Monday Media: The Kawhi Leonard Conundrum Deconstructed

In response to last week’s piece on the pervasiveness of racism in basketball writing, many people—including the author himself—questioned my analysis of Andrew Sharp’s piece on Kawhi Leonard. This makes me very happy. I’m glad people are discussing what I think are important issues and are reading critically. Also, I am by no means an expert on race or racism. In the words of Chuck Klosterman, I’m just a guy considering problems. There is the very real possibility that my analysis of this or other issues is off.

Before I look at Sharp’s piece more closely, I want to make clear that I don’t think he is a racist, and furthermore, I don’t know that I (or anyone) has a clear idea of what makes somebody racist, or if that designation is even important. If you commit violence while yelling racial slurs, I feel pretty comfortable calling you a racist. I feel pretty comfortable calling the trash TJ Simers had published in the Los Angeles Times racist, but does that make the author racist? What if it is only a one off column? What if it is two columns? At what point does something become a pattern?

I don’t know the answers to some of these questions. What I do know is that a lot of basketball columns are race-baiting and use dog-whistle messaging to imply certain things. I don’t know if they do it intentionally or not, but it is harmful nonetheless. But onto Sharp’s piece.

My understanding of this specific piece of Sharp’s work is influenced by his larger corpus of work. I first noticed his underwhelming treatment of race in a poorly done piece on the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, where he made two observations about the race of attendees without doing any analysis. As I wrote at the time:

It is a shame that Sharp doesn’t go anywhere with this observation, because if he did he’d have a very intriguing piece. Why IS the analytics movement overwhelmingly white and male? Does it simply reflect the lack of diversity in front offices around sports, or is something else at work? Is the analytics movement somehow not inclusive to women or minorities? Is it a symptom of the larger “writing for free” problem that has been discussed at length this week? I certainly don’t have an answer, but Sharp doesn’t even have a question. He has noticed something worth exploring, but rather than saving it for another piece or investigating, he listens from the back of the room while lobbing potentially hurtful accusations.

The above paragraph touched on basically every facet of his work that I find problematic: his treatment of race, unfinished or unexplored thoughts and (lack of) engagement with his subjects. When these three problems come together in one piece, it makes for an incredibly frustrating read.

All of these issues came to a head in his recent piece on Lance Stephenson. I don’t think most people (including the black co-editor of this blog) saw anything wrong with this piece, but I did. The entire piece has the feel of Sharp visiting the zoo and seeing a wild Lance Stephenson, shouting to his friends, “Look at all the crazy things this formerly poor black man is doing! He’s crazy!” This continues with Sharp’s enthrallment at the names of Stephenson’s uncle and cousin, as well as the rappers he associates with.

There’s also the paragraph entitled “bumps in the road” where he equivocates shoving a woman down a flight of stairs with making a choking motion at LeBron James. To be fair, that’s not an issue with his treatment of race but one of basic human decency and respect for the victims of assault.

All of this to say that, before I even clicked on his piece about Kawhi Leonard, my awareness was heightened. It’s also an acknowledgement that I quite possibly read ill-intent in what in reality is simply shoddy writing and arguing. Without further adieu, a deconstruction of “The Kawhi Leonard Conundrum, and Why Life Is Unfair”.

***

Rooting for a perpetually hopeless franchise will drive you insane for a number of reasons. You know this. But you know when it gets really bad? The playoffs, when you have to watch players your team passed up dominate on another team. Actually that’s not it, either. It gets REALLY bad when you watch someone like Kawhi Leonard dominating for the Spurs and realize that this never would’ve happened if he’d landed with your team.

The premise of the article is that Kawhi Leonard is only in his second year of professional basketball, and it is incredible how good he is.

It is important to note that Sharp fails to mention that while Leonard was drafted 15th, this was a surprise to many. Chad Ford’s mock had him going eighth and his post-draft grades called Leonard the “steal of the draft”, and Kevin Pelton calculated that his best comparison was six time All-Star Joe Johnson. As a college sophomore Leonard averaged a double-double, the ninth most rebounds per game (at 6’7”), generated the second most defensive win shares and 18th most win shares overall, had a PER of 26.5 and a wingspan of 7’3”. Leonard may have fallen to 15th, but it’s not like he was a scrub in college or anything.

