Kawhi Leonard went from being a villain just a season ago to the hero the NBA has been in dire need of for almost a decade.
His injury saga with the San Antonio Spurs certainly had some fans questioning his motives, especially in today's star-driven league where the top players have the autonomy to pretty much do whatever they want -- request a trade, sit out, cause a media circus, whatever it may be.
But it seems Leonard had a legitimate concern regarding his quad injury because he forced his way out of San Antonio due to distrust with the team's medical staff and spent a year in a seemingly much less desirable destination (at least we thought at the time) with the Toronto Raptors. How did that end? He carried them to their first-ever NBA championship.
Kawhi was still playing it safe with his quad injury and only appeared in 60 regular-season games, but managed to average a career high in points (26.6) and rebounds (7.3) while also contributing 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals per contest.
He then completely took over in the playoffs, appearing in all 24 games and going off for 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals in a Jordan-esque performance to put an end to the Golden State Warriors' dynasty. He shot 49% from the field and 38% from 3-point range to further prove his efficiency.
He got some help because the Warriors were banged up, but he was clearly the reason the Raptors were able to roll through the Finals in six games. That was his first step in helping save the NBA -- kill the team that had unfairly become a safe space for players that wanted to chase rings. He was pretty much the antitrust law bringing the hammer down on the John D. Rockefeller Warriors.
Then came his free agency. He took his sweet old time and foolish reporters somehow managed to convince themselves and the public that he would join the Los Angeles Lakers and form a superteam with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Come on now, is that Kawhi?
Not at all. He signed with the Clippers after exerting his power and influence, and helped get the ball rolling on the Paul George trade that got him an accompanying star in Los Angeles. The result? Perhaps the most parity the NBA has seen in over a decade.
There's by no means a clear-cut champion as there's been in the past with Steph's Warriors, LeBron's Heat, Kobe's Lakers, etc.
Not only that, but the man waited until July 6 to make his decision, which was the first official day of the new league year. He didn't want to be caught up in all the July 1-5 "verbal agreement" drama. He's a man of principle.
We saw many stars change teams this offseason, and now we have a glut of contenders. Kawhi could've easily ruined it all by signing with the Lakers, but he didn't. He saved the NBA in his defeat of the Warriors and his tactical free agency decision, and fans have him to thank for the entertaining basketball we'll be watching for the next five years.