James Harden is the face of today’s game, but Kawhi Leonard is a star sent from the future.
If there was ever a picture worthy of a thousand words it would be this photo of Kawhi Leonard’s game-saving block at the end of the Spurs 112–110 win over the Rockets. In what will go down as one of the most exciting games of the season, the Spurs young prodigy kept his team in the game after the Rockets jumped out to a big halftime lead. Then, with the game on the line, Leonard made a go-ahead three and followed it up with a vicious block that we will all be talking about for a long time.
Kawhi Buries the Triple - NBA.com
Kawhi Leonard brings the ball down the court and buries the triple with under 15 seconds remaining to give the Spurs…
It’s fitting that one of the lasting images of this season will be Leonard skying above James Harden for a game-winning blocked shot. Both players are having incredible seasons: Harden is having a career-defining year and is spearheading a team that this blowing away every three-point record in existence. Last night Harden was (for the most part) unstoppable, scoring 39 points while shooting 6–9 from beyond the arc and also dolling out 12 assists. There’s simply no player in the league who has mastered his team’s offense better than Harden. His ability to perfectly play the high pick-and-roll game, and his instincts for how defenses are going to help/recover on his drives add up to the prototype of what a modern-day point guard should be.
There are years when the MVP is chosen based on which player most represents the current zeitgeist, and if that pattern holds true James Harden could very well win this season. Almost every team in the league is trying to play a little bit faster, shoot more threes and get their best players to the free-throw line as often as possible. These are all areas in which The Beard excels.
A big part of the James Harden experience is watching a true artist at drawing fouls. The way he shows the ball when he’s driving just to get suspecting defenders to reach their arms out, or the subtle ways he contorts his body on jump shots when defenders are guarding him a little too closely to draw fouls is a little bit of an acquired taste, but make no mistake it’s just as big of a part of his offense brilliance as his ability to hit threes, make great cross-c0urt passes, or finish at the rim.
The only area in which Harden is still woefully beyond all of the other MVP caliber players is in his defense. I’m not going to waste a lot of time talking about how terrible Harden can still be on defense, and in his defense, the system in which he is playing in almost ensures that Harden will not be a great defender statistically, their pace makes in incredibly hard for that to happen. Still, there are far to many moments in a game where Harden will freeze like a statue when trying to defend in the open court, or will get completely lost when having to navigate multiple screens. It seems like a player with Harden’s ability to so perfectly read a defense would be able to have a better feel for that the other team is trying to do to him on offense.
This is where you get back to last night’s game. For as brilliant as Harden was able to play offensively, in the closing moments it was the brilliance of Kawhi Leonard, both on offense and defense, then won the day. Leonard had one of the best offensive nights of his career, scoring 39 points — 17 of which in the final quarter — and came up with big defensive plays when his team needed them the most.
Any discussion of who is going to be this years MVP always seems to feature Harden, Russell Westbrook, the always relevant LeBron James, and almost pityingly people will throw Leonards name at the end. There’s a lot of “you can’t forget about this guy” when people talk about Leonard as one of the league’s best players. It’s pretty easy for Leonard to sneak up on you, unless he happens to be guarding you that is. Here’s a player who has almost robotically improved his game every year, taking on more and more of the responsibilities of a teams best player, and in his sixth season is averaging career highs in points (26.3/game), assists (3.4/game) and three pointers made (2).
Leonard came into the league with the knock on him that he would never be a great shooter, but through years of work he has become a lethal three-point shooter who, even with an increased volume (5.2 3P-shots compared with 4.0 last season), is shooting 39 percent from deep this season. He has also took a page out of Harden’s notebook and is getting to the line more than he ever has. There’s never been a case of a player who has, through seemingly sheer will and effort, evolved his game to perfectly suited with the current meta.
Kawhi is never going to maestro an offense in the same manner in which Harden, Westbrook, and James can, but the system in which he plays does not require that of him. What is required of the young franchise player is that he go out and win games by playing absolutely stifling defense on the opponents best scorer. The next evolution of NBA success is going to be which teams are best able to keep their opponents from hitting threes. Currently the Spurs have the third best 3P% defense in the league, trailing only Golden State and Boston. It’s no coincidence that three of the best teams in the league happen to be the best at defending the three point shot. Having a player who can tie-up the opposing teams best creator is key in stopping that teams success from beyond the arc.
The last six minutes of the last night’s Rockets/Spurs game was basketball bliss. Both teams were playing within their games, and the outcome was decided by great players making the correct decisions when it counted most. Leonard did not guard Harden until the final minutes, and when they finally starting playing directly against each other both made some big plays down the stretch. Leonard made life just difficult enough for the Beard that the Rockets offense, which had been running so smoothly throughout the night, suddenly seemed a little one-note. The open looks that Harden was generating throughout the night suddenly went away with Kawhi guarding him, and while James did make a three and draw a (highly questionable) three-point foul in the closing minutes, it was the defensive play of Leonard that decided the game.
It takes a little bit of abstract thinking to fully appreciate Kawhi Leonard’s game. You have to see beyond where we are at in today’s basketball thinking and imagine where all of this space-and-pace, and three point binging is heading. As much as Steph Curry looked like the future of basketball a couple of years ago, it’s Kawhi Leonard’s time now. He’s a glitch in the system, the mutation that ends up being a precursor to evolution. He shares a lot of the same traits as todays other NBA stars, but his defensive acumen is the trait that future great players will be judged by. Harden may define what makes for a great basketball player in todays game, but Leonard feels like the new ideal in basketball’s ever changing landscape, and that seems MVP worthy in my book.