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Power done right: Kawhi Leonard gets everything he wants, yet still doesn't become a villain

Yahoo! Sports logo Yahoo! Sports 7/8/2019 Seerat Sohi

Kawhi wants what Kawhi wants. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) © Provided by Oath Inc. Kawhi wants what Kawhi wants. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP) In the end, Kawhi Leonard held true to the ethos that fueled his success: show, don’t tell.

All year, he quietly went about his work and delivered the Toronto Raptors their first championship in franchise history. Then he quietly went about his work, recruiting Paul George to the Clippers, creating exactly the future he wanted for himself. He understood that whisper campaigns and manufactured drama were no match against his unfettered talent. He concentrated his energy on becoming the world’s best player, and power — to stop the NBA world dead in its tracks for days, to summon news choppers, to pull George from the Oklahoma City Thunder — followed.

It’s an interesting thing, power. To understand it is to have it, and Leonard understands when he has power better than any superstar to date. Even better than LeBron James, who occasionally seems to wield it just to wield it, even in situations that are out of his control, like someone spraying Sriracha over ice cream and hoping it miraculously turns into a taco.

James made a trade-off few people, especially in an industry where the pursuit of fame and recognition can often trump the pursuit of victory and even happiness, are willing to make: he was willing to stomach barbs and broken relationships, to be polarizing, to be disliked. One gets the sense Leonard doesn’t care much about being liked either, and yet he managed to pave a new road map, wielding his influence to the edge of his capability while feeling very little of its harsh edges. He redefined what it means to control the NBA landscape, somehow amplifying player power at a time when that didn’t seem possible.

The lesson of Leonard: You can be above reproach and do whatever you want at the same time, as long as you keep the main thing the main thing. In a season where locker room malaise, trade rumors and off-court drama often overshadowed the actual games, Leonard’s maneuvering led to a necessary recalibration: the on-court product still reigns supreme.

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Raptors head coach Nick Nurse was with his staff when he got the news in a text. “Not totally surprised. I think we all knew that was a situation that could happen and he delivered big-time,” Nurse said Saturday at Las Vegas Summer League. “Played his heart out for us. We certainly are going to relish this championship for a long time. We’re going to stop celebrating it pretty soon — not quite yet — and we’ll get back to work.”

But when they do, they’ll encounter a landscape made bleaker by Leonard’s maneuvering. He took them to the mountaintop, and then left in a fashion that makes the chances of the Raptors — and every other non-marquee franchise — ever getting there again even slimmer.

There’s nothing the Raptors would have done differently. They kept him healthy and surrounded him with a championship-level cast. Injuries, miracles, luck and the defining moment of Leonard’s playoff career conspired together to turn the Raptors into a team of destiny. Six years of player development, collaboration and culture-building since Masai Ujiri’s arrival eased the way for the team to shape itself around Leonard’s personality.

Leonard wanted to live closer to home, to be near family. He probably wanted to bask in the sunlight in March. Being in Los Angeles gives him something nothing else can, and it’s hard to fault that. But the heart wants what it wants, and the hearts of NBA players often want the same thing: some alchemy of market size, weather and the opportunity to live on beachfront property. The rise of the Clippers and Nets has added another hack: love the gifts, but hate the trappings? Love the city, hate the circus? Problem solved: Join the most low-key institution in the most high-key city. Among the marquee franchises, only total dysfunction — see the Knicks — can hurt your bottom line. For the non-marquee franchises, even near perfection can fall short.

And yet you won’t hear a hint of disdain in the voice of any Raptor. Ujiri thanked Leonard in a statement. Nurse is justifying Leonard’s decision for him. “I think you can’t blame a guy for wanting to go home,” Nurse said. “That’s what he texted me today. ‘I’m going home,’ you know. And I just said, ‘You’ve changed a lot of lives, man, by what you accomplished in Toronto. Mine especially.’ And thanked him for what he did and we’ll look to the future and look to do it again.”

When Ujiri traded for him, Leonard had no interest in being a Raptor. He could have reacted in a million different ways, but at some point, he realized he couldn’t fight his way out of Toronto, and instead of merely accepting his fate, he embraced it. He was able, as a result, to make the most of it. He put the hammer away and took out his hard hat, working to build something instead of destroy it. His reward: a championship, a Finals MVP and relationships that could last a lifetime. He became the best mercenary of all time, mostly because he didn’t act like one.

He could have manufactured drama in order to sabotage the season, ensuring an easily justifiable exit instead of the unprecedented decision he made. But he never needed to justify anything to anyone, so he became the first star in NBA history to win a championship and leave his team in the same year. Years from now, the guy who never wanted to play for the fans at the Scotiabank Centre, the guy who bolted as soon as he could, will likely have his jersey retired in its rafters and bask in the roaring adulation of the crowd.

By keeping it simple, Leonard mastered the modern NBA’s bizarre complexities. No other top-three talent in the NBA could leave two championship contenders and carry on with relatively little ill will. Spurs and Lakers fans may never understand. Almost everyone else will, even if he leaves them a little worse off.

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