On 12th May 2019, Kawhi Leonard hit one of the greatest shots in NBA history. With the scores tied in Game Seven, and only seconds left on the clock, Leonard dribbled away from Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, hitting an off-balance, four-bouncing buzzer beater to send the Toronto Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Philadelphia 76ers were heartbroken. Joel Embiid was in tears.
A year on, we’re taking a lot back at that shot, its significance and a few what-ifs.
Of course, the Raptors went on to win their first NBA championship. The Golden State Warriors, crippled by injuries, suffered a second Finals loss in five years.
Perhaps most beneficial from that one shot, though, was Masai Ujiri. Already a respected executive, Ujiri rolled the dice on Leonard with the trade.
It might have gone down as a worthwhile gamble if the Raptors get knocked out by Philly, but that shot, and his subsequent performances against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks (more on them in a bit), changed it all.
The trade became a masterstroke. Ujiri’s reputation has increased almost unbreakably.
DeMar DeRozan, who felt betrayed by the organisation, shouldn’t be forgotten in all of this. Leonard’s shot opened the door for the eventual Finals victory, he was delivering in the playoffs in a way that DeRozan never did.
It must have hurt to see the Raptors reach the top of the NBA just a few months after discarding him.
Giannis Antetokounmpo was ultimately locked down by Leonard in the next round. The Bucks, after defeating all in the regular season, let a 2-0 lead slip.
Questions about the Greek Freak’s playoff performances followed. His lack of a jumper became a topic once again, and with the supermax question looming, 2019’s postseason disappointment only fed the speculation that Antetokounmpo could leave.
Maybe Leonard’s shot doesn’t go in and Toronto still go through. Maybe the Sixers go through and Antetokounmpo suffers a similar fate against Embiid and Simmons. We’re dealing in hypotheticals here, of course, but that’s the fascinating thing about a moment as seismic as that Leonard shot. It could have changed the career of one of the game’s greatest players.
Imagine a scenario where Antetokounmpo takes Leonard’s place in the Finals. Do the Bucks win a championship? Do the Warriors overcome injuries and complete a threepeat?
The Sixers have been the NBA’s resident soap opera in recent seasons. Adding Jimmy Butler into that mix was one of the more exciting plot lines, and Butler came up big for Brett Brown’s team in the 2019 playoffs.
Butler ultimately waved goodbye in the summer in a sign-and-trade with the Miami Heat that saw the Sixers land Josh Richardson. While there have been conflicting reports about the reason for Butler’s departure, and whether the Sixers wanted to pay him, a Conference Finals or NBA Finals run, or even a championship, might have changed that drastically.
There might be a circumstance where the Sixers lose to the Bucks in the Conference Finals, but player performances change Elton Brand’s approach. A series of Butler delivering, and Tobias Harris missing shots, could tweak what they prioritise.
Brand went on to bring in Al Horford, creating an ultra-big starting five. On-court fit has remained an issue. Simmons and Embiid trade rumours have swirled. A deeper playoff run in 2019 would have changed the whole feel around the franchise.
Performances against Antetokounmpo in 2019/20 suggest they could have troubled him in a potential Conference Finals matchup. Simmons and Embiid knocking out the reigning MVP would have altered the perception of what they can achieve together.
Touched on in the last section, the spotlight has been on Brown as brightly as any coach in the league. Brown wasn’t perfect in the 2019/20 playoffs, but there’s a case to be made he did as well as he could have with what he had.
Like the whole organisation, the evaluation of Brown’s position would be very different right now if the Sixers go deeper.
It looks like this will be his last season with the team. Of everyone involved, Brown could be the biggest loser from Leonard’s physics defying shot.
The Warriors were struck by injuries to their stars. They were a wounded animal by the time the Raptors sealed it in Game Six of the NBA Finals. Despite facing a box-and-one at times, Stephen Curry put up a fight and Draymond Green unlocked his best performances. DeMarcus Cousins was a handy offensive option.
Maybe the Bucks or Sixers beat those Warriors. It’s equally plausible that without Leonard and Danny Green’s Finals experience, they are unable to truly challenge the Oakland juggernaut, too.
Michael Jordan wanted a threepeat more than anything. Leonard’s Eastern Conference semi-finals shot, bizarrely, was one of the most significant moments in stopping the Warriors completing three in a row.
League gets shaken
The Los Angeles Clippers are likely still making the Paul George trade even if Leonard is knocked out in the second round. With concerns over his health and the nature of sports media, though, there would have been voices of criticism. The perception of the trade is different.
Few trades in the history of the league are as significant as Ujiri’s to bring in Leonard. It might open the door for similar deals in the future, particularly for franchises needing to freshen things up. The rewards can be spectacular. The reaction to the shot on 12th May 2019 is testament to that.