Going back over what Kawhi Leonard said during his year with the Toronto Raptors is quick work. He didn’t say anything.
He did talk occasionally, which people hadn’t expected him to do. But never expansively or illustratively. His favourite gambit to a question he didn’t like was, “Like I said before …”
No one could ever figure out when he’d said it before. Maybe four years ago to a security guard in Milwaukee? Impossible to tell.
If there was a pause in conversation, he’d leave. Not say, “I’m leaving” and wait for you to get out of the way, but just start walking.
Early Saturday morning, Mr. Leonard, an NBA free agent, said he was joining the Los Angeles Clippers in a four-year, US$142-million deal. The Clippers also acquired Paul George from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a massive trade that was also initiated by Mr. Leonard. The Raptors were unable to keep Mr. Leonard in Toronto, despite the team winning the league championship last month.
Mr. Leonard never told anyone what he was thinking or planned. But he was in hindsight teaching us a great deal on one topic – the subtle art of keeping your mouth shut.
We’re beginning to get a full picture of the strings Mr. Leonard pulled in order to leverage his way home on his own terms. He recruited Mr. George to join him. But apparently not until after he’d tried recruiting Kevin Durant.
He’s not friends with either player. He just called them up and asked.
Then he expected Mr. George to go out and do the dirty work – demand a trade, thereby screwing over a team that had committed its future to him. That team, the Thunder, then screwed over the Clippers for a half-decade’s worth of draft picks.
Somebody is going to lose here in a very big way. The only sure winner is Leonard. He got exactly what he was looking for and – this is the tricky part – didn’t make any enemies while doing so.
Essentially, what Mr. Leonard pulled here was a heist. He came in, took what he wanted and left. It’s the perfect crime because no one believes a crime was committed.
How did he manage that?
By being quiet. Always. To everyone. Until the very end of the season, when you apparently couldn’t get him off the phone.
There’s a line in a David Mamet movie that gets at the wisdom of this idea. A loudmouth is spouting off at a bar. A smarter man upbraids him.
Loudmouth: “No one can hear me.”
Smarter man: “No one can hear what you don’t say.”
Every talking head in the NBA is guessing (wrongly) at what Mr. Leonard said because he didn’t say it.
If ESPN’s reporting on this is to be believed, all of the involved parties were taken unawares by Mr. Leonard’s sudden loquaciousness. But the thing that seems to have most surprised people is how cunning Mr. Leonard is.
This is what happens when you don’t talk. At best, people think you’re contented. At worst, they think you’re simple. Either is a good position from which to strike.
You aren’t taking the man’s name in vain if you point out that the manner in which Mr. Leonard handled all this was not exactly cricket. No one seems to have fully understood what he was up to, except for the people he wanted to understand. That left other teams – such as the Raptors and Lakers – trying to guess what he wanted and give it to him.
But it seems clear that Mr. Leonard’s focus all along was on going home, and preferably to the Clippers. Those are the reported words he used in a text to Raptors coach Nick Nurse: “I’m going home.”
If that was the primary consideration, Toronto never had a shot. All the assumptions we’d made – that he’d stay for a winner, or if the medical care was good enough, or if someone could find a way to tunnel from his home to the arena so that he didn’t have to go outdoors in winter – were wrong. He never disabused us of any of them.
Mr. Leonard’s brilliance wasn’t in playing it tight, but in never remotely hinting at what he was up to.
Under usual circumstances, all this conniving would make people angry. But they aren’t.
Instead, people are pleased to see Mr. Leonard pleased. Most of the coverage has focused on what he gave the country – two great months – rather than the fact that he’s just buried the Raptors under 10 feet of mediocrity. It would have been just as easy for this to go the other way.
This is the real lesson Mr. Leonard is teaching his colleagues and, if they’re smart enough to take it, all non-pro-basketball players as well.
People won’t hold against you a thing you didn’t say, as long as you make your ambivalence clear. Don’t try so hard to make strangers like you. Don’t talk out of school. If possible, never comment on the record. And if someone asks you straight out what you’re going to do, pretend you didn’t hear them.
We live in the most oversharing moment in human history. Our secrets were once between us and our God. Now they’re between us and however many followers we have on Instagram.
That’s largely seen as a good thing: Share your thoughts. Don’t hold it all in. You’ll feel better.
That may be true in therapy, but it sure isn’t in business. The less people know about what you’re planning, the less they can do to stop you.
That doesn’t prevent the average pro athlete from bullhorning his personal game plan months in advance and then either being thwarted or having to deal with a whole bunch of hassle about it. Often both.
If the athlete gets what he wants, people resent him for it and he spends the rest of his career trying to justify his choices. Exhibit A: LeBron James. Exhibit B: Anthony Davis. Exhibit C: Kyrie Irving. The alphabet is only 26 letters long so we’ll stop.
What Mr. Leonard did is no different from what Mr. Irving did – tire of the team he was on and make moves to ensure he got on one more to his liking.
The difference was that Mr. Leonard did it a lot better, left everyone happy and won’t have to answer questions about it for the next five years.
Even if he fails to win in L.A. – a distinct possibility – people will continue congratulating him on his cleverness in getting there.
So, what do we know about Mr. Leonard after spending a year in his company? That he might be the best player in the NBA, and is most certainly the smartest.