The generally accepted theory is that there are six conceivable best players in the NBA; players that if someone was to claim are the best in the world you wouldn’t look to place them under psychiatric supervision. Those six players are Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, Giannis Antetokoumpo and Kawhi Leonard. Over the next few weeks I will attempt to express the argument for each player as well as some of the factors that detract from their case.
The arguments presented in this piece, are not necessarily supporting my own point of view, rather, the feasible arguments that support a player’s case to be regarded as the best player in the world. The criteria for the best in the world include but are not limited to:
- Team success
- Influence on the sport
- Individual performance
- “Eye test”
- Peak of their powers
Kawhi’s route to superstardom is completely unique. In his first four seasons in the NBA he was nothing more than an elite ‘3 and D’ guy, averaging just 12.3 points per game during this period. In 2015-16 something changed, as Tim Duncan approached retirement, the Spurs needed a new superstar and in stepped Kawhi Leonard. From the start of the 2015-16 season Kawhi has averaged 24.5 points per game, effectively doubling his offensive output prior to this and announcing himself as the most complete two-way player in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard is one of only two players to have two Defensive Player of The Year awards to go with two Finals Most Valuable Player – the other is Hakeem Olajuwon, a top 10 all-time player and widely considered the greatest defensive player ever.
The Klaw is in serious contention to steal this title. He is one of only two current players to have more steals than fouls over the course of their career. Furthermore, when a player is guarded by Kawhi they shoot 6.2% below their average, and from the arc they shoot 10.5% lower than they’re expected to. His ability on the defensive end is most apparent when you look at how other top players perform against him. During the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals Kawhi guarded Giannis Antetokounmpo for 99.8 possessions, of which the reigning MVP scored just 17 points from 20 shots and turned the ball over twice.
Offensively Kawhi Leonard has developed into one of the most potent players in the league. Over the course of the 2018-19 playoffs he announced to the entire NBA that he is no longer just the shutdown defender he once was. Whilst that perception had already started to shift during the end of his San Antonio tenure, in Toronto he made it undeniable. He leads the six best players in the league in playoff eFG% for each of their respective careers. During the aforementioned playoffs, Kawhi scored 732 total points; the second most in NBA history for a player that won the title. In that same playoffs Kawhi Leonard hit one of the most iconic shots of all time to propel Toronto into the Conference finals. His jump shot against Philadelphia is the only game 7 buzzer-beating series winner in NBA history. Two playoff rounds later Kawhi gained his second Finals MVP as he led the Raptors to the only championship in their history.
When you watch Kawhi two players come to mind. His ability in the mid-range and the understanding of the pace of the game makes the comparisons to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan inevitable. The Klaw plays the game at the exact speed he wants to and is never rushed. It appears that Kawhi is either too strong or too fast for whoever is guarding him, often it’s both. The thing that separates him from the other current superstars is the sheer level of body control he has. When he approaches the rim there is nearly nothing that can be done to stop him as he has an outstanding arsenal of moves to counter whatever is put in front of him. On defence, there is something that Leonard has which has seldom been seen in NBA history. The moment he turns up his defensive effort it is as if he’s saying to himself “I’m going to guard this guy full court, and I am going to take the ball from him every single time”. There’s a reason for that iconic clip of LeBron preparing to shoot a free throw, noticing Kawhi coming back into the game, and visibly grimacing at the prospect of having to deal with him for another 10 minutes. That was when Kawhi was in just his second season in the league, and averaging just 12 points per game. In 2020, when you combine his unique defensive talent with his destructive offensive game, he is likely every player’s most uncomfortable match up.
Over the past two years Kawhi Leonard has undergone a complete metamorphosis in the eyes of the NBA world. From quietly spectacular in San Antonio, to becoming a fully fledged mega star in Toronto and Los Angeles. In the 2019 off-season Kawhi, in his decision to play for the *other* Los Angeles team, pushed all his chips into the middle of the table and bet on himself.
Kawhi may be the least criticized player on this list, however, he is accused of having a particularly ‘easy’ road to winning his second ring in 2019. People seem to overlook the fact that on the way to the NBA Finals Kawhi led the raptors past a 60-win Milwaukee team and a 51-win Philadelphia team. In the series’ against these two teams, Kawhi faced off against 6 all-star calibre players and comfortably outplayed them in each of the series. The defensive effort on Giannis Antetokounmpo has already been discussed. In the Philadelphia series Kawhi was tasked with guarding Ben Simmons; in 36 minutes, Leonard forced Simmons into five turnovers and one blocked shot. The only way that the route to the championship could be criticized is because the Warriors were missing Kevin Durant for the entire finals series, save for ten minutes at the start of game 3. Klay Thompson, one of the top five two-way players in the current NBA, also missed the 4th quarter of the final game of the series with an ACL tear. At the moment of Klay’s injury the Raptors were within three points of the Warriors so Klay’s involvement may not have swung the series away from the Raptors. For more than five and a half games Kawhi was leading Toronto past the same core of Green, Curry, Iguadala and Thompson that went 73-9 just three seasons prior. It seems harsh to punish a player for the other team having injuries, especially when said team have a talent pool as deep as the Warriors’. In essence you can only beat who’s in front of you.
Kawhi has become the face of load management amongst NBA players. Load management has become the biggest crisis in the NBA as more and more star players choose to rest, or load manage, in preparation for the playoffs. Many fans of the NBA believe that players that load manage should be punished for it. The argument against load management is clear, some fans save money for months on end to watch one game a season and if the stars sit out the game it can feel like money is wasted. It raises the question: How many fans would live with that for a better chance of winning a championship? I know for a fact Toronto fans are elated at the 2018-19 championship and believe the load management was worth it. Throughout 2018-19 The Klaw sat out 22 games, or just over a quarter of the games, in the regular season. Of course, as we all know, Kawhi Leonard went on to have one of the most dominant playoffs in recent memory. In his case the load management was worth it. The only question you can have for Kawhi, in terms of resting more than other players, is whether this was the reason for his playoff success; if he believes the answer is yes then that should be the end of discussion.
As the reigning Finals MVP Kawhi may have stolen the throne in LeBron James’ brief playoff absence. Far from the quiet 3-and-D player he was during his formative years under Gregg Popovich’s guidance, he has blossomed into one of the most unguardable players in the league. Kawhi Leonard is now one of the only cases in league history of being both the unstoppable force and immovable object.