Not KD, not LeBron: Kawhi Leonard is the best player on the planet
Off the court, he’s a cipher. On the court, the Raptors star does it all.
Let’s not call Kawhi Leonard “The Best Player In The Finals Because Kevin Durant Is Injured.” He’s not “The Best Player Left In The Playoffs Because Lebron James Didn’t Make It.” Nor is he “The Best Two-Way Player,” or whatever other qualification has been used to avoid confronting this new reality:
Leonard is the best player in the world. Period.
This is something different from the league MVP, which ignores the most important part of the season. Greatness can only be forged in the playoffs. The criteria for best player in the world are simple: He must be able to score when it matters most, stop other great players from scoring and elevate his team to rare postseason heights.
Great players do need the right circumstances to demonstrate their transcendence. Leonard has been playing in smaller markets, with no social media, and is coming off a yearlong injury hiatus, which left him largely forgotten in the best-player conversation. Carrying the Toronto Raptors on a surprising run to the Finals, with one bad leg, is the opportunity Leonard needed to prove he’s the best.
Leonard’s most important differentiator is that he’s relatively alone. In a Superfriends league, where one star is not considered enough to get the job done, Leonard is backpacking the whole Raptors squad. And he has risen to the occasion, with 45 points in the opening game of the Philadelphia series and a LeBron James-like seven 35-point games overall. He eliminated Philadelphia with an instant-legend buzzer-beater in Game 7. To reverse an 0-2 conference finals deficit against the Bucks, Leonard started guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo and handcuffed the probable MVP, a reminder that he’s a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
We now know that Leonard is much better than Antetokounmpo. Exhibits A, B, C and D are Games 3, 4, 5 and 6 of the Bucks series. When Antetokounmpo gets a pull-up jumper, maybe we can talk.
Leonard also is better than the iso genius James Harden, whose playoff fadeaways and indifference to playing defense bounce him from the best player conversation. Leonard probably made more consequential plays in these playoffs than Harden has in his whole career. We never got to see Leonard’s full offensive talent when he was with San Antonio because of the Spurs’ franchisewide allergy to individual glorification. Now with unconditional freedom, Leonard is killing dudes in isolation (like Harden), pounding and rocking the basketball (like Harden) before blowing past defenders or hitting step-back 3s (like Harden). Just ask Brook Lopez.
What about Stephen Curry? The Golden State rainmaker is an absolute magician and all-time great player but ineligible for top dog status because of his physical limitations. Curry often relies on picks to score; Leonard goes and gets buckets. Curry misses dunks; Leonard has posters. Curry never guards the opponent’s best player; Leonard always does. Well, maybe Leonard doesn’t guard post monsters like Joel Embiid — but the Sixers center knows better than anyone that Leonard is the man.
That leaves only two giants for Leonard to slay: KD and LeBron. This is where it gets interesting.
Durant and Leonard had very similar stats this season, about 27 points and eight rebounds per game. Both players kill from 3, murder from midrange and wreck the rim. Durant plays D and has accepted the necessary challenge of checking James in the Finals or Harden in the playoffs. Yes, Durant is a better pure shooter and scorer than Leonard, and the name of the game is putting the ball in the basket. KD is the one most often mentioned as heir to King James’ crown as the best player in the world.
That said, greatness also is defined by circumstances and choices. KD chose to play with the Warriors, which would be like Jeff Bezos investing his billions with Warren Buffett. He has done his best work while playing with the least amount of pressure. He doesn’t have to carry the full weight of leadership since the Warriors’ power structure was already established when he arrived. Sure, Durant’s numbers would probably be stratospheric if he were the first, second and third option like Leonard. Imagine KD’s buckets if he didn’t have to share shots with Curry and Klay Thompson. And there’s no dishonor in wanting to play with All-Stars. But until Durant puts a team and a city on his back like Leonard did with Toronto, Leonard has the edge.
That leaves King James.
For two players so close in ability, they couldn’t be more different. James lives on social media; Leonard has tweeted only four times in his life. James declares he’s the best player in the world, and of all time; Leonard says he only wants to be on the best team. James has a billion-dollar lifetime deal with Nike; Leonard endorses the senior citizen best-seller New Balance. James launched his own show on HBO to speak his mind. When Leonard was asked after Game 5 against the Bucks about Toronto’s mentality with a chance to make the Finals, he said, “I haven’t even got in the locker room yet, we just finished the game.”
James also has an off-the-court narrative: the quest for status as the greatest of all time and his pursuit of Michael Jordan’s legacy. The greats always have backstories that build them up in the public imagination. Leonard has … big hands. We know almost nothing about his life, which contributes to him being overlooked.
These contrasts affect the calculations of which player you would choose, right now, to build an NBA franchise around. The effect of James’ aura on his team has at times been suffocating (check with Kyrie Irving) or distracting (the Los Angeles Lakers). Some premier free agents may be reluctant to play in James’ considerable shadow. Not so with Leonard, who basically has no shadow, brand or image.
James is 34 and still incredible, but his best years are almost certainly behind him. Leonard is 27 and ascendant. James hasn’t consistently guarded the other team’s best player for a few seasons now. He just suffered one of the most serious injuries of his career. The man who single-handedly took Cleveland to the 2007 Finals has gray in his beard. James is no longer capable of the solo act Leonard is performing in Toronto.
James and Leonard met twice in the Finals. James’ Miami Heat won in 2013, in seven games, and he took home Finals MVP. In Game 6 of that series, with 19 seconds left and the Spurs about to secure a championship, Leonard missed a free throw that opened the door for Ray Allen’s classic last-second 3-pointer. The Heat won in overtime and secured the title in Game 7.
The following season, the Spurs redeemed themselves by crushing Miami. Leonard was Finals MVP. As the primary defender on James, Leonard held him to 34% shooting from the field and 20% on contested shots. He reduced James’ catches, drives and shot attempts. Miami never got traction in the series and lost in five games.
That matchup was largely forgotten as James returned to Cleveland and began an epic series of championship battles with Golden State. The Spurs retooled after the retirement of Tim Duncan and handed the reins to Leonard. In 2017, Leonard was destroying playoff competition when an ankle injury ended his season. A quadriceps injury the next season ruined his relationship with the Spurs and set in motion the trade to Toronto.
Leonard was 22 during the 2014 Finals, lacking the seasoning that players such as Jordan, Kobe Bryant and James needed to become the best in the world. Now Leonard is back like he never left. It will be hard to measure him against a hobbled Durant in the Finals — if KD plays at all. Will Leonard wear down under the relentless defense of Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green? Can he come close to averaging a Finals triple-double against the Warriors like James did in 2017?
If anyone can, it’s the best player on the planet.