Tom Brady’s fifth Super Bowl is the one that got Gisele Bündchen asking questions. The quarterback’s wife, then of eight years in 2017, didn’t understand. She figured that after five separate trips to the mountaintop, it was as close to the perfect time to walk away as any. Brady, of course, didn’t do that; the man who was once a five-time Super Bowl champion is now a seven-time Super Bowl champion, something no player in NFL history has ever eclipsed.
But Bündchen’s qualms sure made for good content. “What more do you have to prove?” she said, Brady told James Corden on The Late Late Show. In response, Brady just gave her a big hug; in two weeks, he’ll begin his 22nd NFL season.
In more ways than two trillion, Kawhi Leonard, a basketball player on his third team entering his 11th season, is not like Tom Brady, a 44-year-old Florida resident who plays an entirely different sport. But having been given some inspiration by Shaquille O’Neal’s recent Instagram repost — the original post was a photo of Leonard, LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Giannis Antetokounmpo under the caption “The only players in the league with nothing left to prove” — I couldn’t help but think about Brady when wondering what there is left, if anything, for Leonard to prove in the NBA. He’s reached the mountaintop on more than one occasion; he’s done it for more than one team; he’s widely considered one of the best in the sport, and likely will remain so when his career is over.
So, maybe in some ways, he is like Brady.
But what’s left, once you look at all of that in a vacuum, like we do with most careers? In no way is this argument trying to pose the idea that Leonard should pack it all up and retire, leaving the sport he’s mastered and dominated (when healthy) behind. It’s merely an examination of how much truth there is to this notion. Does he belong in that photo beside those other three players? Most likely, yes. He is, also, perhaps the most fascinating player on that list to unpack, even more so than LeBron and the newly-minted Giannis.
Through his work as what is essentially the most sure-fire embodiment of a mercenary as you can find in the NBA — sans LeBron — Leonard has waded through a career of lauded and lofty expectations. He proved himself, and thus, his worth in San Antonio as a youngster, going toe-to-toe with LeBron in the Finals twice and out-dueling him once. When his relationship with the Spurs fell apart, he landed in Toronto, winning a championship in his lone season as a Raptor. The Raptors wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the Finals that season without Kawhi’s heroics, and the Spurs likely wouldn’t have made such quick work of the 2014 Miami Heat had the Klaw’s coming-out party been delayed a year.
At every stage of his career, he has proven that with him, a team is an immediate contender. The only stop at which he has, for lack of a better word, underachieved? His current one. For a myriad of reasons, mostly injury, the Kawhi-led Clippers have come up short. Last year’s playoff run feels like the prime example. Plug in a healthy Kawhi, and a team that took Phoenix to six games might just take them to seven and win, if not sooner. Which is where this recently-signed contract extension enters the narrative, as it can directly benefit his legacy as a Clipper; it gives him yet another opportunity to prove that he has nothing left to prove. Which is to say: there’s still one more hump for him to get over, whether he (and his fans) like it or not.
That’s merely the plight of a mercenary. Whether welcomed or inherited, one’s hiring as a mercenary comes with unfair expectations that a war will be won, a job will be done. Should you fail, as Kawhi essentially has thus far in Los Angeles, you’ll be tattered with criticisms and questions. Before he signed his extension, and before Paul George looked like he just might be capable of carrying the Clippers to the promised land without his superstar companion, Leonard faced exactly that.
And rightly so. Should you voluntarily make the third-biggest offseason transaction splash of the decade — just behind LeBron’s move to the Heat and Durant’s to the Warriors — you best not balk at the barrage when it comes. Say Leonard had elected to leave Los Angeles after two years for the Knicks or the Heat; this two star, all-in dice roll would have been viewed as one of the greatest transactional failures in the history of basketball, and the Clippers would’ve remained the butt of everyone’s joke. There’s a reason I’ve already used the word “fail” in this column. Had the Kawhi in Clipper-blue story ended already, it would have been used in another column with much more force.
But with his extension, and with new life feeling omnipresent inside the organization following last year’s deep postseason run, Kawhi’s window is open even wider. Then again, he’s not rushing to come back; the surgery he had on his ACL in mid-July will keep him sidelined for a considerable amount of time, and given what we know about Kawhi, he’s not likely to push it any earlier than he should (or wants to). With the first year of his extension essentially being a wash, and an audition for the rest of the squad to prove whether or not they deserve to be around when the main man returns, time most definitely continues to tick. With time comes questions. That’s just human nature. Answers about what you’ve done can quickly evolve into questions about what you’ve done for me lately.
That Kawhi has more to prove in my mind isn’t an indictment on him nor his game, but the situations in which he’s consistently elected to place himself. Arguably, he had it made in San Antonio, but differences and a swift change of heart led him to Toronto. That, admittedly, was a pit stop, and it ended in dream fashion. Los Angeles — on one team or another — was always the plan. As any good mercenary knows, now is the time to execute, to prove that everything that happened along the way was worth it.