LeBron James-Kawhi Leonard Rivalry Evolving into Battle of Equals

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2016

SAN ANTONIO - MARCH 12: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers handles the ball against Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center on March 12, 2015 in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photos by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images)
D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images

Say you're a hoops-crazed mad scientist, and say you want to engineer the best possible answer to LeBron James.

You can imagine the attributes: length, world-class athleticism, a turbo-charged motor and a genius-level basketball IQ.

Add in some throwback cornrows and an expressionless stare, and guess what you'd have—soaring superstar Kawhi Leonard, James' nemesis in Saturday's prime-time tilt between the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs.

Initially, this matchup appeared like a gifted Goliath squaring off against a determined but less equipped David. And it's played out that way at times.

James dominated the first two matchups of the 2014 NBA Finals, averaging 30 points on 59.0 percent shooting and 8.0 rebounds to Leonard's 9.0 points on 42.9 percent shooting and 2.0 boards. In the last two contests of the 2013 Finals, James had a 32-point, 11-assist, 10-rebound triple-double and a 37-point explosion on 52.2 percent shooting (5-of-10 from deep) in the clincher.

But this is a different Leonard. He's burst through his offensive cocoon this season, simultaneously emerging as both a No. 1 scoring option and lights-out sniper. His defense remains the best in the business.

The once-sizable gap between him and James is gone. Put the 2015-16 versions side by side, and each has an argument for superiority.

In 17 career meetings—including two Finals bouts—Leonard's Spurs have enjoyed a 10-7 edge over James' squads (the Cavs and Miami Heat). For context, James has a winning career record against all but three clubs: the Spurs (17-21), Houston Rockets (11-12) and Denver Nuggets (10-13).

But Leonard's individual defensive work is a huge reasonif not the reasonwhy James' teams have struggled against the Spurs.

How the Claw Has Quieted the King
CategoryLeBron's Career AverageLeBron's Average vs. Leonard
Field-Goal Percentage49.748.5
Source: Basketball-Reference.com

James still gets his points and often outscores the lesser-utilized Leonard. But Leonard has a history of transforming the typically efficient four-time MVP into a volume shooter and turnover machine. 

Let's run down some of the rivals' most telling recent matchups.

June 11, 2013: Spurs 113, Heat 77

James has seldom done less with more than he did during Game 3 of the 2013 Finals.

For his career, he's fired off at least 20 shots 591 different times. This was his fourth-worst scoring effort while doing so, as Leonard and the Spurs held James to 15 points on 7-of-21 shooting (1-of-5 from three). James also failed to get to the charity stripe for the first time since 2009.

"The Spurs have stopped LeBron from being LeBron," CBSSports.com's Ken Berger wrote afterward. "And the unrelenting focal point of that strategy—the most important ingredient in the Spurs' recipe for beating the Heat—has been Kawhi Leonard."

Leonard, by the way, was 21 at the time and putting the final touches on his sophomore season. But the bright lights didn't bother him, and neither did the assignment.

He put up 14 points of his own on 6-of-10 shooting (2-of-3 from distance). He also corralled 12 rebounds, swiped four steals and dished out a pair of assists.

June 16, 2013: Spurs 114, Heat 104

Leonard's official enshrinement among the NBA's elite came somewhere between his 2014 Finals MVP and 2014-15 Defensive Player of the Year Award.

But the 2013 Finals served as his introduction to the casual fans.

"He was absolutely amazing," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the series, per Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News. "Nobody expected him at this young age to play the way he has through the whole playoffs. He's just beginning to feel what he has."

The Spurs ultimately lost the series and James earned MVP honors, but Leonard's dogged defense, relentless rebounding and complementary offense put him on the map.

During San Antonio's Game 5 victory, Leonard led all players (minimum two minutes of playing time) with a 75.0 field-goal percentage. He also tallied 16 points, eight boards, three steals and one assist over roughly 33 minutes.

