitted all the talk might be hurting the league.
Guess who avoided the reality show? Leonard, the NBA champion, Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, who also will be a free agent this summer. Sure, people talked about him leaving the Toronto Raptors for the Los Angeles Clippers. Leonard didn’t talk about it. He doesn’t talk about much of anything beyond clichés regarding whatever game he just dominated. Rumors don’t swirl around Leonard like they do other players. Dull quotes and blank stares don’t swirl. Neither do they trend on Twitter, where Leonard’s cobwebbed account has a grand total of four posts, none since 2015. Your grandma will be on Instagram before Leonard. He’s the antithesis of today’s brand-building, Instagram-storytelling, chest-thumping baller.
The only time Leonard entered the NBA rumor mill was during the 2017-18 season, when his lengthy recovery from a quadriceps injury estranged him from the San Antonio Spurs. He handled it in the most Kawhi way possible: Dude said nothing, disappeared off the grid to rehab and waited for the Spurs to trade him to Toronto. Now he’s back in his natural habitat on the court — and out of the spotlight.
At his introductory Raptors news conference this season, a reporter noted that fans didn’t know much about Leonard and asked what he wanted them to learn. “Uhh, I’m a fun guy. Obviously, I love the game of basketball,” Leonard said before deflecting into an uncomfortable laugh that became the only meme of his eight-year career.
While most fans turned their attention elsewhere, Leonard averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals in the regular season, right up there with Durant, LeBron James and Paul George. Unless you live in Canada, you probably didn’t hear much about Leonard carving up the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs. You might have missed his ridiculous display of hard-body and-1s, step-back 3s, unblockable midrange fadeaways, and dunks on dunks on dunks. At one point, while running full speed, Leonard snatched a pass out of the air with one of his huge hands, palmed it like a grapefruit, then rose up and smashed it home. All without even a hint of a flex, strut or scowl.
I know what some of you are thinking: Leonard is boring. He has no personality. We don’t know what he does off the court. When did that become necessary to enjoy the game? Maybe about the same time we felt compelled to post photos of our socks, commute, chicken wings or bathroom mirror reflection? There’s nothing wrong with fans seeking connections with their favorite players, which dates to the Jurassic era of basketball cards and newspaper sports sections. But this season, the bottomless hunger of the Internet alchemized with the human instinct to gossip and took the NBA to an uncomfortable place.
Pregame fashion shows are fun. Players switching teams can change the trajectory of entire cities. But the NBA needs to balance out its feedback loop before it drowns out the sound of the bouncing ball. A few guys living on front street are fine, but we need more Leonards to remind people of the athletic miracles performed nightly in the NBA.
Today’s players are so gifted, skilled and inventive, they are bending the game to their will. They are scoring in ways, and from places, we’ve never seen before. If you turn down the volume, watching the NBA can be even more amazing.
So if Leonard’s personality bores you, try appreciating the way he plays.