Toronto Raptors: Leadership comes in many forms

Toronto Raptors: Leadership comes in many forms
Kawhi Leonard takes issue with Gregg Popovichs depiction of his leadership
Share Share Power Ranking Poll Week 6: The good news of the Raptors tweet share Reddit Pocket Flipboard Email Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports We here at Raptors HQ refuse to get too sucked into LeaderGate, the ongoing imbroglio involving Kawhi Leonard and his former coach Gregg Popovich (featuring a deliciously well-timed, and also completely unnecessary, jab from current Raptors coach Nick Nurse). Were trying to look forward here — and thats stressful enough.

Now, usually when someone begins a sentence with Its just funny to me there is a moment when everyone — absolutely everyone — knows that what will follow will not be funny. This applies to the person saying the sentence and also to any active listener to said sentence. In this case, this law (call it a Social Media Debate Edict) holds true. Kawhi being forced to respond to out-of-nowhere barbs from cantankerous Popovich, who himself is clearly a tad choked with regards to how he handled the situation with Leonard, is not all that funny. In fact, its sad for everyone involved. Those two, and the rest of the Spurs, went through some things together — truly great things — and now, as with every bad break up: its all bad vibes. No one thinks its funny, everyone is still a bit mad, and there is absolutely no chance that anyone involved is now laughing, actually.

Since Toronto is, lets say, the new partner in this relationship, the mood here is much happier. And of course there is a salve to be found in winning. The Raptors have been doing a lot of that lately. In fact, they just rattled off four wins this week, five in a row overall, to put their overall record back up to 17-4, good for first in the league.

In terms of leadership style, Lowry couldnt be more different from Leonard. The 32-year-old point guard is anything but shy. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, for better or for worse, and demands a lot of his teammates, like he does from himself. His way of leading isnt for everybody, but thats just who he is, and thats the point. He would be the first to tell you that a locker room made up of 12 Lowrys couldnt possibly function. The best teams employ a mix of different personalities, different perspectives and different leadership styles that complement each other.

What will the NBA Power Ranking Mafia — who for sure, to a man, think this is all very funny — have to say about this? Lets find out.

Off the court, hes been more than advertised. He has made himself available to the local media whenever hes been asked to speak. Hes answered questions thoughtfully, regardless of their validity. Hes been a true professional. Many of his new teammates have been pleasantly surprised with his personality. None of them knew him well prior to the trade and, like the rest of us, they were only familiar with the reputation. Some of it precedes him. Hes certainly not the loudest or most vocal guy in the locker room or on the court. That distinction probably goes to Kyle Lowry.

The Raptors had four games in which they were heavy favorites on the schedule this week, and they picked up four wins, making them the only undefeated team in the association in that stretch. Torontos 17-4 start is the franchises best, and the Raptors are one of only two NBA teams holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage under 50 percent (Clippers). The return of C.J. Miles only adds to Torontos incomparable depth.

“Hes not going to be as vocal as Patty Mills, its not who he is, Popovich had said back in October of 2016. Hes not Avery Johnson. He does it differently. Hes a little bit more like [Tim Duncan]. Hes going to lead by example. Hes going to stay after practice, come early to practice, practice hard while hes here. And that will probably be his major type of leadership, just like it was Timmys. But after that, hes talking to people a whole lot more and I do want him to communicate on the floor more and more all the time.

Its true the Raptors were favoured in games against Orlando (10-10), Miami (7-12), Washington (7-12), and Atlanta (4-16; woof). Its also true that this is the best start the Raptors have ever had — with a team defense as good as its ever been. (The jury remains out on how useful Miles will prove to be throughout the season.) I have nothing new to add here. On to the next entry.

Getting to play four games against the Southeast division is a great way to boost your record. The Raptors five-game winning streak has come against lesser competition, but it was still necessary after a three-game slump. You can only play who is on the schedule, and beating the teams youre expected to will not always happen. But getting those wins following a few tough losses is sometimes all you need to get your mojo going.

I lead by example, Leonard said. Coming into practice every day, just going hard and coming into these games mentally focused. You cant see things once youre playing on the floor. Guys ask me questions about their matchup or if I see something on the floor. Im telling guys, Go here. Go there. Just motivating people, do you know what I mean? Im just trying to lift peoples spirits up, thats about it. Dont try to get anybody too down, just lift them up.”

Ill add this: Ive the Raptors four losses, only one really stands out as truly disappointing. The Bucks caught fire (and we didnt get Giannis vs. Kawhi anyway), the Pelicans have some spectacularly bad matchups for the Raptors and could be a problem, and the Celtics got an amazing night from Kyrie (at home and in OT) just to eke out a win. Just that dumb Pistons game in which Toronto gave away a 19-point lead really sticks out. Winning the games youre supposed to win does indeed count for something.

Share Share Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich beefing about leadership is really awkward tweet share Reddit Pocket Flipboard Email Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports In public comments atypical of both parties, both Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and his former superstar forward Kawhi Leonard had a (sorta) war of words last week, just months after Leonard was traded by the Spurs. The focus of this argument was on Kawhis leadership, or as Pop put it, the lack thereof.

But what does the ever even-handed Dr. John Schuhmann of NBA dot com university have to add? Lets see.

Kawhi: I lead by example. I come into practice everyday and go hard. Come into these games and stay focused. You cant see things once youre playing on the floor. Guys ask me questions about their matchup or if I see something on the floor, Im telling guys, Go here, go there, just motivating people, you know what I mean? just trying to lift peoples spirits up off the floor.