At the other end, he held James to 25 points on 8-of-22 shooting and three turnovers. It tied for his worst shooting performance during the 22 games in which he attempted at least 22 shots that season.

March 6, 2014: Spurs 111, Heat 87

The farther one travels back into the James-vs.-Leonard history, the harder it becomes for the Spurs forward to hold his own on the box score.

In 2013-14, Leonard's third NBA season, he was averaging 9.8 shots and owned an 18.3 usage percentage. For James, his respective numbers were 17.6 and 31.0. So, despite the lopsided score, it's little surprise that LeBron won most statistical categories: 19-11 points, 8-5 rebounds, 7-0 assists.

And yet, Leonard's tremendous impact still jumped off the stat sheet. He forced James into his second-worst shooting performance of the season (6-of-18). And there was an easy parallel to draw between Leonard's five steals and James' five turnovers.

"(Leonard) was a pest," Tim Duncan said, per Spurs.com. "He stuck his hand in there, knocked some balls away, got some steals and contested shots."

June 10, 2014: Spurs 111, Heat 92

If someone erected a Kawhi Leonard museum, Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals would be its Mona Lisa.

It was the only time in his 17 tussles with James where Leonard held the individual scoring edge (29-22). James hit a blistering 64.3 percent of his shots, and Leonard incredibly won in that category too (10-of-13, 76.9 percent).

But offense took a backseat to Leonard's defensive gem.

He held James to series lows in points (22) and field-goal attempts (14) and forced him to commit seven turnovers—tied for the sixth-most in Finals history. James had more giveaways (five) than makes (three) in the second half.

"Kawhi had a really impactful game," James said, per Fred Kerber of the New York Post. "He's a really good talent, and he's a big piece of their puzzle."

Nov. 19, 2014: Spurs 92, Cavs 90

Leonard didn't have the cleanest offensive game. He managed only 12 points on 11 shots, hitting just 4-of-11 from the field and misfiring on all four of his long-range looks.

But this game saw the 6'7" swingman at his defensive, hounding best. His coverage almost tested the legal limits of harassment.

He made James work for touches and kept him from finding open shots. James put up just 15 points—his third-lowest output of the season—on 6-of-17 shooting, coughing up five turnovers. Both numbers could have been worse had Leonard manned James throughout the contest.

"Leonard held James to 3-of-11 shooting and an average field-goal attempt distance of 13 feet," ESPN Stats & Information observed. "Against all other defenders, James shot 3-of-6 with an average attempt distance of under seven feet."

Jan. 14, 2016: Spurs 99, Cavs 95

This outing wouldn't even make the cutting room floor of James' career lowlights. He cleared the 50 percent shooting mark (9-of-17), led his club in scoring (22 points) and finished with more assists (five) than turnovers (four).

But Leonard prevented James from taking over.

"Kawhi did a very good job of making him play uncomfortable," Manu Ginobili said, per the Associated Press.

During the 23 games in which James has logged at least 36 minutes this season, he's attempted more than four free throws in all but five of them. This was one of the exceptions, as Leonard edged James in free-throw makes (6-3) and attempts (6-4).

Leonard lined the rest of his stat sheet with 20 points, 10 rebounds (three more than James), five assists, two blocks and one steal. Given the wide gap in their offensive responsibilities—Leonard's 24.4 usage percentage is dwarfed by James' 31.6—an even battle between the two is a massive win for the Silver and Black.

The Evolving Playing Field

James might have the biggest profile in this tilt, but statistics see it as a toss-up.

Player efficiency rating still gives James the edge, but Leonard has the lead in ESPN.com's real plus-minus (9.15 to 8.48).

The story is changing. It's no longer a scrappy stopper pestering the King. It's two full-fledged superstars taking to the hardwood for a heavyweight prizefight.

With James perhaps falling out of his prime and Leonard surging toward his, these two may not be on equal footing for much longer. But Saturday's slugfest could be the best they've given the basketball world yet.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and current through games played Jan. 28.


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