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Foul or no foul, Kawhi Leonard won’t change

Soccer and diving are seemingly synonymous. As a committed football supporter, I have no qualms admitting that contact is exaggerated, not because the players are pussies, but because it is advantageous to have the opposing players playing on a yellow, have possession/free-kicks in dangerous areas, etc. Since there’s only one ref (and two linesman who are more focused on offside than anything else), sometimes one has to do some gymnastics to get the refs attention. It’s not cool to dive, but I can at least see where it’s coming from: if you can’t see me, I’ll do a Cirque du Soleil performance to make sure you do.

In the NBA, there are three refs concentrated in a half court. There is no excuse for obvious calls to be missed, therefore, there is little need to flop if the refs are doing their job reasonably well, which is why flopping has never been a major issue in the NBA (one of the main reasons we saw an uptick there is due to the circle/charge rule which was formalized a few years back). Players can turn to flopping because of a sense of injustice from the officials, often feeling they need to do something extra for their grievances to be heard.  Kyle Lowry does that once in a while, but Kawhi Leonard will never do that. He wouldn’t even know how to do it if he wanted to. Leonard happens to, 1) believes that contact does not need to be exaggerated for a foul to be called, 2) being part robot, plays till the whistle, and 3) being extremely strong, can absorb contact without flinching. Unfortunately, all of this is currently working against him. Leonard gets fouled a lot and just because he doesn’t always react to being fouled, doesn’t mean he didn’t get fouled. This is a difficult concept for NBA officials to be consistent on.

Usually, superstars like LeBron, Steph, or KD (or going further back, Kobe, MJ, etc.), get the benefit of the doubt from officials on field goal attempts because they’ve have been primed to see them as scorers whose job it is to score in buckets. As great as Kawhi’s been throughout his career, he’s never had that role on a team. He’s currently averaging career-highs in minutes played (35), points (26) and field-goal attempts (19), and officials aren’t used to seeing him dominate the ball with the mandate of scoring. He was a cog in the equitable Spurs system which forced teams to pay attention to the wider structure. In Toronto, his scoring duties are far more pronounced with more possessions dedicated to Kawhi, so this version of the player is new to many, including officials.

On top of that, the stars mentioned are all vocal when they don’t get the call. They make themselves constantly visible to the refs and are media personalities as much as NBA players. Kawhi Leonard is amazing, but he is not visible. The refs will never view him in the same light as they do other stars with equal talent in the league only because he has a quiet demeanor – it’s as simple as that. I’d even contend that DeMar DeRozan, who was far more vocal, will get more calls from the zebras than Leonard on account of his body language alone. Leonard doesn’t have body language. He has a body controlled by an internal CPU which mutes any dissent and isn’t programmed to confront people in authority. So, it’s understandable when Nick Nurse comes out to make the atrocities more visible:

“It’s been going on all year. But tonight was a very severe case of a guy who was playing great, taking it to the rim and just getting absolutely held, grabbed, poked, slapped, hit, and everything, and they refused to call any of it. It’s unbelievable to me. It’s ridiculous. The guy is one of the best players in the league, and he doesn’t complain, he doesn’t do this, he doesn’t do that, and they just turn their head and go the other way. It’s been going on all year.”

So what is a highly talented but quiet superstar who plays in Toronto do to get the calls he deserves? Not much, Kawhi remains Kawhi:

“It’s been like that all year, but in this era and how the game is and the rules are today, yes, I agree with him. It’s been very physical, but I just go with the next play…I pride myself on just keep moving and keep going.”

As Nurse mentioned, this has been a trend more than a one-off occurrence, which can give way to conspiracy theories – the below is right from our comment section.

I don’t believe there is a conscious bias by the refs here because over the years, the Raptors have gotten calls. DeRozan made a living off the whistle, and so did Chris Bosh before him. The ironic part is that both had success while clearly looking for the foul in a preconceived manner, whereas Leonard’s primary intention is to score, not get fouled, except when he does get fouled, it’s not called. My view is that a lot has to do with his sheer physical strength because when you hit Kawhi, you’re the one who feels the brunt of it.

There was one year when the Raptors sent a whole tape to the NBA outlining the mistakes referees were making in their games, and though there may not need to go to that level, Nick Nurse’s public comments are well-timed to remind the NBA that there is a superstar in Toronto that requires attention.

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