Masai Ujiri took a huge risk when he traded one of the greatest players in the history of the Toronto Raptors, DeMar DeRozan, for a disgruntled superstar who was dead set on heading to L.A. once he hit free agency.
Ujiri still chose to go all-in on the 2018-19 NBA season by acquiring Kawhi Leonard on a one-year rental. And that gamble paid off in a huge way tonight, as the Raptors are heading to their first ever NBA Finals.
There is simply no way the Raptors could have gotten this far without Leonard, as he has been incredible all postseason long.
In Game 6 tonight, Leonard scored 27 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and dished out seven assists. In just one season, you can already argue that Leonard is the greatest player in the Raptors franchise history.
The play that clinched the game for the Raptors was one of Kawhi’s patented hustle plays as he does the little things to help his team win.
With his team up four points, Leonard grabbed a rebound off the floor, amongst two seven-footers, to seal the game.
With ice in his veins, Leonard off course drained both free throws to put the Raptors up six points, as they beat the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94.
Leonard will need to play with that same level and focus on every possession if he wants to deliver the first Canada it’s first Larry O’Brien Trophy.
The Raptors will be playing the two-time defending champs, the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, who are still likely to be favored in the series.
How Managing Regular Season Minutes Impacts The Crowning Of The NBA Finals And Regular Season MVPs
Monday evening, the NBA will give out coveted regular season awards and accolades in the annual end of season awards show. While we have all been encapsulated by Kawhi Leonard and his performance with the Toronto Raptors the last few weeks… it wasn’t that long ago that debate shows, twitter handles, and journalists alike were all debating who would be crowned the 2018-19 NBA Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, or James Harden. No one thought, even as recently as when voting ended in mid-April, to include the recently crowned King of the North. The Kawhi Leonard 2018-19 season can be summarized in several ways: recovery, come back, load management… but two titles reign over all of it: Champion and Finals MVP.
This inevitably has made the regular season awards feel somewhat less important. While Antetokounmpo, George, and Harden each had spectacular regular seasons, the impact seems pale in comparison to the surgical way Leonard took apart the best teams in the league. A year ago, in a similar moment, awarding James Harden the regular season MVP award after seeing LeBron James and Kevin Durant battle it out in the NBA Finals seemed equally trivial.
This is a problem: Antetokounmpo and Harden each had historic impacts last season, but by late June that impact feels more like a preseason highlight. One easy way to fix this problem, as a league, would be to award the recipients in the middle of the playoffs, like the league used to do it. The NBA only recently began handing out the awards during an award show, even though the votes are all in before the playoffs even start. Maybe the NBA should just call this experiment as it is and return?
What this experiment has made very clear is this: very rarely is the regular season Most Valuable Player the same as the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player. The NBA Finals MVP is a captivating award because, rightly or wrongly, it feels like the NBA Finals MVP had a performance that was more impressive because it yielded a championship. Very rarely have these two guys been the same player… and there may be a reason for that.
In the last ten years, we as a society have become more understanding of the “grind” that a professional athlete goes through in a full season. “Load management,” however much the older generation laughs at it, has become a tool to help with the longevity of player’s careers. Resting, limiting minutes, and missing games has proven to keep players mentally and physically fresh. One of the only discernible drawbacks in resting throughout the marathon that is the NBA regular season?
It pretty much takes you out of contention for the NBA MVP award. Being valuable has become synonymous with being present, and a guy like Kawhi can’t sit for 22 games and be seen as “valuable” during the regular season. Including the post season, Kawhi Leonard played 84 games in his championship season. For reference Paul George, an NBA MVP finalist, played 82 total games, but only played in 5 playoff games. MVP Finalist James Harden? Played in 89 total games, 11 of which were playoff games. MVP Finalist Giannis Antetokounmpo played in 87, only 15 of which were playoff games.
But, sitting those 22 games left Kawhi much more energized for a run at the NBA title. His body went through roughly the same total number of games on the year, but he played more than double the playoff games of Harden, and nearly 10 more than Antetokounmpo.
In the last ten seasons, only twice has the NBA regular season MVP also been the NBA Finals MVP. Thus, the Finals MVP and Regular season MVP had the same amount of rest during the year.
In the seven other eight seasons the Finals MVP played less minutes than the regular season’s MVP. In each of those seven, the difference is somewhat staggering: every regular season MVP played at least one hundred more minutes than the Finals MVP during the regular season. Moreover, some regular season MVPs logged 500+ more regular season minutes than the Finals MVP. The biggest disparity was in 2014, where Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard played nearly 1200 less minutes than NBA regular season MVP Kevin Durant.
