NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

Kawhi Leonard found himself in a web of three huge defenders near the foul line in transition on Tuesday night. Ben Simmons, all 6-foot-10 of him, shadowed Leonard. The 6-foot-8 Mike Scott stood in front, with Joel Embiid flanking Scott for 7-foot-2 reinforcement. Check.

Leonard stayed calm, probing for a crease to crack open. Simmons poked the ball away, but Leonard kept his dribble alive and continued knifing his way toward the rim. With Simmons in his rear view, Leonard turned the corner around Scott, but there was Embiid ready to paw Leonard’s layup away. This would be a dead end for most players, but most players are not Kawhi Leonard. In a blink of an eye, Leonard skyrocketed to the rim and dunked one-handed over the leaping Embiid.

Rapper/singer/Raptors mascot Drake, who seconds ago prior was seated in his courtside chair, began bouncing around the sideline like a sugar-crazed child. The Toronto crowd erupted around him as Leonard casually ran back on defense. 

On the next Raptors possession, the Sixers doubled Leonard at half court as if the game depended on it. The Raptors were up 22 points in the closing seconds of the third quarter of Game 5. Leonard’s job was done, so he flipped the ball to Fred VanVleet. Perhaps to save energy for a potential closeout in Game 6.

Leonard finished with 21 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two steals and zero turnovers in a blowout Game 5 victory as the Raptors went up 3-2 in the series. For most, it’d be a career highlight. For Leonard, however, it was categorically his worst game of the series. Leonard’s scoring average tumbled to 34.6 points per game in the Eastern Conference semifinals, his shooting percentage dropping all the way to 59 percent. 

 

This was the game where Leonard reminded everyone he’s still human. But do you know the last time a player recorded that many points, that many rebounds, that many assists AND that many steals in a playoff game without turning the ball over even once? It’s been over a decade

That this qualifies as an “off night” speaks to Leonard’s transcendent play these last few weeks. For the postseason, he’s averaging 31.2 points on 57 percent shooting from the floor, 47 percent shooting from downtown (on nearly six attempts per game!) and 86 percent at the free-throw line. No one has a higher player-efficiency rating (31.9) than Leonard. On the other end of the floor, he has taken Simmons completely out of the series.

What happens when a Defensive Player of the Year can also score 30 points per game efficiently? You get comparisons to Michael Jordan. And deservedly so.

* * *

Leonard has a rightful claim to the throne of the game’s best. Let’s run through the reasons. As mentioned above, Leonard leads all players in playoff player-efficiency rating (PER) this postseason. If PER isn’t your thing, consider that the Raptors are plus-140 with Leonard on the floor and minus-40 when he’s on the bench.

His enormous impact stems from his ridiculous shot efficiency. Leonard is averaging 31.2 points this postseason and he’s posted an effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of 3-pointers) of 64.4 percent in 10 games. That’s an absurd number. In the history of the game, 177 players have averaged at least 25 points per game in a postseason, but none with Leonard’s level of efficiency, per Basketball-Reference.com.

It’s fair to point out that 10 games isn’t exactly a large sample size. Fine, let’s just look at the peak 10-game stretches for elite scorers. Some perimeter players have averaged more points and some have posted higher efficiencies. But never both at the same time like Leonard’s 31.2 points and 64.4 percent eFG%. 

LeBron James’ peak in a 10-game playoff span came in 2017 when he reached 63.7 percent eFG% while averaging 32.8 points per game. Kevin Durant’s most efficient stretch culminated at the end of the 2017 NBA Finals when he had posted a 64.6-percent mark and scored 30.6 points per game over that time.

Going back further, Kobe Bryant’s 10-game peak came in 2010 when he topped out at 57.1 percent. Jordan’s was 55.6 back in 1990. They have posted higher scoring averages than Leonard, but both needed a bunch of extra shots (and misses) to get there. Sure, this is the era of hyper-tuned efficiency, but Leonard’s current eFG% of 64.4 percent far out-paces the league average of 50.9 percent.

 

Stephen Curry has bested Leonard’s current eFG% mark before. That came back in 2017 when he registered a 66.6 percent effective field-goal percentage in his previous 10 games, but he averaged 28.9 points per game over that stretch, not quite up to Leonard’s current benchmark.

But Curry isn’t on Leonard’s level when it comes to defensive prowess, and that’s really where Leonard separates himself.

* * * 

Embiid is fighting the flu. Simmons is battling the Kawhi plague.

While the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have gone to great lengths to protect and preserve their star scorers -- Curry and James Harden, respectively -- on the defensive end, the Raptors have weaponized Leonard to stop Philly’s All-Star point guard. The results have been disastrous for the Sixers, underlined by Leonard stealing the ball from Simmons on the very first two possessions of Game 5 like a kid snatching away a toy on a playground.

