Kawhi Leonard has long been in the conversation for the best two-way player in the NBA. More rarely has he been mentioned as the best player in the league.
That is starting to change a little bit, and rightfully so. I made this case two years ago, before his injury in the 2017 Western Conference finals.
My argument back then was that, by definition, every NBA player is a two-way player. Every single one plays on both ends, so a player’s impact — positive or negative — on each end really matters. As such, Kawhi being the best two-way player in the league should mean that he is the best player in the league. That would be the definitional case provided we are defining “best two-way player in the league” properly.
We haven’t been.
Again, as I noted in the prior piece, we give the moniker of two-way player largely to elite defenders who can do stuff on offense. We usually don’t give the moniker to even really good or great defenders who are elite offensive players. For example, Scottie Pippen is dubbed a two-way player (elite defense, really good offense and playmaking) but Michael Jordan (elite defense, greatest scorer ever) isn’t. Draymond Green is considered a two-way player (elite defense, really good playmaking and adequate scoring) but Kevin Durant isn’t (really good defense, incredible scorer and creator). Once you hit a certain offensive level, we stop considering you a “two-way player.”
No one can seem to break the mold and wake up NBA fans to the fact that if you’re one of the best three defenders in the league and a top-10 offensive star (or vice versa, a top-3 scorer and a top-10 defender), you should be a leading contender for best player status.
Consider what Kawhi just did through three rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs. He was the Raptors’ best offensive player in every series, and the Raptors’ best defender in every series. He stopped likely 2019 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo for four straight games to win a trip to the NBA Finals. He hit an absurd number of big shots, made a ridiculous number of big stops, grabbed critical rebounds — he did it all. He impacted every facet of the game in a positive way for the Raptors.
Durant is an incredible defender when engaged and healthy. LeBron James has moments of defensive excellence, but those are coming less frequently over time. (It’s nice that his most famous moment of all is a defensive play to remind us of what he was capable of at his peak.) Kawhi, though, is the best defender in the world when healthy. If we’re talking about the best players in the world, that superlative level is worth extra consideration.
Personally, I’d put Durant as the best player in the world, with Kawhi No. 2, LeBron No. 3, Stephen Curry No. 4, and either Giannis or James Harden next, with Anthony Davis following at No. 7. But these rankings are fluid: we could have been talking about Giannis in the way we’re talking about Kawhi had that series turned differently and it had been Antetokounmpo putting the cuffs on Leonard instead of vice versa.
In these Finals, though, Kawhi has a chance to unseat Durant, provided the latter recovers from his calf injury. While the Warriors have never beat a Spurs team with a healthy Kawhi in the playoffs, Durant has … twice. The Thunder went 2-1 in series vs. the Kawhi era Spurs, winning in 2012 (Kawhi’s rookie season) and 2016, and losing in 2014. Durant did outplay Kawhi head-to-head in that 2016 series. That San Antonio team had won 67 games in the regular season, so it’s hard to say that these Raptors are better. These Warriors are certainly better than that Thunder team. So perhaps, if Durant is healthy enough to play starting around Game 3 (a big if), the result will be similar.
But maybe not. Kawhi has never looked quite this powerful, and his impact has never been greater. Leonard is on an incredible roll, and Durant is injured enough to be missing playoff games. This might be the moment Kawhi gets more than a smattering of support for best player status.
It also might be the moment we truly understand what being a two-way player means.