The Wizards passed on Leonard to draft Jan Veseley in 2010. It seemed crazy at the time and has only gotten worse as the years have passed.

If we are supposed to be surprised that Leonard’s career has turned out so good, why is it crazy that the Wizards passed on him in the first place? They had the sixth pick in the draft, and to my knowledge nobody expected Leonard to go that high.

If Leonard went to the Wizards, he’d probably turn into an über-athletic wing with limited skills who becomes indistinguishable from about 50 other wing players in the NBA.

There are numerous problems with this paragraph. First, Kawhi Leonard was a second team All-American and one of the best rebounding wings in college history! What makes Sharp think that he would only turn into a mediocre wing with that pedigree, unless of course you believe that NBA players need old white men guiding them to reach the peak of their potential, and aren’t responsible for their own development.

Secondly, Kawhi Leonard isn’t athletic (by NBA standards)! Sharp buys into the same inane race-based observations NBA GMs do when they unconsciously assume that black guys are athletic and white guys aren’t. Leonard certainly has some natural gifts, like the aforementioned wingspan and his freakish hand size, but uber-athletic?

Here’s an incomplete list of the players that that have scored higher max verts than Kawhi Leonard at the draft combine since 2000: Aaron Gray, Meyers Leonard, Darko Milicic, Scott Machado, Luke Ridnour, Enes Kanter, David Lee, DeJuan Blair (HE HAS NO FREAKING ACLs), Sam Young, Chuck Hayes, J.J. Redick, Nick Collison, Brandon Bass, Drew Gooden, Andrew Bogut, Matt Carroll, Jeremy Tyler, Ramon Sessions, Jameer Nelson, Kirk Hinrich, Nene, Emeka Okafor, Cory Joseph, Troy Murphy and Jeff Pendergraph. Leonard is 218th out of the 280 scores in DraftExpress’ database.

But agility, that’s where Leonard really shines right? No, he was 176th out of 276. Bench press? 242nd out of 265. Combine measurements aren’t the end all be all of athleticism, but those poor of scores mean something, that in no way, shape or form can Kawhi Leonard be described as “uber-athletic” unless you don’t actually research the subject of your writing and resort to positional or racial assumptions of athleticism.

And yeah, we’re using Kawhi as an example mostly because it gives us an excuse to remember his draft-night suit (look at those lapels!)

Look at that clothing those crazy black people wear! Can you believe them? They’re crazy! And black!

Does Klay Thompson become Klay Thompson if he lands with the 2011 Bobcats instead of the Warriors two picks later?

I don’t know, does he? Repeating the same name twice is not the same thing as making a compelling argument.

Does Serge Ibaka become a star if he’s a top-five pick asked to contribute immediately on a bad team?

Was Serge Ibaka a top-five pick? No. Is Serge Ibaka a star? No. Was Russell Westbrook a top-five pick? Yes. Is Russell Westbrook a star? Yes. Was Russell Westbrook asked to contribute immediately on a bad team? Yes. Are Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook on the same team? Yes. Is asking rhetorical questions an effective strategy for making an argument?

Or to take the most obvious example: Paul George, who suddenly looks like a future NBA superstar. Simmons mentioned last week that the Clippers could’ve kept their pick in ’09 and taken George over Al-Farouq Aminu in 2010, giving them a murderous core for the next decade. But let’s say they still traded the ’09 pick and just drafted Paul George over Aminu. There’s no way George develops fast enough to convince the Clippers to keep him out of the Chris Paul discussion a year later. And in that case, he probably gets traded to New Orleans (just like Aminu), which leaves us wondering … does Paul George become a budding superstar if he’s stuck on a 30-win Hornets team the past two years?

This is actually a good comparison, as George and Aminu were similar players drafted to similar teams. I’m leery of the use of “there’s no way” and “he probably” when we’re continuing a dive into unanswerable hypotheticals, but we’ll ignore that for a second.  What I do know is that Sharp once again takes agency away from players, putting the success of George’s development on the Indiana Pacers and the failure of Aminu’s on the New Orleans Hornets. Paul George, like all very good players, has become a star because of a combination of his natural talent, intelligence and his hardwork. That can overcome whatever shitty coaching he may or may not have received, as I will show a bit later.

Also, remember this paragraph when Anthony Davis (a budding superstar stuck on a 30-win Hornets team) receives his first All-Star nod.

