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Kawhi Leonard’s case as the best basketball player in the world

Every basketball player is a two-way player. Therefore, the best two-way player is the best player.

The concept of the two-way player in basketball is a little weird because every player is a two-way player. Unlike in football where you have separate players on the field for offense and defense, everyone in basketball plays on both ends, much like hockey and soccer. (A minor exception is made in those sports for the keepers.)

Certainly, basketball players have varying levels of responsibility, skill, and expectations on offense and defense. There are defense-first wings who you would not expect to shoot much and there are high-usage scoring mavens you would not ask to guard the opposing team’s best weapon. For those who do both, we have that odd little moniker: two-way player.

Traditionally, we’ve given the title of two-way player to elite defenders who are also good scorers or creators. Scottie Pippen used to get the tag and Ron Artest was a common answer in the previous decade. More recently, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have taken the mantle.

With the exception of Thompson, whose presence in the conversation was driven somewhat by the desires of his agent, you usually don’t hear elite scorers who are also good defenders called two-way players. John Wall, for instance, is best known as an offensive weapon. He defends quite well. Few include him in the two-way player conversation. After all, he’s no Kawhi Leonard.

Last week, Gregg Popovich declared Leonard the best basketball player in the world. LeBron James has been the popular choice for that designation since 2007, though Kevin Durant certainly would have been close to a plurality of the vote in 2011 and again in 2014. Stephen Curry might have overtaken LeBron for a few minutes this time last year. But otherwise, it’s been LeBron since he carried an overmatched Cavaliers roster to the NBA Finals in 2007.

If Kawhi has a case against LeBron and the other contenders, it’s because he is a so-called two-way player. (The other contenders consisting of Durant, two-time reigning MVP Curry, James Harden, and presumptive MVP Russell Westbrook.)

Durant is also a two-way player, though no one calls him that. KD has been the Warriors’ best rim protector this season, erasing whatever concerns Golden State had about lacking a true center in most critical lineups. LeBron would be considered a two-way player if the Cavaliers didn’t have a bottom-10 defense this season and if he also weren’t the greatest playmaker of his generation.

Curry, Harden, and Westbrook are capable defenders, though less is asked of them. There are not defenders at the level of Kawhi, Durant, or LeBron in any sense, and would not be if they were asked to fill that role.

But again, all basketball players are technically two-way players. As such, the best two-way player in basketball is by default the best basketball player in the world. Both sides of the ball matter equally on the scoreboard. A point scored is equally as valuable as a point prevented.

There is a real argument that individual offense is more important than individual defense because of the role of the team on both ends. One elite creator can make a bigger difference than one elite defender on any given possession. But is that difference huge? Probably not.

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If you disagree, I turn your attention to the devastating defense Kawhi played on Harden in Wednesday’s Game 2. By my count, Harden — one of the most efficient scorers ever this season — went 1 of 8 from the floor when Leonard defended him.

In any era when individual playmakers are taking on historically large role in offenses, those shutdown defenders take on increased importance. In sussing out who is the best basketball player alive, that matters.

Kawhi is one of the two best defenders alive. He and Draymond Green have been locked in this battle for three years now. Leonard has claimed two Defensive Player of the Year trophies and the public consensus. Green will likely win DPOY this season and has gained considerable ground in the debate. But these are really the only two options for the title, with no offense to Rudy Gobert.

Are any of the other candidates for best player alive in the top 10 in the world in defense? LeBron has a case if we consider only the playoffs. (There’s an argument that in this stage of his career, we should only pay attention to the playoffs to judge who Actual LeBron is.)

Durant has a case: He would have been a popular second-team All-Defense forward choice if not for a late-season injury that cost a bunch of games. Those spots will likely go to Andre Roberson and Jimmy Butler. Harden, Curry, and Westbrook are nowhere near the top 10 on defense. Curry might be the only one of the three in the top 150.

All six contenders would be considered among the best 10 offensive players in the world. Kawhi remains highly underrated on that end and he continues to increase his high usage level while maintaining elite efficiency. He’s even rounded out the weakest portion of his game — playmaking — though he’s still substantially behind the other contenders (excluding Durant, who is only a marginally better passer than Leonard).

This is the case for Kawhi as the best player in basketball: He is no worse than the second-best defender in the world and among the very best offensive players in the world. If you call Kawhi the best two-way player in the world, you are calling him the best player in the world. The two-way moniker is meaningless in a sport where everyone plays on both ends.

If you count LeBron and Durant as elite defenders (a fair assessment), Kawhi’s title is not settled. LeBron has the advantage of incumbency and (near-)universal affection; we are all loathe to prematurely mark the end of his reign. Durant will find little support given his unpopular decision to join the Warriors and his untimely injury (which prevented a large-scale reckoning of his incredible two-year return after foot surgery).

But because basketball is a two-way sport, you have to consider both sides of the court when declaring your pick for the game’s best player. For that reason, these three are the only options, and Kawhi is an increasingly attractive pick.