Who Ya Got on the Wing, Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant?
Choosing between Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard used to be easy.
It was a simple question of offense versus defense. Figure out which side of the floor meant more to you, pick the guy who crushed it on his specialized end, and you were done.
Everything's more complicated now. Leonard added first-option volume and superstar scoring efficiency to his dominant perimeter D, and Durant, in addition to being a historically potent scorer, now defends the rim like a center.
We all know LeBron James remains the top dog on the wing (or whatever position he happens to be occupying at the time), but Durant and Leonard are right there. Who's better?
Glad you asked.
Endorsements from the GOAT
Michael Jordan thinks Leonard is the league's best two-way player, which is dispositive for those convinced of MJ's infallibility as a talent evaluator.
For anyone who recalls Jordan's belief in Adam Morrison and Kwame Brown, well...maybe MJ's stance isn't persuasive.
And as long as we're poking holes in His Airness' argument, we can't let the whole "two-way" thing slide.
This descriptor gets tossed out whenever someone wants to acknowledge a player's contributions on both ends. That's fine, but the qualifier inherently fails to account for just how much the player in question contributes in each respective category.
Is Klay Thompson perhaps the best two-way shooting guard in the league? Maybe. It certainly wouldn't be the first time someone used that label to celebrate his sweet shooting and stout defense.
But would anyone assert he's objectively better or more valuable than James Harden?
No. Nobody would do that.
Because every player has to play both ways, the best two-way player is...the best player. Period.
Jordan cast his vote and did not equivocate, later discussing KD only in terms of his right to choose Golden State in free agency. So Leonard wins this category. But the victory has to come with an asterisk denoting MJ's use of a qualifier that doesn't actually mean anything.
Also, Leonard is a Jordan Brand athlete. Just sayin'.
Leonard made incredible strides as a go-to scorer last year and bumped his usage percentage from 25.8 to 31.1 while sustaining excellent efficiency. He posted a 61.0 true shooting percentage, down just a tick from 61.6 in 2015-16.
We can laud his growth as an on-ball threat without getting carried away, though.
Durant was still better.
Even after joining the star-studded Golden State Warriors, he posted a 27.8 usage percentage with an unholy 65.1 percent true shooting clip. And if you want to compare the higher-volume version of Durant to what Leonard did in his breakout 2016-17, look back at KD's production in 2013-14, when his usage rate climbed to 33.0 percent and his true shooting was still 63.5 percent.
In isolation sets last year, Durant was better than Leonard. He ranked in the 90th percentile in efficiency, while Kawhi was only in the 73rd.
Nearly a quarter of Leonard's possessions came as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, a role in which he excelled, ranking in the 94th percentile of scoring efficiency. Durant only used 12.6 percent of his possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, but he still managed to rank in the 86th percentile.
Leonard was better in the post, but neither player spent more than nine percent of his possessions on the block.
As a passer, Durant has the edge. He posted a 23.1 percent assist rate in 2016-17 that topped Leonard's career-high of 18.9 percent. In fact, KD is on a streak of five straight seasons in which he's been responsible for at least 21 percent of assists doled out during his time on the floor. Here, again, Leonard's best effort doesn't match what Durant has done several times in his career.
That this is even a category worth discussing says everything about Leonard's offensive leap. But Durant is simply one of the most gifted offensive players of all time. His length, craft and versatility make him a terror against opponents of any size.
Leonard is phenomenal, but he's no KD with the ball in his hands. No one is.
Believe it or not, Durant and Leonard were spot-up equals last year.
Both ranked in the 95th percentile on spot-up shots, with Leonard owning a notable advantage in volume (his 391 spot-up points ranked second in the league) but Durant winning the efficiency component. Because KD took fewer spot-up two-pointers, his effective field-goal percentage on such shots was 65.1 percent, a bit better than Leonard's 61.3 percent.
Durant was quite a bit better scoring off screens, ranking in the 85th percentile with a per-play average of 1.13 points. Leonard was only in the 46th percentile with a per-play average of .91 points.