It’s a nature-vs.-nurture question, I guess

A clever way to advance a sketchy argument while immediately giving yourself rhetorical cover.

And we’re not taking away from how great guys like Leonard and Conley were to begin with, because they all had the talent by nature.

Nary a mention of Leonard’s intelligence (which Gregg Popovich has noted) or Conley’s (which Matt Moore has noted). Nary a mention of the hard work that either of these players have put in to become great. Could it be because Sharp doesn’t believe these things are “natural” for young black athletes, but something they needed to be taught by old guys?

If you wanted to get real socioeconomic with all this, you could compare it to the way society works: Plenty of people have the skills to be massively successful, but certain rich kids have built-in advantages to protect them along the way, while people from lower-income backgrounds have a much smaller margin for error. So the ruling class stays entrenched save for a few strokes of luck where someone like 50 Cent becomes irrationally wealthy and powerful. (The Wizards’ best hope is to get shot nine times and invest in Vitaminwater. Everything is horrible.)

I already took this paragraph on in my last piece. Suffice to say, it is dumb and makes very little sense.

But anyway, that’s not the point. We’re not talking about real life.

Yes, this is the point at which you should be frustrated that you read the previous 700 words of the piece because apparently all of it was besides the point.

1. Aside from a handful of outrageous prospects who pop up every decade, most potential stars need great coaches to succeed.

Just because this is stated as a truism doesn’t mean it is true. And it isn’t. Most potential stars just need court time to succeed. In fact, most stars start out with bad coaches because they start out on bad teams because they’re drafted in the lottery, yet they somehow become stars. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (PJ Carlesimo). Steph Curry (Don Nelson/Keith Smart). Kevin Love (Randy Wittman). Marc Gasol (Marc Iavaroni). Blake Griffin (Vinny Del Negro). Tyson Chandler (Tim Floyd). Need I go on?

2. Great coaches gravitate toward great players when they choose their next team. Stan Van Gundy is not signing on to coach the Sixers this summer.

The first point purported to establish that players cannot become great without a great coach. So how can a great coach gravitate towards a great player if that player hasn’t yet played for a great coach? The incongruous logic here is just astounding, nor is the fact a fact. Great coaches tend to gravitate towards terrible teams because those are the teams with the job openings. Look at this year: 11 head coaching openings, and this year is considered an anomaly because “good” jobs like the Clippers and Nets jobs are open. I say “good” because neither of those teams made it out of the first round of the playoffs this year. With few exceptions, most coaches begin with bad teams.

3. Good management chooses the right players, but choosing the right players only gets you so far if you’re dealing with the first two problems. (I.e., someone like Chris Singleton was a great pick at no. 18 in 2010, and he would probably help a good team, but on the Wizards the past two years, he’s been more or less hopeless.)

More unknowable hypotheticals.

For all the talk about major markets in the NBA, we’re probably looking at a conference finals featuring teams from Indianapolis, San Antonio, and Memphis. The small markets can compete because even if they’re not spending Knicks or Lakers or Nets money…

I’m not sure that Sharp understands the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement. Under the new CBA spending the kind of money the Knicks, Lakers or Nets are is extremely painful both because of the repeater tax and the heavy restrictions on making moves when over the apron. Players aren’t dumped only because cheap owners don’t want to pay the tax, but because they want to retain the ability to sign-and-trade and use the full mid-level exception (see: the trade of Rudy Gay). The Knicks and Nets (and to a lesser extent the Lakers as they are scott free come 2014) really, really, really wish they hadn’t spent the type of money they already have committed. If small market teams cannot compete in the future, it won’t be because the Knicks, Nets and Lakers are allowed to spend absurd amounts of money.

…the combination of good coaching and smart management gives them serious advantages over the rest of the league.

Yes, having good coaching and smart management is better than having bad coaching and dumb management.

How does a terrible team get to that level? A lot of this is luck, which then leads to the rest of the organization getting better. Win the lottery and fall into the next superstar (Derrick Rose with Chicago, which ultimately helped the Bulls land grumpy genius Thibs), somehow stumble into a fantastic coach (Frank Vogel with Indiana, Gregg Popovich 17 years ago with San Antonio) who develops the rest of the roster, or get lucky taking a risk on borderline stars and project prospects (Z-Bo and Marc Gasol with Memphis).

