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The case for Kawhi Leonard as the best basketball player alive

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The title of the best player alive can’t pass in December. It’s earned in June.

Phoenix Suns v LA Clippers Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

The MVP is cool, but Kawhi Leonard is the best player alive

Early in the fourth quarter of last Thursday’s showdown between the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo hit a three over Anthony Davis that forced Frank Vogel to call time. As the telecast went to a commercial break, Antetokounmpo pranced toward his bench, repeatedly slamming an imaginary crown atop his own head.

The gesture was powerful. In Antetokounmpo’s eyes, along with many others who watched his Bucks win, LeBron James was getting supplanted as the NBA’s official Head of State. All this is subjective, yes. It’s also presumptive. The Bucks indeed look indestructible with Antetokounmpo on the floor. He earned his first MVP last season and is on track to win another.

But when it comes to coronations in the NBA, team success in a playoff setting still matters. You can’t skip steps. This brings us to Kawhi Leonard, the most complete basketball player alive, who, on his way to the second Finals MVP of his career, pummeled Antetokounmpo’s Bucks four straight times in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

It’s not that Leonard isn’t a mainstream figure, but for most of this season it’s felt like he exists in a universe that’s three centimeters to the left of every other player. Despite being in his prime as the best player on a championship favorite, averaging 25.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 5.1 assists while making 42.4 percent of his threes over the past month (AKA since Paul George’s debut), Leonard isn’t a serious MVP candidate — Basketball-Reference’s tracker currently ranks him 10th, behind Nikola Jokic and Bam Adebayo — or someone widely accepted as the best player alive.

The checks against him in both discussions are well known. Leonard is the face of load management, a movement that treats the regular season as more of a burdensome means to an end than the inherent value proposition the NBA sees it as. April 5, 2017 was the last time Leonard played on zero days rest, and heading into Christmas Day he has appeared in seven fewer games than Antetokounmpo and played 407 fewer minutes than James Harden.

In no way should anyone doubt the health-related rationale for resting as often as he does — a long-running degenerative quadricep disorder led to his battle against knee tendinitis during last year’s postseason — but it comes with an explicit whiff of indifference towards the 82-game schedule that damages his overall standing in a complicated way. To be clear, this isn’t a call to recognize Leonard as a legitimate MVP candidate, but instead an attempt to acknowledge how moot he makes the honor feel.

His statistical resume is impressive — featuring the highest assist and usage rate of his career, along with a current fourth-place standing in real plus-minus and 538’s RAPTOR metric — but doesn’t quite stack up with Harden, Antetokounmpo, James, or even Luka Doncic. Taking it another step, Leonard’s value is undeniable on both ends, but even though his on/off net point differential is in line with those aforementioned superstars, the Los Angeles Clippers would not collapse without Leonard the same way the Rockets, Bucks, or Lakers would. Those teams were constructed around their stars. Leonard elevates a roster that already had a competitive identity before he got there.

This is instead about status and impact and how one informs the other. It’s about the bewildering Best Player in the World debate that LeBron’s perceptible albeit slight decline has allowed. It’s about deciding what actually matters, and weighing night-to-night dependable excellence beside a blatant commitment to prioritize June over January. It’s about remembering what happened six months ago and seeing an even better version of that player today, operating with a whole new set of teammates, in a different environment. It’s about respect.

I decided to write this column because for the past two years I’ve thought Leonard was the NBA’s best player, and do not understand how anyone who watched last year’s postseason can be so quick to move on from it and declare a different heir to James’ throne. Last year, Leonard led the playoffs in minutes, points, steals, offensive rebounds, free throws, and Win Shares. He was a hobbled Hercules, slaying one favored opponent after the next with the precise all-around dominance very few have ever summoned on that type of stage.

He bounced home the most meaningful non-Finals shot of my lifetime — the 39th, 40th, and 41st points of a masterful Game 7 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers — then helped curb Antetokounmpo in the final four games of the conference finals while simultaneously grinding Khris Middleton down to a nub (Milwaukee’s second all-star only averaged 13.7 points per game in that series, in large part because he had to track Leonard on the other end).

After the championship — a series in which he averaged 29 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, and two steals per game — Leonard’s free agency was ascendancy on display. He courted Paul George to Los Angeles one summer after James failed to do so, a genuinely masterful flex that can’t be overlooked.

I would not choose any other player to navigate the final five minutes of a tied game, or lead a team back from a 2-1 deficit, or, frankly, be on my roster for the next three or four years. (Leonard is 28 years old.) Basketball is a team game and this isn’t at all meant to be a diatribe about RINGZZZ. But until Leonard actually stumbles in a meaningful playoff moment, it seems silly to prefer anyone else. He’s a surgical scorer from all three levels, with a handle and playmaking chops that seem to improve every month. His defensive peak is no longer worthy of the award he’s already won twice, but reverberates with a disruptive force few can match.

Also, there is no shot a defense wants Leonard to take. He’s comfortable in every square-inch of the floor, makes those around him better, can dominate with the ball, overwhelm the opposition without it, and, like all great players, is impervious to scouting reports designed to slow him down.

A few years ago, defenders knew he’d liked to pull up on drives to his left and attack the rim on drives to his right. Even though he takes more shots that are analytically undesirable than any franchise player in 2020 should — 41.6 percent of his field-goal attempts are pull-up twos, which is a career high; only 41.4 percent of his field-goal attempts are at the rim or behind the three-point line, which is third-lowest in the league among all players who’ve logged at least 500 minutes; and he leads the NBA in contested long twos — Leonard’s approach would be more concerning if it was all he could do. Extra threes would be nice, but he’s potent from everywhere; mid-range jumpers in the regular season will transform into more taxing forays into the paint when it’s necessary for him to do so (i.e. the playoffs). Elsewhere, he’s as confident as ever.

Whether operating a pick-and-roll, isolated on the wing, or posting up on the block, Leonard is like an airplane programmed to land at specific coordinates without deviation. He thrives on autopilot, surveying the floor and computing what the most direct route to points should be. His arsenal is a bottomless reservoir of counters, pivots, and exclamation points. Leonard can dunk on your head, but would rather stop on a dime, juke you into the air, then politely send himself to the free-throw line. He’s the most balanced, disciplined, unbothered scorer in a league that’s full of them.

I understand those who look at Antetokounmpo, Harden, or James, see history being made on a nightly basis, and believe one of them is the best player alive. I also admit that siding with Leonard in spite of all the magical things they’re doing is somewhat visceral. But I also think his very existence brings to light an uncomfortable question about the regular season’s actual value.

By treating it as he does, Leonard subverts awards — the MVP race, All-NBA teams — and other historically relevant markers that tell us who/what matters. In other words, he might not be breaking the system, but he does live outside it, governed by his own rule book.

I won’t assume Leonard will lead the Clippers to their first NBA title, but it wouldn’t be right to diminish his previous accomplishments before time affords him the opportunity to try. Sometimes being the best player alive doesn’t require daily verification, and the label is too consequential to get passed from one player to the next in the middle of December. The playoffs are where crowns are snatched. Nobody knows that better than the man who currently wears the largest one.