After averaging 17.2 points and 4.8 free-throw attempts per game last series, Simmons’ scoring average has dropped to 9.4 points per game and he has just four free throw attempts in this series -- total. Simmons normally scores 23.2 points per 100 possessions, but against Leonard in the semifinals, that has fallen to just 13.6 points, per NBA.com tracking. Simmons has 10 assists and eight turnovers with Leonard on him. When guarded by anyone else this postseason, he has 51 assists and 19 turnovers.

If you’re slandering Simmons for vanishing against the Raptors, you’re missing the point. Leonard has extinguished just about everything Philadelphia has thrown at him -- Simmons or otherwise.

The matchup data tells the tale. In 48 possessions against Leonard, Tobias Harris has scored just seven points on 2-of-11 shooting. In 47 possessions, Jimmy Butler has just 10 points on Leonard, well below Butler’s norm. Embiid hasn’t scored a single point on the 12 possessions he’s been guarded by Leonard, going 0-for-2 from the field. Amazingly, Leonard has guarded 11 players in this series for at least one possession and 10 of them have seen their scoring rate drop. Only James Ennis’ scoring rate doesn’t have a minus attached to it. No computer is immune to a glitch every once in a while.

In an odd way, Leonard’s offensive onslaught has drowned out his elite defensive bonafides. A model of efficiency as a scorer, he is one of just seven perimeter players to ever win a Defensive Player of the Year, including Jordan, Gary Payton and Metta World Peace. Leonard and Sidney Moncrief are the only perimeter players to win the top defensive award multiple times.

 

Leonard has performed like this at the highest levels of the game, winning the 2014 Finals MVP award. The only two perimeter players have ever won a Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year?

Leonard and Jordan.

* * * 

Let’s just get this out of the way. Leonard isn’t a popular pick for the best player on the planet because he might just be too … well, boring. Everyone knows about Leonard’s Go-Go-Gadget arms and his hands that are as big as Shaq’s, but he has no signature move. He doesn’t jut out his chin when he scores. He doesn’t roar after dunks or stick out his tongue on drives. He doesn’t pound his chest and point to the sky after made 3s. If he swirled an invisible pot in celebration, we’d think he’d gone mad.

Leonard is all business. What most people don’t know is that he’s spent years honing his biomechanics to optimize lateral movement and precision. He appreciates the nerdier areas of the game.

His long-time strength coach, Randy Shelton, works with Leonard to this day, has called him The Human Avatar because of his freakish ability to cover immense ground so efficiently. He is a summer regular at P3 Peak Performance in Santa Barbara, CA., where he gets assessed on an annual basis. 

Shelton once told me, "Kawhi loves the analytics side, loves to look at everything, wants to know. That's the beauty about it."

Leonard is just more methodical in his approach. This isn’t to impune the flair shown by other elite perimeter scorers of our time. After all, that’s what makes the NBA the NBA. It’s what sells millions of Nikes and drives thousands of likes on House of Highlights. Leonard wears New Balance, and doesn’t even have a blue-checked Instagram account or a tweet since July 2015.

What’s holding Leonard back from being considered the best right now? Maybe it rubs people the wrong way that Leonard sat out in back-to-backs this season, but it’s hard to argue against that strategy now. Maybe folks would like to see a regular-season MVP next to his name first before anointing him, but plenty of people, including ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Kevin Arnovitz and some other idiot felt he deserved the 2017 hardware over Russell Westbrook.

Perhaps people aren’t convinced this is real, that this is a fluky run, but those people would be wrong. Back in 2017, Leonard was terrorizing the league before Zaza Pachulia’s sneaky foot ended his season prematurely in the Western Conference finals (landing zone!). Going against Durant in Game 1 of that series, Leonard tallied 26 points, eight rebounds and three assists before leaving the game early in the third quarter. He was an outright killer. Before Leonard limped off the floor, the score was 78-55 Spurs. With Leonard injured, the Warriors rallied back to win Game 1 and swept the series. 

 

In total that postseason, Leonard averaged 27.7 points on 52.5 percent shooting from the floor, 45.5 percent from downtown and 93.1 percent from the free-throw line. He posted a 31.5 player-efficiency rating in 12 postseason games, which was the highest PER for those playoffs, too. Again, if you’re not a fan of PER, win shares per 48 minutes agree with the conclusion that no one was better statistically in 2017. In fact, Leonard lays claim to two of the top eight postseasons ever by both measures (minimum 10 games played). 

The other names on those lists: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, LeBron, George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, and Jordan. Only Jordan and Leonard were also known as the best defender in the league at one time. 

Historically great scorer, historically great defender. Yes, Leonard, for what he is doing right now, deserves to be in the same breath as the greatest ever to play. 

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