June 17, 2019

Kawhi Leonard and every playoffs MVP

Kawhi Leonard has been called a cyborg, because of his supernatural two-way excellent and mechanical laugh. Except he’s not. Leonard is a dynasty-stopping, two-time NBA Finals MVP cyborg with the highest winning percentage in NBA history.

Leonard four-bounced a game-winning shot in Game 7 of the Eastern conference semifinals, guarded the freakish Giannis Antetokounmpo in the conference finals and snuffed out a possible three-peat by the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals on Thursday night, leading the Toronto Raptors to their first championship in franchise history.

Just a couple weeks short of his 28th birthday, there is a mythical aura surrounding Leonard. He scores and stops his opponents from scoring in a Michael Jordan kind of way, only with none of the panache. He is both guarded and unguardable, an immortal warrior from another century, winning championships past and present in a Highlander kind of way. He is the third player to win a Finals MVP award with two different teams, the first to do it in both conferences, the first in two countries. There can be only one.

While the “best player” debate was an Antetokounmpo vs. James Harden matchup during the regular season and Kevin Durant’s reputation seemed to grow the more he didn’t play, the more the talking heads talked about his impending free agency, the unanimity now rests with Leonard, the Bill Russell trophy in his large alien hands.

But Leonard wasn’t just the Finals MVP. He was also the “playoffs MVP,” which sounds less prestigious but includes a larger sample size — excellence over one-fourth of a season instead of four to seven games. It is also a worthy placeholder in the “best player” debate. (Leonard played 24 postseason games or about the same number that he missed during the regular season. That strategic rest, coupled with playoff injuries to Golden State’s Durant and Klay Thompson, makes a strong case for “load management.”)

Leonard was first in playoff win shares — a quick way of determining the “playoffs MVP” — with 4.9, easily ahead of second-place Stephen Curry (3.3). That’s the sixth-best total of all time, behind Tim Duncan (2003), Dirk Nowitzki (2006, when he lost in the Finals) and three playoff runs by LeBron James. Using win shares as a guide, this postseason’s All-Star team would be Leonard, Curry, Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (3.0) and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry (2.8) and Pascal Siakam (2.4).

Here are the playoff win shares leaders since 1969, when the NBA Finals MVP award began. The winners are in bold, with my “playoffs MVP” selections highlighted — when they differ from the official selections:

1969 | Jerry West, 4.3

1970 | Jerry West, 3.2; Walt Frazier, 2.8; Willis Reed, 2.6

1971 | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 3.3

1972 | Walt Frazier, 3.3; Wilt Chamberlain, 3.0

1973 | Walt Frazier, 3.0; Wilt Chamberlain, 2.7; Willis Reed, 1.0 (14th)

1974 | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 4.7; John Havlicek, 3.5

1975 | Rick Barry, 3.1

1976 | Dave Cowens, 2.7; Paul Silas, 2.3; Jo Jo White, 2.1

1977 | Julius Erving, 3.4; Bill Walton, 2.5 (fifth)

1978 | Elvin Hayes, 3.1; Wes Unseld, 2.0 (fifth)

1979 | Gus Williams, 2.7; Bob Dandridge, 2.5; Dennis Johnson, 2.2 (fourth)

1969-1979 | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 17.8

2. Walt Frazier, 15.8
3. Wes Unseld, 12.6
4. John Havlicek, 12.3
5. Wilt Chamberlain, 12.1

Willis Reed owes Walt Frazier two trophies.

1980 | Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 3.3; Magic Johnson, 2.8

1981 | Moses Malone, 3.5; Larry Bird, 3.1; Cedric Maxwell, 2.5

1982 | Julius Erving, 3.0; Magic Johnson, 2.7

1983 | Moses Malone, 2.8

1984 | Larry Bird, 4.7

1985 | Magic Johnson, 3.0; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 2.5 (fifth)

1986 | Larry Bird, 4.2

1987 | Magic Johnson, 3.7

1988 | Magic Johnson, 4.0; Kevin McHale, 3.3; James Worthy, 2.8 (fifth)

1989 | Michael Jordan, 4.0; Magic Johnson, 2.2; Joe Dumars, 2.2 (fourth)

1980-1989 | Magic Johnson, 27.1

2. Larry Bird, 23.6
3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 17.7
4. Kevin McHale, 17.2
5. James Worthy, 13.5

Magic Johnson should have five playoff MVPs. Larry Bird should have three.

1990 | Michael Jordan, 4.0; Isiah Thomas, 3.1

1991 | Michael Jordan, 4.8

1992 | Michael Jordan, 4.1

1993 | Charles Barkley, 4.6; Michael Jordan, 4.4

1994 | Hakeem Olajuwon, 4.3

1995 | Clyde Drexler, 3.0; Shaquille O’Neal, 3.0; Hakeem Olajuwon, 2.8

1996 | Michael Jordan, 4.7

1997 | Michael Jordan, 3.9

1998 | Michael Jordan, 4.8

1999 | Tim Duncan, 3.7

1990-1999 | Michael Jordan, 32.0

2. Scottie Pippen, 20.2
3. Karl Malone, 17.9
4. Horace Grant, 15.9
11. Reggie Miller, 12.0

Michael Jordan was the best player in the playoffs eight times in 10 years.

