Once you label me, you negate me.
– Søren Kierkegaard
How does one take two defensive dynamos, both of whom are dynamic and game-changing, and label one as the best? How do you say one is better without writing off something about the other? Many NBA fans and former players have referred to Kawhi Leonard as one of the top 5 players in the league, fitting considering he finished 2nd in MVP voting this season. On the other hand, one could argue that he is not even in top 3 in his own position. How can the runner-up of the NBA MVP award not be the best player in his own position? LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Paul George all put up better raw offensive numbers this season.
Paul George scores more, but does so less efficiently. Granted, his team had a far inferior record – but their talent was also inferior to this year’s historic 67 win Spurs. Further, George was more effective in terms of raw numbers, but in terms of efficiency, Kawhi really makes his case:
Kawhi raised his scoring average by nearly five points from last season, and improved his 3-point percentage by an unreal 10 percent. Leonard and Stephen Curry were the only two players this season to score at least 20 points per game, shoot higher than 50 percent from the field, shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point land, and shoot at least 80 percent from the free throw line.
However, Kawhi’s percentages could easily be the result of a better supporting cast – Paul George is only assisted on 30.3% of his shots two-point attempts, as he was the primary offensive creator for the Pacers last season. Meanwhile, Leonard was assisted on 52.6 percent of his two-point field goal attempts.
Based on offensive versatility and the ability to take over games, Kawhi might only be the 3rd or 4th best SF in the league, which raises the question: why was he 2nd in MVP voting? NBA Hall of Famer, Charles Barkley claims, “Kawhi Leonard is the best basketball player in the world,” a bold statement about a player who has only been in the league for 5 seasons and just averaged 20 PPG for the first time in his career this season.
For a player like James Harden, who is in many ways the opposite of Leonard in terms of his offensive and defensive proficiencies: Harden is ridiculed by Barkley, and did not even make an All-NBA team this year despite superior statistical output in nearly every category. Is this part of a backlash against offensive super-stars? Or perhaps he was punished by voters for his teams’ shortcomings?
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard both had the best seasons of their respective careers last year, but Paul George has consistently been the superior player season after season since the two players have been in the league. This last season was the first time the comparison became close. That being said, Kawhi Leonard played on a vastly superior team, which could explain why he is more recognized throughout league for his efforts – which, sadly, might also be the case with other star players i.e. James Harden.
Obviously, the better team doesn’t always correlate to the better individual player. Paul George was almost able to drag his team to a playoff upset against a 2nd seed, while Kawhi was unable to be the spark the Spurs needed to best the Thunder’s phenomenal duo. In the post-season, teams turn to their star players to create offense when the game grinds to a halt: in this situation, Paul George, an undeniably better shot creator than Kawhi, shined. The Spurs are more fundamentally sound and team oriented, so Leonard is tasked with creating his own offense less often. In contrast, Paul George was the backbone of the Pacers on both sides of the ball, so he was forced to take more difficult shots.
Paul George is a 3 time All-Star, 3 time All- NBA third team, and first team all defensive player; Kawhi is an NBA champion, finals MVP, 1 time All- Star, and 2 time Defensive Player of the Year. Both are comparatively similar – the better player is the player whose impact is more significant on both sides of the ball. With that in mind, Paul George is a cut above Kawhi Leonard: he’s more versatile offensively and sets up his teammates in better situations to score.
Both players are well deserving of the accolades and accomplishments they have received and will receive in their careers; only time will tell which can separate themselves as the best two-way forward in the league. Certainly, both are capable of shattering labels and changing perceptions.