Allow Me to Reintroduce Myself: Kawhi Leonard is back to being elite

Even if you aren’t the most analytics-adjacent NBA fan, you don’t have to be Billy Beane to understand that these are pretty mind-boggling numbers:

To put those stats in perspective: in the first three games of the Philly series, the Raptors’ offense with Kawhi Leonard on the floor hummed with similar vigor as Golden State’s death lineup. When he sat, the Raptors played like their talents were stolen by the Monstars, scoring about half-a-point per possession –– a morbid number.

This speaks to the inconsistency of his co-stars, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, and the fact their once-headlining bench mob has turned into complete dumpster fire in the postseason. But it also underscores that Leonard has gone downright supernova in the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Leonard has been averaging 34.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG, and 4.0 APG on near 60-40-90 shooting splits in the East Semis, numbers in his first nine playoff games that literally no player in NBA history had ever reached.

Leonard had become somewhat of a forgotten man after spending much of 2017-2018 incognito. This was compounded by the fact that the recently concluded regular season had him overshadowed by the rise of the Greek Freak, while the two other Eastern Conference titans had far more compelling narratives. Sure, he put up career-high numbers worthy of an All-NBA spot, but bouts of load management and his impending free agency cast a shadow on his ability as a basketball player.

Leonard’s postseason play is a not-so-gentle reminder that he is a bad, bad man. His deep offensive repertoire allows him to counter for whatever defense Brett Brown has thrown. In the half-court, his tight handle allows him to prod opposing wings with hesitations and spins, muscling in for tight-angled finishes. Leonard can also take it old-school, patiently sizing up his defender for Jordan-esque fadeaways. He has weaponized his lethal jumper for stepback treys, and can simply cram it in the rim when he gets enough lift (just ask Joel Embiid).

In other words: he can get any shot he wants against, and the helpless Sixers defense can’t do anything to contain him.

Despite being saddled with the largest offensive role he’s ever played in his career, his defense hasn’t regressed by that much. He ranks fifth in defensive win shares among players who have played at least 6 playoff games, and Ben Simmons, Leonard’s primary matchup, has been limited to just 9.4 PPG –– nearly half of his season average –– in the first five games of the series. It isn’t peak Kawhi Leonard defense though –– Jimmy Butler has shot a staggering 75% from the field in the 62 possession Leonard guarded him, per NBA.com –– but the disruptiveness of his length on passing lanes and immovability in one-on-one matchups still makes Leonard one of the best defensive players in the NBA.

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s sheer dominance and the emergence of the Bucks as the top team outside Oakland has made the smoothie connoisseur the best player in the East after the regular season. But Kawhi’s recent run has many –– myself included –– rethinking if the gap even is that clear-cut. The two are neck-in-neck for the imaginary title of best two-way player in the NBA. Antetokounmpo possesses a slight advantage as a playmaker, but Leonard is miles superior as a shooter –– essentially making him impossible to scheme against, unlike Antetokounmpo.

Kawhi Leonard’s playoff surge doesn’t seem to be a fluke, especially since he is inching towards the peak of his powers at 27 years old. If Leonard keeps this play up, maybe the discussion won’t be if he’s is the best player in the playoffs, or if he’s the top player in the Eastern Conference; Kawhi Leonard, the best player in the entire NBA, doesn’t sound as far-fetched as it seems.