To build a good team in the NBA you need luck. You also need intelligence, or maybe intelligent risks, and then hopefully everything works out? I think that’s what this is saying.

Otherwise? Teams like the Spurs and Pacers will keep turning potential stars into actual stars, while teams  the Wizards and Bobcats and Suns and Raptors remain stuck in lottery no-man’s-land, hoping they strike gold somehow. In the meantime, fans of those terrible franchises have plenty of Kawhi Leonard highlights to drive us insane.

This is an incredibly false dichotomy. There are 30 teams in the NBA, yet Sharp argues there are only two possible paths, turning potential stars into actual stars or lottery purgatory? What about, I don’t know, the other 24 teams in the league he doesn’t mention? What about teams like the Bucks, Hawks, 76ers, Warriors, Rockets, Jazz, Mavericks and Tail Blazers that don’t fit into either of these artificial categories? This is one of Skip Bayless’ favorite moves, pretending that that there are only two black and white positions on what is actually a complex subject.

In the meantime, fans of those terrible franchises have plenty of Kawhi Leonard highlights to drive us insane.

No mention that Sharp’s beloved Wizards have John Wall and Bradley Beal, and were 24-25 with an only partially recovered Wall in the lineup last year, certainly good enough to make the playoffs in the weakened East. In fact, the Wizards are one of those teams that don’t fit neatly into the “potential stars into actual stars” or “lottery purgatory” dichotomy. They fit in the “young team with some useful veterans and two potential stars who will probably be the 7th seed in the playoffs next year” bucket that is never presented.

***

Most of those examples had nothing to do with race, but I think they were important to show the utter paucity of logic and nuanced observations that went into the piece. Instead, Sharp relied upon logical fallacies and a lack of research to make his arguments for him. In doing so, some of his arguments relied on race-based stereotypes and paternalistic thinking that sought to strip Kawhi Leonard (and Paul George, Mike Conley, Jan Vesely and Al-Farouq Aminu) of all responsibility for their careers and hand it to the old, mostly white men that make up power structures in the NBA, ignoring personal traits and basic facts about the development of each of these players.

Is Sharp a racist? No, probably not. What do I know, I’ve never met the man? I have read his writing though, and this piece (among others) is lazy, poorly argued, and kinda racist. That’s harmful to basketball—let alone human—discourse, and something I feel is worth calling out as bad, at best, and racist, at worst. You judge where you think it falls on that spectrum.

About Kevin Draper

Kevin “Franklin Mieuli” Draper was born and raised in Oakland, California, and loves it more than you can possibly imagine. Follow him on Twitter @kevinmdraper
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4 Responses to Monday Media: The Kawhi Leonard Conundrum Deconstructed

  1. Devin Dignam says:

    Excellent article. I will be annoying (sorry) and only ask about something that is barely relevant: the cartoon with the newspapers mentions four people/characters. Without Googling, do you know who Vic Toews is? I’m surprised to see his name appear here (although it is certainly appropriate).

    • Kevin Draper says:

      No way. When I put the image in I Googled his name just to make sure that the reference wasn’t completely inappropriate or anything like that. Once I saw he was a Canadian politician I figured he just says dumb stuff and moved on.

  2. Scott Christensen says:

    Thanks Kevin. Good stuff. I think Kawhi Leonard is fortunate to be a Spur BECAUSE he’s unselfish, smart, a terrific defender, and plays in the flow of the game. He’s fortunate to be a Spur because he IS a Spur, through and through. He likely would’ve been a good player wherever he went, but he fits perfectly with the Spurs and their entire team philosophy, and it’s really fun to watch.
    The reason I love the Spurs and Pop is that they protect their culture and values. When Stephen Jackson put his bruised ego above the team, Pop said, “I enjoy you as a person, but you gotta go”, and now a 21 year old Leonard doesn’t have a frustrated 35 year old Jackson looking over his shoulder. And it’s not necessarily that Leonard couldn’t have handled it, it’s that he doesn’t have to worry about handling it. All nonsense and distractions are taken care of and he can just go out and ball.

  3. Scott Christensen says:

    And I should have mentioned that the Spurs should be rolling around laughing at the teams who passed on Leonard…Because they’re as fortunate to have ended up with him as he is to be playing for them…

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