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Charles Barkley says Kawhi Leonard is the NBA's best player, and he might be right

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Unlike most stars, Kawhi Leonard doesn't need the ball to leave his mark in a game. His sterling all-around performance against Cleveland shows that.

Kawhi Leonard is a traditional superstar now that his scoring has caught up to his defense. He's a legitimate MVP candidate who would be leading the race in a world without Stephen Curry. Charles Barkley even called him "the best basketball player in the world" after the Spurs' win over the Cavaliers on Thursday.

Yet, what separates Leonard from most other stars and makes Barkley's claim not as crazy as it seems isn't his scoring. It's his ability to affect everything that goes on around him on both ends of the floor. When he's at his best, Kawhi is everywhere.

Sometimes his impact is revealed by the box score. Certainly 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, a steal and two blocks suggests Leonard made a serious impact in the Spurs' 99-95 win over the Cavaliers on Thursday.

Watching him gets those numbers, however, shows how special he really is. This sequence, for example, counts as just a steal and an assist, but it's not something anyone else can do.

In just one play, he ignores the misdirection designed to distract him, fights LeBron James for position and actually beats the powerful James to his spot in the post. Do you know how hard it is to beat James for post position? It's almost impossible. Topping it off, Leonard leads the break and finds Tony Parker in stride. It looks so easy only because Leonard is the one doing it.

The 10 boards are not surprising because Leonard is also among the best rebounding small forwards in the league. He doesn't just collect loose balls, but can actually battle the bigs for boards on the defensive end and punish any inattentive defenders for not putting a body on him, a lesson James can't seem to learn.

Sometimes, Leonard makes an impact without actually doing anything that shows in the box score. Just like Stephen Curry's mere presence changes how teams defend, Leonard's affects a team's offensive game plan. There were entire possessions on Thursday in which James would stand far beyond the three-point line with Leonard guarding him, essentially letting the teams play four-on-four.

LeBron not in frame

The Spurs will take that trade-off. James got six fewer touches than he averages while playing two more minutes, per SportVU data, and it was because Kawhi was blanketing him. Having Leonard close to the play is too big a risk, because he will steal the ball from anyone who has the audacity to dribble in his general vicinity. So, the Cavaliers decided the only way to negate his impact is to pull him as far away from the action as possible, even if it means LeBron has to do the same.

When James was involved, the Cavaliers had to get creative when it came to giving him the ball. The league has learned its lesson: you don't isolate against Leonard. Yet, even when they got him a little room through some clever action, James had to be on his toes. Kawhi is never, ever out of the play.

If LeBron has trouble losing Leonard, imagine how hard it must be for a normal player. Poor Richard Jefferson never had a chance.

#pressplay Kawhi Leonard couldn't stuff @kingjames on this play, so he had to settle for the next-best thing.

Un vídeo publicado por SB Nation NBA (@sbnationnba) el

Leonard will continue to develop as a scorer, like he has in the past few years. But what always makes him special -- and incredibly entertaining to watch -- is that he does so much when he's not scoring. Nobody else, save possibly for Curry, can affect the game as much as Leonard without having the ball in their hands.

That's why Barkley's bold claim really isn't that bold. Kawhi Leonard could score zero points and still be the best player on the floor.

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