Who's responsible for Kawhi Leonard being so good?

Chris Covatta

Was Kawhi Leonard destined to always be awesome or did the Spurs help him become awesome? I have an idea, but the real answer is: who cares?

Royce Young from Daily Thunder had a good post about the latest internet feud Kevin Durant finds himself in. If you hadn't heard the story, Durant tweeted right after the Finals that Indiana's Paul George is better than Kawhi Leonard and that Leonard looks better than he is because of the Spurs system.

For the record, I mostly agree with Durant's opinion, although he could have phrased it a bit better. Where Durant didn't look too bright was in his timing. It looks really weak when you dis a guy who's about to be handed the Finals MVP, and doubly so when that dude's team just knocked yours out of Western Conference Finals. I'll admit, when I first heard about Durant's tweets, I was really ticked off at him. Then I realized that I agreed.

Still, Young has a valid point. We want athletes, coaches and team executives to be real with us, to give us candid opinions and not empty cliches, but then we slam them when they do. Unless famous people utter opinions that are truly beyond the pale -- instead of merely unpopular -- we should probably just shrug it off and agree to disagree. Otherwise, if you blow every little thing out of proportion, nobody will ever say anything.

We saw an example of this with Tim Duncan a two weeks ago, where his statement, "We've got four more games to win and we're gonna do it this time," was treated as if he'd said, "LeBron James is no good at basketball and he's also a terrible husband and father and probably should be in prison."

So much for the introduction, here's the meat: In Young's column he linked to a story from SBNation's Tom Ziller, a piece that ESPN's Bill Simmons also referenced admiringly during the pregame show before Game 4. I'd been meaning to read it but it had slipped my mind.

I'm a big fan of Ziller's work, and encourage you to read not only this column but anything he writes, but I'm not quite with him on this one, for several reasons. I highlighted his main points.

Any time you lament that NBA GMs somehow let such a great prospect fall to an already stacked team in a bad draft, you get the #WellActually crowd insisting that Kawhi wouldn't have been a great prospect on most other teams. This line of argument is that while Kawhi is marvelous as a Spur, his development would have been stunted with most lottery franchises.

Environment does matter; it's impossible to argue otherwise. But the idea that Kawhi would be a scrub or not worthy of a lottery pick on, say, the KingsCavaliers or Bucks, is demeaning to Kawhi's own role in his development. Nineteen-year-olds are not exactly lumps of clay. They have agency and responsibility. It's not as if the Spurs drafted Kawhi's body, erased his mind and soul and injected him with some Spur Serum that made him KAWHI. They drafted an actual person with good attributes (both physical and mental) and a few raw skills (shooting, namely), gave him tools to sharpen up those skills and get the most out of his gifts and unleashed him on the court....

Coachability is not what made Tim Duncan the greatest power forward ever. Duncan's brain, his touch, his dedication to being excellent, his motivation to adapt - those qualities made Duncan great. Tim Duncan doing track work in triple-digit weather during a lockout made him great.

This isn't to say that coachability isn't also a powerful attribute. Learning from those who have come before is important in every line of work. But if we're divvying up credit for Duncan's legendary career, Pop gets a relatively thin slice of the pie. Duncan himself is almost exclusively responsible for Duncan's greatness.

So it goes with Kawhi, who is considered to be a new Duncan in terms of his willingness to take whatever Pop dishes. He's the next Coachable Star, as if that is the most impressive thing about him....

it's pervasive. When NBA players get praised, their willingness to heed authority get way too much credit at the expense of the fire, effort and smarts of the player himself.

Kawhi didn't have a stunning Game 3 just because Pop told him to. Kawhi had a stunning Game 3 because he's put in the work his entire career to prepare himself for these moments, and because he played his tail off. Kawhi isn't a quality shooter because of three days with Chip Engelland. He's a quality shooter because he leveraged that instruction and subsequent post-lockout skill-building with hours and hours in the gym firing up jumpers.

No one is consciously depriving Kawhi the credit he deserves, but the popular narrative is shortchanging him. We should consider how we talk about him and the Spurs' influence on him before, like Duncan, he becomes a perennially underrated star.

The absolute first two things we have to make clear here is that, A) Nobody is blaming or criticizing Leonard in any form or fashion. He's absolutely fantastic and I love everything about him. B) Nobody is criticizing the Spurs either. Neither Buford or Pop or anyone else have ever taken credit for any of Leonard's success or accomplishments. Rather, it's been the total opposite. They go out of their way to talk him up, and Pop declared he'd be the face of the team as far back as last season. So, more or less, Ziller's column critiques the alleged media narratives and fan attitudes of Leonard.

I'm not shortchanging Leonard in the slightest when I say that I think Ziller is underestimating how much factors such as chemistry, teammates, coaching staffs, organizational philosophies, timing, circumstance and plain old dumb luck play into athletes careers.

An athlete can have talent, character, work ethic and desire, but still find himself in bad situations that they have almost no control over. Leonard joined the Spurs when he was 20 after a two-year apprenticeship at San Diego State, where he shot 25 percent from a shorter three-point line and 45 percent from the field overall. He finished with three more assists than turnovers over those two years, despite playing against so-so competition in the Mountain West Conference. There was legitimate concern that he was a "tweener," a guy with a power-forward's game who got by in college against undersized opponents, but was going to be in over his head in the NBA against elite athletes considering his lack of size, wonky jumper and poor handles. He didn't fall to 15th in the draft just because teams were turned off about an Achilles injury. There were real questions about his skill level.

