It seems remiss to submit that Kawhi Leonard has taken his game to another level.
After all, he won Finals MVP last June while leading the Toronto Raptors to their first championship in franchise history, staking his strongest claim yet as the best player in the world. He was the summer’s most sought after free agent, and Leonard’s LA Clippers entered the regular season as title favorites. Needless to say, that’s not exactly the resumé of a player who’s primed for further growth.
But through his first four games with the Clippers, Leonard is clearly playing the best basketball of a stellar career that includes two Finals MVPs, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and is tracking straight towards the Hall of Fame. The most significant question left might not be whether he’s the NBA’s best player but whether the rest of the league has any chance at stopping Leonard from further cementing his place at the top of the game.
This turn of events shouldn’t necessarily have been surprising given Leonard’s dominant 2016-17 campaign. Fully entrenched as the San Antonio Spurs’ alpha dog, he finished third in MVP voting by establishing himself as one of the league’s best two-way wings of all time. Leonard wasn’t just a hounding defender or unstoppable scorer but occupied both roles simultaneously, seemingly reaching the final stage of his developmental track.
A mysterious quad injury ruined a highly anticipated follow-up campaign, though, and ultimately prompted his trade to the Raptors in the summer of 2018. Even last season, Leonard was hampered by lingering discomfort that caused him to play just 60 games during the regular season and led to a left knee injury in the playoffs that sapped him of burst and explosion.
But he’s fully healthy now, with a much less intensive plan for load management, and the Clippers are allowing Leonard a sense of freedom offensively he was never permitted by the Spurs. The results have been nothing short of jaw-dropping: averages of 27.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, an easy career-best 7.5 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.3 blocks in just 28.8 minutes per game.
The same player who five years ago Gregg Popovich had to beg to fully embrace his role as San Antonio’s primary scorer is now relishing the autonomy that comes with that status. And with every smooth fadeaway jumper, powerful drive to the rim, and eye-catching pass, it’s increasingly clear Leonard’s competition could be powerless to stop him.
Comparisons to Michael Jordan are never fair.
After the Chicago Bulls legend retired for the second time in 1998, the basketball world’s obsessive search for his heir apparent caused several blue-chip wing prospects to crumble under the associated pressure. Even chatter throughout last season’s playoffs that Leonard was playing like Jordan seemed overeager, with analysts and fans alike reaching for a narrative that wasn’t quite deserved.
Not anymore. Leonard isn’t only using his comically large hands to routinely mimic Jordan’s signature pump fake but playing with the poise, control, and understanding of a superstar whose mental and physical attributes have met at their peak.
Leonard turned 28 in June and is vying for his third championship as his ninth NBA season gets underway. Jordan, meanwhile, played his ninth season at age 29, winning the third of his eventual six titles. Will the increasingly clear parallels between him and the player who’s broadly considered the greatest of all time extend to Leonard raising another Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end?
It’s far too early to say so with confidence, and a hyperactive summer of player movement, combined with the inevitable reality of injuries affecting the championship picture, makes it especially foolish to read too much into early-season play. But the more you watch Leonard, the more it becomes impossible to ignore his supremacy over fellow NBA luminaries – and the unshakable feeling another championship is his for the taking.