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Do the Celtics need Kawhi Leonard to win the NBA Finals?

Somehow there are plenty of pros and cons to adding one of the three best players in the NBA not long ago. But fit, price and his extended time off from basketball cloud the value of Kawhi to Boston.

NBA: Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine a team having the opportunity to acquire LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard and subsequently turning its nose to arguably two of the best three basketball players on the planet—essentially saying that the team was fine without them.

On the surface, the ongoing debate as to whether the Celts could actually use a player of Leonard’s caliber appears delusional. Who wouldn’t want to add an all-world player like James or Leonard?

But does Boston need to shake up a roster that’s ready to run it back? It boils down to whether or not this group is capable of downing the Warriors, and Kevin Durant’s unparalleled skills for his size still figures to be an X-factor. Even if Kevin Durant isn’t getting the majority of the credit for his team’s success from Golden State and NBA fans, his two straight Finals MVP awards are evidence of his immense value to the back-to-back champs.

With the news that James has opted out of his contract, James’s uncertain future with the Cavaliers and possible new beginning with the Lakers open a window of opportunity that could allow the Celtics to burst to the top of a James-less East. Still, the Warriors reign supreme on a league scale.

Regardless of what James, the Cavs, and the Lakers do, defeating Golden State is the ultimate target for Boston, and the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward paired with the continued progression of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are all geared toward toppling the defending champs. Three players in the Cs starting lineup (Irving, Hayward, and Al Horford) provide a chance to contend now, while the other two (Tatum and Brown) assist and project to keep Brad Stevens’s group competitive years into the future.

The abundance of existing talent on Boston’s roster gives them an above-average chance of competing for a title without substituting some of those players for a player like Leonard. For a team with so much to give, could the asking price once again be too substantial for Danny Ainge to warrant pursuing him?

The tradeoff likely centers around how much improvement they’d gain from swapping Leonard for Brown, versus Brown’s long-term growth potential. ESPN’s Zach Lowe broke down the risk of usurping Brown’s potential to become the next Leonard. In Leonard’s third season (the same stage of his career that Brown is now entering), he became a Finals MVP and eventually progressed into an elite three-point shooter and capable pick-and-roll ball handler even beyond San Antonio’s wildest imagination. As Lowe pointed out, key differences still remain:

“Brown is not Leonard now, and might never be. Skeptics wonder if his 3-point shooting uptick will sustain. Kevin Pelton’s SCHOENE scores peg Leonard and Brown as only mildly similar through two seasons. Leonard in 2012-13 was already swiping steals at alarming rates, snaring more rebounds than Brown, and posting better advanced numbers. He is more physically imposing, enveloping victims with a crazy 7-3 wingspan (compared to seven-feet flat for Brown).”

With Tatum clearly off the negotiating table under any circumstances, that leaves Terry Rozier, Marcus Morris, a handful of lower rotation players, and protected Kings, Grizzlies and Clippers picks at Ainge’s disposal to work a deal. Reports still state that Brown is out of negotiations at the moment too. It would be hard enough matching Leonard’s salary with those chips, never mind wooing San Antonio against other offers.

Leonard’s salary is only for one more season, and the rumors that Leonard may leave whatever team he joins this year for Los Angeles next year raises concerns of foregoing two years of Brown’s rookie contract for a player that could bounce after one year. That’s where the Brown-Leonard debate hits its peak: multiple years of a player who merely approaches Leonard’s greatness could supersede the value of the big fish for one year.

Then there’s the prospect of a true shot at an immediate championship. With Kyrie Irving, Terry Rozier and Al Horford all potentially hitting the open market next year along with Leonard, and with Marcus Smart’s long-term status as a Celtics still uncertain, the mountain Boston has built could already be crumbling.

Contention as perpetual as Golden State’s is rare, so cashing in on a championship window immediately is key to maintaining interest. To paraphrase many, it’s why you play the game.

No title is guaranteed, but stockpiling as much talent as possible helps. The inevitability of the Warriors almost faltered in 2018, but the one-two MVP punch of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant still prevailed. While the sample is small, Durant shot 53 percent with 22 points per game across three matchups with Brown’s teams. Not Durant’s best work, yet with opponents’ margin for error so small against Golden State, that production from Durant coupled with almost everything else going right for Boston could still land the Warriors a title in seven games.

Leonard, on the other hand, has had strong defensive performances against Durant in twelve matchups. Splitting the twelve contests, these Warriors/Thunder and Spurs matchups were so contested that Durant’s regularly prolific shooting splits slipped to 47 percent from the floor and 29 percent from three. In their two regular season matchups in the Golden State era, Durant shot under 50 percent.

Even if Leonard isn’t quite a Durant neutralizer, it’s still worth bringing a defensive force some have compared to Scottie Pippen into a battle as the best bet in slowing him. But caution must still be exercised in acquiring a player who hasn’t appeared in regular NBA action since Zaza Pachulia knocked him out of the playoffs on May 14, 2017.

Major injury or interpersonal conflict (likely a mix of both) kept Leonard out of nearly an entire season in 2017-18. The impacts and fallout of those hurdles, combined with a player apparently intent on playing outside of San Antonio, could water down Leonard’s overall impact.

Leonard’s numbers on the stat sheet may indicate a near-guaranteed championship for contending teams, but the variables that made Celtics fans shoot down the idea of James playing in green exist here too. There were no health concerns or workplace conflicts surrounding James, but rather a whole experience that could negatively impact the players and organization around him.

Extra baggage and longterm uncertainty inherently come with adding NBA stars now, and the Celts have to weigh who they could become as currently constructed against who they could become with Kawhi Leonard and the championship pedigree he brings. Banner 18 is on the line.

Fortunately for Boston, the solid core they have in place allows them to mull running it back and letting some of the best talent in the world pass them by.

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