Yet again, this is close. Durant probably generates more fear in a defense when he springs open for a clean look on the catch, and that matters. Gravity often depends on reputation as much as performance. But the statistics are closer than you'd think.
Both terrorize opponents without the ball, but Durant remains slightly scarier.
Style is always a matter of personal preference, but maybe the best way to illustrate the contrast here is to imagine what kind of person prefers Leonard's style to Durant's, and vice versa.
If you enjoy the coldly detached way your boa constrictor stares at you through the glass of her enclosure, nonverbally communicating that, "Yes, I already know precisely which of your bones to crush, as well as the most efficient methods for shutting off your airways because I've thought about nothing else from the moment I laid eyes on you," you're a Kawhi guy.
Maybe instead, you're a collector of Italian literature. Maybe you read Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier at least once a month. Maybe you do this because you're infatuated with the concept of "sprezzatura" he coined, which denotes "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort." Maybe you're obsessed with what he called "an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them."
In which case, KD's your man.
To each his own, I guess. It's probably not fair to judge a player's quality on the basis of his fans' hobbies. Then again, I hate snakes.
It'd be fair to divvy this up into two categories like we did for offense, but there's really no need for that kind of nuance in this comparison.
We'll at least throw KD a bone here, though.
Durant fashioned himself into a remarkable rim-protector with the Warriors, one who held opponents to 44.8 percent shooting within five feet of the bucket during last year's playoffs, a rate stingier than the ones allowed by Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert.
This unlocked a new aspect of his game when used as a small-ball power forward (never mind that he's as tall as most centers), but KD would have had to become one of the absolute best paint defenders in the world to make this a contest.
Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. He is the most fearsome on-ball weapon in the league, somehow combining feral instincts with robotic precision.
You cannot post him up. You cannot dribble within 10 feet of him without incurring at least a 50 percent risk of losing the ball. You cannot escape him by sprinting around screens.
He is everywhere, always. It's as if Leonard figured out a simplified version of defense, one in which he realizes that if he just takes the ball away from you, you cannot score. And that is good. Unless you are Ben McLemore, in which case, that is bad.
Verdict: Leonard (and we'll give him two points just because KD got two on offense)
Who Ya Got?
With Durant winning both offensive categories and the style component and Leonard taking defense (times two) and GOAT endorsements, we've conveniently arrived at a draw.
But we can't have that.
To break the tie, we're not going to measure KD's MVP award against Kawhi's pair of DPOYs. We're not going to balance scoring titles and All-Defense First-Team nods.
Instead, let's consider systems. Because what do we really know without considering context?
Though Leonard deserves immense credit for turning himself into a player around whom a 60-win team can orbit, it's still true that he developed in a San Antonio Spurs culture that breeds personal growth and competency. He came up watching Tim Duncan embody professionalism, and he had Gregg Popovich tough-loving him through a metamorphosis nobody (not even the Spurs themselves) imagined was possible.
Leonard became what he is today because of the absolute best possible combination of nature and nurture.
Durant didn't have it so easy, and what we're seeing him do now in a hyper-functional Golden State Warriors environment shows he may have more growth ahead.
What if he'd been forced to develop gritty defensive habits in OKC? What if he hadn't spent the majority of his career standing around waiting for his turn as Russell Westbrook did his thing? What if Durant had been groomed from the outset by the sport's best coach and most quietly dominant player?
This feels like a knock on Leonard, this acknowledgement of his advantages. But that's not the intent, and anyway, Durant has several built-in edges of his own—being 6'11" and having a feathery touch, to name two.
But if we're comparing these two and the competition is tight (and, man, it is tight), we have to account for everything.
Last year, we saw the apex of what Leonard could do after developing in a perfect system. Durant, having now played just one year in his own ideal environment, may actually be trending upward. He realized new gains in efficiency and on defense.
He's always been ahead of Kawhi in several key offensive areas, but it's fair to believe Durant is now in a position to extend those margins.
Final Verdict: Durant