Kawhi Leonard had a huge night in the Spurs series-clinching victory on Thursday, but does that make Leonard the league’s best player?
Until further notice, LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. There’s no refuting it. Surprisingly, however, this is a consensus among everyone in the league, except for Gregg Popovich. Following the win over the Memphis Grizzlies, the long-time Spurs coach dubbed Leonard the best player in the NBA.
“The best player in the league right now. He’s the best two-way player and does it all with such class.”
Over the course of the regular season and the playoffs, Leonard has been exceptional. In 74 games he averaged a career-best 25.5 points on 48.5 percent from the field. Leonard also registered a career-high with 3.5 assists, and he separated himself as the league’s best defensive wing, thus making him the pinnacle of two-way players, to which Pop alluded.
Those incredible numbers got better against Memphis. Leonard closed out the first round with 29 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals in Game 6, bringing his averages to 31.2, 6.0, 3.8 and 2.0, respectively. (Oh, and his PER is 37.3. I didn’t know it could even get that high.)
Leonard spent the entire season as a legitimate top-five player and even ascended to top-three toward the end. Personally, I have Leonard third. Kevin Durant sits behind LeBron, but, if you believe that Kawhi is a worthy suitor for the second spot, I have no problem with that. He has the total package regarding efficiency and two-way prowess, so that is what catapults him over Durant.
Once we start talking about him and James for the top spot, it’s clear who has the edge. I’m an unabashed James supporter, but I’m as objective as possible. I like to see great players do great things, and Leonard is one of those guys who’s capable of taking the crown as the NBA’s next best player.
LeBron’s a better scorer by volume and efficiency, but it’s close — like, really close. Either guy is capable of going for 30 on any given night, and they have such an array of scoring moves. Leonard is a better shooter from the perimeter and a vastly more reliable free throw shooter. James has a more refined post game and is almost automatic around the basket; according to Basketball Reference, LeBron converted on 78 percent of his looks inside of three feet. Leonard’s clip is 66.4.
What Kawhi lacks inside he makes for in the mid-range, and he also has the versatility to play off the ball. James needs the ball in his hands to make plays, but each has become the product of the system they’ve grown up in.
James had a better season on the glass, but, as Leonard has evolved as a player, he’s drifted away from rebounding because the Spurs don’t need him to do that as much. Let’s not forget that it was only two years ago when Leonard finished as San Antonio’s second-leading rebounder with 7.2 a night. This year, he slipped to fourth with 5.6, but there were a handful of others picking up the slack — Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dewayne Dedmon.
For the Cavaliers, it’s a bit different. The Spurs have a balanced glass-cleaning crew, but that’s because they’re an elite defensive team, and outstanding defense is capped off by grabbing the rebound. We’ve ridiculed Cleveland’s terrible defense all season long, and if Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson or James aren’t getting boards, no one is. Furthermore, it’s advantageous for the Cavaliers to let LeBron attack the glass because it starts the fastbreak and gives them the best chance to score.
Leonard buying into Pop’s system is a huge reason why the Spurs are still an elite defense. He came into the league as someone with superstar potential on that end, and he’s been causing headaches for the length of his career. Leonard’s size and athleticism allow him to guard one-through-three and play the passing lanes aggressively, and there’s no other guy in the NBA that I’m taking on defense.
Kawhi Leonard is such a monster that opposing offenses are content with freezing their best player out of plays just to keep Leonard away from the action. If you were curious to why the Spurs are statistically worse with him on the floor, you just got your answer.
There’s always the chance that someone says Popovich’s system adds to that success, and that’s true. However, Leonard’s dominance is recurring. If he came from a different team and went from atrocious to where he is now, that would be a solid argument.
James’ case on defense is far more intriguing. Cleveland couldn’t stop a runny nose this year. And that has to be placed on James. He’s their best defender because he’s still an elite athlete who can match up with any of the five positions. The advanced metrics between the two are comparable, but Leonard will likely make another All-Defensive first team and LeBron won’t. Plus, the two are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Leonard is only going to get better for the next few years; James will start to decline eventually.
So far, we’re tied up. James is the better rebounder, Leonard is the better defender, and both are equally lethal scorers, but the final category is what separates LeBron as the NBA’s top player: playmaking.
James is arguably the best passer ever. For his size, there’s no question. Contrary to his scoring numbers, he’s a pass-first player and has a feel for the game that not many have. Those who do, however, are born with it, and we’re talking guys like Magic Johnson, Chris Paul and Jason Kidd. James being 6-8, 250ish with the execution of a Hall of Fame point guard is something we’ve never seen. It’s an innate ability.
The Spurs play a style that doesn’t equate to a lot of direct assists because there’s so much movement. But, even if Leonard were given carte blanche offensively, James would remain the superior passer and playmaker. He’s got it.
It’s important to remember that Leonard is only 25-years-old. He’s not even in his prime yet, and he’s going to a terrific player in a couple of seasons. In the next five or six years, James’ best will be behind him. He’ll either be retired or close to it and the NBA will be looking for someone to occupy the throne.
There is a host of rookies and potential pros that have the chance to take that crown, but there are plenty of NBA guys who are in even better positions. Anthony Davis is one. Giannis Antetokounmpo is another. Leonard is also on that list. All three of those guys are highly-skilled with physical attributes that make them a nightmare to defend. They’re already putting up incredible numbers at such a young age, and Leonard and Giannis have tasted success.
We enjoyed watching James and Durant battle to be the league’s best player, and we’ll have another chance soon enough.
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