The one exception there? 2016, where Finals MVP LeBron James played a whopping nine more regular season minutes than unanimous regular season MVP Steph Curry.
Even in 2016, the Finals MVP has had a lower regular season usage rate than the regular season MVP in each of the years in question. Again, the largest discrepancy was in 2014, when Durant led the league with a 33% usage rate and earned the regular season MVP, while NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard had a regular season usage rate of 18.3%. in 2017, regular season MVP Russell Westbrook posted a usage rate of 41.7% over 2800 minutes during his historic triple double season. In 2017 Finals MVP Durant had a usage rate of 27.8% during the regular season.
Again, there were two seasons in the last ten where the regular season MVP went on to win the Finals MVP. In the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons, LeBron James won both back to back MVPs and Finals MVPs.
But each of those seasons has an interesting footnote worth mentioning. In the 2011-2012 season, the NBA season was only 66 games long. The Players’ Union and NBA Owners reached a standstill in constructing the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the regular season did not start until December 25th. In that shortened season, LeBron posted a tremendous 27-8-6 per game stat line on 32% usage, but he only played 2326 regular season minutes… his lowest mark before the 2018-19 season. LeBron played only 85 total games that year en route to an NBA Championship, even though he missed few regular season games and played in several long playoff series.
The 2012-2013 season was regular in length, and LeBron’s total regular season minutes were closer to his career averages. But, as tremendous as he was in the NBA Finals, it’s hard to forget how close he and the Miami Heat were to losing that Finals. If it weren’t for “the Ray Allen shot,” the NBA Finals MVP likely would have been a San Antonio Spur. San Antonio, under head Coach Greg Popovich, came under fire in the 2012-13 season for resting his players during the regular season, and only 1 starter played more than 70 games. Had anything in the sequence leading up to Ray Allen’s history altering three pointer gone wrong, the Finals MVP likely would have been another player who rested during the NBA Regular Season.
Clearly, unless something rare like a lockout or a historic series saving buzzer beater occurs, a key to winning a championship as a player in the top tier of the NBA is to play less regular season games, and miss tough and tedious regular season stretches in an effort to be ready for the critical playoff moments. Time and time again, regular season MVPs continue to run out of gas at some point in the playoffs. As we all crown King Kawhi, and reminisce about his performance earlier this month, the players accepting awards Monday night need to take note: the quest for a championship ring is grueling like a marathon. If all four series on the way to a championship average 5.5 games, that’s an additional 22 games on the schedule. Playing nearly 100 games at the MVP level is unrealistic and improbable. As many lessons as were evident in the 2018-19 NBA season, lessons surrounding load management have been evident and growing for the last ten seasons.
Atlanta Hawks Trade Up to No. 4 to Select De’Andre Hunter
The Atlanta Hawks knew exactly who they wanted in the 2019 NBA Draft and they made a trade up to make sure they got him.
As the first three picks in the draft were all but set coming in, the New Orleans Pelicans shopped their newly acquired No 4. overall pick, as a way to acquire more assets in the draft.
The Hawks did not hesitate to pay a steep price to move up, trading three picks, along with acquiring the salary of Solomon Hill to make the deal.
When it came time to make the pick, the Hawks did in fact select Hunter, making him the fourth overall selection.
Hunter played spent two years with the Virginia Cavaliers in college and just won the NCAA Championship this year.
He averaged 15.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game this past season and scored 27 points with 9 rebounds in the 2019 NCAA Championship Game.
Hunter joins a talented young core in Atlanta that includes last year’s No. 5 overall pick, Trae Young.
The Hawks may not be a contender this year, but they are certainly building an interesting team that could contend in a few years.
R.J. Barrett Picked with the No. 3 Overall Pick by the New York Knicks
R.J. Barrett was once expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, as he was the top recruit heading to Duke last season.
Then of course, Zion-mania happened, as Barrett’s teammate Zion Williamson became the clear alpha on the Blue Devils and a sensation around the country.
While Williamson took the mantle of the top draft pick away from Barrett, that does not mean that he will have a better NBA career.
The New York Knicks sure hope that Barrett is as advertised, as they picked him with No. 3 overall pick.
Barrett was actually Dukes’ leading scorer this season and will now try to translate his offensive talents to the NBA.
The question now is who will Barrett be playing with, as the Knicks have the cap room to add two max-level players in free agency.
At one point, it was expected that those two players would be Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, as that duo would build super team in Madison Square Garden.
Now with Durant’s torn Achilles, all of that super team discussion is in flux. If the Knicks don’t land those superstars, it will be Barrett’s team from the jump.
Only time will tell where the Knicks go from here, but Barrett is sure to be a great player for them for years to come.
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