2000 | Shaquille O’Neal, 4.7

2001 | Kobe Bryant, 3.8; Dikembe Mutombo, 3.8; Shaquille O’Neal, 3.7

2002 | Shaquille O’Neal, 3.8

2003 | Tim Duncan, 5.9

2004 | Shaquille O’Neal, 3.9; Chauncey Billups, 3.7

2005 | Chauncey Billups, 4.6; Manu Ginobili, 4.2; Tim Duncan, 3.5

2006 | Dirk Nowitzki, 5.4; Dwyane Wade, 4.8

2007 | LeBron James, 3.7; Tim Duncan, 3.3; Tony Parker, 1.6 (14th)

2008 | Kevin Garnett, 4.1; Ray Allen, 3.1 (third); Paul Pierce, 3.0 (fourth)

2009 | LeBron James, 4.8; Kobe Bryant, 4.7; Dwight Howard, 4.5

2000-2009 | Tim Duncan, 23.0

2. Kobe Bryant, 21.7
3. Shaquille O’Neal, 21.2
4. Chauncey Billups, 20.3
16. Robert Horry, 9.8

Tony Parker is the worst MVP selection of all time.

2010 | Pau Gasol, 4.3; Kobe Bryant, 3.6

2011 | LeBron James, 3.8; Dwyane Wade, 3.7; Dirk Nowitzki, 3.6

2012 | LeBron James, 5.8; Kevin Durant, 4.0

2013 | LeBron James, 5.2

2014 | LeBron James, 4.3; Tim Duncan, 3.2; Kawhi Leonard, 2.9

2015 | Stephen Curry, 3.9; LeBron James, 3.0; Andre Iguodala, 2.2 (seventh)

2016 | LeBron James, 4.7

2017 | LeBron James, 4.3; Stephen Curry, 3.4; Kevin Durant, 3.1

2018 | LeBron James, 5.2; Kevin Durant, 4.0

2019 | Kawhi Leonard, 4.9

2010-2019 | Tim Duncan, 38.6

2. Kevin Durant, 23.1
3. Kawhi Leonard, 17.6
4. Stephen Curry, 17.1
5. James Harden, 14.4

The constant criticism of Stephen Curry is getting tiresome.

January 7, 2019

Zen and the Art of Mark Harmon

If Mark Harmon did not exist, man would have to invent him — out of necessity or desire for someone so good and true that he seems too good to be true.

Harmon has played many roles on television and in life. Quarterback at UCLA. Dr. Bobby Caldwell on St. Elsewhere. Special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs on NCIS. And one that is more obscure: the greatest athlete in the history of Battle of the Network Stars.

But make no mistake. Every part of this story — from the obstacle course to the Tug of War to the time he saved a young man’s life by pulling him from a burning automobile — is true. That’s the way Thomas Mark Harmon would want it.

Like some sort of half-athlete, half-actor mythological creature, Harmon was born in Burbank, Calif., the son of Heisman Trophy winner Tom Harmon and Vogue model and B-movie actress Elyse Knox. Which meant he was perfectly cast in Battle of the Network Stars (1976-1985, 1989), a biannual made-for-television special in which stars from the three broadcast networks competed in various sporting events.

Harmon was not allowed to play quarterback in the 3-on-3 football event, because that’s the position he played at UCLA, where he led the Bruins to an upset of No. 1 Nebraska in his first game.

Instead he did everything else. In four Battles over four years, Harmon won the obstacle course four times, the running relay three times, the swimming relay twice and the kayak and tandem bike relays, and he was the lead man in two Tug of War victories.

Harmon’s finest Battle might have been Battle XI, back when he played Fielding Carlyle on Flamingo Road, helping his team win five events, including the an epic Tug of War in a record 12:53. Or maybe the following spring, when he broke the obstacle course record in 17.50 seconds. But it was probably Battle XVII in December 1984, when he led NBC to six wins — including an interception in the football game — and dunked future love interest Heather Locklear twice in the baseball dunk.

As Battle of the Network Stars ended, Harmon’s run as the most reliable television actor of the past three decades was just beginning. He closed his three-season stint on St. Elsewhere by playing the first television character with AIDS, then played an astronaut in four episodes of Moonlighting (1987), a police detective in Reasonable Doubts (1991-93), a private detective in Charlie Grace (1995-96), a doctor again in Chicago Hope (1996-2000) and a secret service agent in The West Wing (2002) for which he received an Emmy nomination. Since 2003, he has played Leroy Jethro Gibbs in NCIS, television’s highest-rated drama for nearly a decade.

But that’s the resume of a mythological creature. Not the measure of a man.

It was said of James Bond: Women want to be with him. Men want to be him.

James Bond couldn’t carry Mark Harmon’s luggage.

Women want to be with him because he was the Sexiest Man Alive and he has been married to the same woman for 30 years. Men want to be him because he restored a 1972 Vintage Airstream and found the rugged poetry in Coors beer in the 1980s.

Mark Harmon makes the Most Interesting Man in the World seem banal.

He was accepted to law school but became a carpenter instead.

He used to run 60 miles a week and now does Pilates.

He knows sign language. He plays guitar.

But this is the showstopper. On Jan. 4, 1996, a car crashed into a tree, flipped over and burst into flames next door to Harmon’s home in Los Angeles. Harmon broke the passenger window with a sledgehammer and pulled Colin Specht, then 16, to safety. The driver escaped on his own.

“I won’t take credit for it,” he told CBS in 2013. “Because if the card explodes and I’m there next to the car, then you’re talking about two young boys who don’t have a father. And you’d be doing this interview with my wife and talking about how stupid it was.”

That’s the essence of Mark Harmon. In the Tug of War, on television’s highest-rated drama, when saving someone’s life, he does the heavy lifting but won’t take any credit.

On NCIS, Harmon’s character has these rules, pieces of advice he dispenses to those around him, a code by which he lives. He keeps them at home in a small tin.

Rule 11: When the job is done, walk away.
— Kevin Brewer