We haven't even discussed Leonard's mentality yet. Yes, Leonard was always a gym rat with serious inner drive, but teams drafting high in the lottery are looking for people who can be alpha dogs on and off the floor. They want to see charisma, leadership, type-A personalities who can not only be franchise saviors but can handle the media attention and scrutiny that comes with that. Obviously, that's not Leonard. The worst thing for him, regardless of his drive and talent, would've been for him to be drafted by a Charlotte or a Sacramento.

Consider who'd be a better mentor, Tim Duncan or Boogie Cousins.

Leonard came to a perfect situation with the Spurs. He wasn't ever looked upon to be a savior. He hardly had to do any media, which he was uncomfortable with early on. He wasn't even a starter for most of the season. The only expectations on him were to defend and make corner threes. He could develop at his own pace. He didn't have to worry about instantly being one of the best players on the team. If anything, having a bunch of much better players around him accelerated his development. It was a competitive environment with high expectations, sink or swim, not some lottery-bound team tanking games and futzing through the season. Leonard had to improve quickly or he wouldn't have gotten quality minutes. The coaching staff and unselfish teammates put him in positions to be successful.

On some other team Leonard would've had the same talents and the same drive, but would those coaching staffs have developed him the same way? Maybe some teams would've completely discouraged or forbidden him to shoot from outside and asked him to put on weight and bulk and to strengthen his post game instead. Maybe some would've asked him to be strictly a defensive specialist, or some sparkplug off the bench. Maybe he wouldn't had the right set of teammates to help make him better.

It's not enough to have talent and drive. Your talents have to be applied the right way and you have to be driven in the right direction. That's what coaches are for.

Where Ziller's argument loses me is when he compares Leonard to an all-time great like Duncan. Not for one second has Pop or anyone else in that organization ever taken credit for anything Duncan's done. Pop has stated, a million times over, that the entire reason the Spurs program exists as we know it is because of Duncan and if it weren't for a lucky ping pong ball, he'd have been fired a long time ago. Pop's famous for saying he'll retire ten seconds after Duncan does, while Buford has quipped that Tim is the boss they all work for.

If Duncan is at all underrated, it's not because of coachability but rather because he doesn't like doing press, his game has never been flashy and he's spent his whole career in a small market while taking steps to avoid the pitfalls some of his peers have fallen into. He shows up to the games, plays hard and goes home. That's not the way to get much play on SportsCenter.

Of course Duncan would've been legendary anywhere, but he's a once-in-a-generation player. Guys like him, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, or Michael Jordan just don't come around very often.

For everyone else though, circumstances do matter.

Take Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, two future first-ballot Hall-of-Famers.

With Ginobili, Pop had to learn to ignore his penchant for wild turnovers and live with the streaky shooting. Other coaches may not have been as patient with Ginobili, they may have put him in more rigid systems and stifled the improvisation and instincts that have made him so great. Or worse, they'd have gone too far the other way, too seduced by his talent, skill and passion to put any time restrictions on him and then be left to wonder why this manic kid was always hurt or spent by the middle of the third quarter. The Spurs understood early on Ginobili's one Achilles heel was stamina. He was simply not built to be effective after 32-34 minutes, even at his peak. Other coaches (Scott Brooks or Tom Thibodeau) could've worn him down to a nub. With Pop, Ginobili played at an All-Star level at 36.

For Parker, who came into the league as a teenager with a jumper even more busted than Leonard's, other coaches could've tried to turn him into a Rod Strickland or a Ricky Rubio, a guard who hardly ever shoots from outside. They might have grown frustrated by his limited playmaking skills and his propensity to dribble too much and tried to change him into an undersized two-guard like Monta Ellis. They might have given him cart blanche to shoot all the threes he wanted like Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose. There's literally a thousand ways Parker could've been screwed up.

It's easy to look back in retrospect with Leonard and conclude that as someone who would've been drafted second behind Kyrie Irving if league execs can re-do the 2011 draft all over again that he would've been a star anywhere, but that's just too simplistic. Parker and Ginobili were the best or second-best players of their draft classes too, and they were picked 28th and 57th overall respectively. For all their greatness, they fell into the right situation, and both have said so ad nauseam. Heck, even Duncan was fortunate in a way to be drafted by a team with another Hall-of-Fame center, David Robinson, already on the roster and in a market where he could stay relatively low-profile. He'd have been TIM DUNCAN anywhere, but the Spurs helped him win early and often and still away from the spotlight, inexplicably.

It doesn't take anything from Leonard's considerable talents and accomplishments to acknowledge he's had some help and been the beneficiary of good fortune and better coaching. Yes, he was fantastic in Game 3 of the Finals (and Games 4 and 5 as well), but all parties have confirmed that he needed a bit of prodding going into the game. At times, for whatever reason, Leonard fades into the background and defers too much. Sure, foul trouble in the first two games sapped some of his aggressiveness, but there's nothing wrong with crediting Pop for telling his 22-year-old prodigy to forget about the first two games, to forget his Hall-of-Fame-bound teammates and to come out firing. That's what coaching is, bringing out the best in a player.

Even Young used the example of Westbrook in his story. As talented as he is, he's notoriously headstrong and needed a supportive, nurturing environment, which he was lucky to have in Thunder coach Scott Brooks, not to mention a collaborative fellow star in Durant who doesn't mind sharing the ball and the glory. In other places Westbrook could've run into considerable trouble with coaches and teammates.

The bottom line is two things can be equally true. Is Kawhi Leonard fantastic? Yes. Did he fall into a perfect situation with the Spurs? Yes. It's not just about talent. The best organizations nurture and develop that talent. It's not a coincidence that the best coaches and best GMs work on the best teams, just like the best players do. It all goes together. Assigning Leonard this much credit and Pop this much and Engelland that much misses the forest for the trees and does no one any favors.

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