The Raptors have played the leagues easiest schedule to date and their current five-game winning streak has come against teams with a cumulative record of 33-65 (.337). Things are about to get tougher, because their visit to Memphis on Tuesday begins a stretch of 12 games where 10 of the opponents are no worse than the 11-8 Pacers. With OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles both returning from injuries over the weekend, their top 10 guys are healthy. But their bench unit – Anunoby, Miles, Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright and a center – was a minus-13 in 20 minutes against the Wizards and Heat. Their two starting lineups (with Serge Ibaka or Jonas Valanciunas at the five) have been two of the leagues four best lineups (among those that have played at least 100 minutes) and theyve also been really good with VanVleet mixed in with starters.

The Raptors bizarre spirit quest within Schuhmanns NBA rankings continues. This week theyre up to the third spot (from four) after an undefeated run of four games, and still sit unopposed on top of the league standings. Theyre also, as noted, almost fully healthy (get well soon Norm). What is to come is still to come — what is… well, dang, what is is pretty good.

Kawhi: Its funny to me because I dont know if hes talking about last year or not but I guess when you stop playing, they forget how you lead. Other than that it doesnt matter. Im here with the Raptors and Im focused on this season and thats whats going on at this time.

Finally, we haul ass over to CBS Sports and Reid Forgrave, who have a thing or two to say about the Raptors fortunes so far.

This is low-key drama — like really, really low-key until you remember the parties involved — and pales in comparison to the NBAs more fiery characters. But this meant something to both, and we still dont know the full story behind their split.

And the current NBA leader in both net rating and offensive rating is … Danny Green? Getting a complementary player like Green in the Kawhi Leonard trade was a coup for the Raptors. Green is doing what he does, shooting 44 percent from three and playing elite defense.

Imagine ever believing Danny Green was just a throw in player! Who said this? Whooooo? Im hollering right now. Anyway: CBSs continued refusal to just put the Raptors ahead of the Warriors will really be put to the test this week. Lets watch this space to see how they deal with the identity schism coming their way.

As Leonard has spearheaded the Toronto Raptors rise to the leagues best record and the Spurs have struggled to reach .500, Popovich injected some spice into the divorce proceedings over the weekend.

It may have been the opposite of an uplifting moment, but Leonard showed a form of leadership during the win over Miami by displaying some unusual anger at a noncall – and earning the first regular-season technical foul of his career. “He grabbed my arm!” the 27-year-old small forward could be heard yelling at a referee, after he appeared to be hacked on a drive to the basket.

Kawhi was a great player, but he wasnt a leader or anything, Popovich told reporters in Milwaukee on Saturday, when asked about Patty Mills leadership in the absence of departed Spurs stars Leonard, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhis talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasnt his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus [Aldridge] came a long way in that regard also.

Asked about those remarks Sunday, following a home win over the Heat, Leonard said, “Its just funny to me, because I dont know if hes talking about last year or not. I guess when you stop playing, they forget how you lead, but other than that, it really doesnt matter. Im here with the Raptors, and Im focused on this season and not whats going on on the other side.”

At first glance, those remarks seem like a jab at Leonard with disrespect to his absence for all but nine games amid questions about his quadriceps injury status last season, considering he was the Finals MVP on San Antonios 2014 title run and the dominant force on a team that was poised to challenge the Golden State Warriors before his ankle injury in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals.

Leonard was eventually traded, along with Danny Green, to the Raptors for a package including DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick. It was a low-risk move for Toronto, which has reaped the rewards, getting off to a 17-4 start – the best in franchise history – with Leonard back to playing at an elite level at both ends of the court.

Popovichs comments also ring true, given that future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were the leadership council on that 2014 squad, and Leonard never finished either of the seasons following Duncans retirement. The window of opportunity for him to emerge as a leader was small. He was never a willing voice of the team in front of the camera, and Popovichs statement only served to confirm what we assumed — that Leonard wasnt the Knute Rockne type behind closed doors, either.

The two-time NBA defensive player of the year said he helps teammates by pointing out things hes seeing in games and telling them to “go here” or “go there.” He also said his leadership came in “motivating people,” telling reporters, “I just try to lift peoples spirits on the floor, dont try to let nobody get too down.”

As you might expect, given his acrimony toward the Spurs for what he reportedly believed was their mistreatment of his quad injury, Leonard didnt view Popovichs comments beyond a first glance.

“Manu and Patty were the leaders,” Popovich continued. “Kawhis talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasnt his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus [Aldridge] came a long way in that regard also.”

Its just funny to me, Leonard said in response to a question about Popovichs comments after Sundays 125-115 victory against the Miami Heat, via the Canadian Press, because I dont know if hes talking about last year or not but I guess when you stop playing they forget how you lead.

Leonard described his style as leadership by example, coming into practice every day, just going hard, offering advice and encouragement to teammates on the floor.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse came to his stars defense, saying that, while Leonard has a little bit of a reserved personality, he is a little bit more gregarious than everybody thinks. Nurse cited examples of Leonard inviting teammates to work out with him in the offseason as evidence of his leadership.

Of course, Nurse is part of the Raptors contingent trying to convince Leonard to re-sign as a free agent this coming summer, so it comes as no surprise that he had the two-time All-Stars back. Popovich no longer has to appease Leonard and can elaborate without as much risk of alienating his former star.

Maybe Popovich and Leonard have different definitions of leadership. Maybe Leonard has grown as a leader over the past six months. Or maybe Leonard just feels more comfortable in that role in an environment free from the veteran Spurs culture. Whatever the circumstances, the results speak for Leonard, whose team has three more wins than any other through the first quarter of the NBA season.

“I heard about it. Its just funny to me because, you know, I dont know if hes talking about last year or not, but I guess when you stop playing they forget how you lead,” Leonard said. “Other than that, it doesnt matter. Im here with the Raptors. My focus is on the season and not whats going on the other side.”

Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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