After defeating the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 6 on Thursday night to secure a first round series victory, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich voiced his take on a growing opinion.
“Kawhi Leonard is, in my opinion, the best player in the league right now,” Popovich said in the post-game press conference. “He’s the best two-way player and does it all with such class. It’s impressive.”
It’s human nature to get bored of the same old repetition, and phrases like “out with the old, in with the new” remind us how society has a knack for always looking to find the next big thing.
But, continuing to wish away the dominance of LeBron James needs to stop, now.
On the heels of completing his 14th season, James statistically had one of his best campaigns in years — if not ever. Scoring wise, James’ 26.4 points per game were the most since 2013-14, his last year in Miami. His efficiency was up as well, shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 36 percent from three-point range, James sank shots at his best rate in three seasons. Not to mention he averaged career-highs — yes, in year 14 — in both assists and rebounds, with 8.7 and 8.6 per game, respectively.
Over the course of his career, James has always battled with the criticism from the peanut gallery. From being unable to win a championship to leaving Cleveland, to not being clutch, so on and so forth, the conversation around James has always been quicker to attack than to defend.
Last season unanimous Most Valuable Player and leader of the 73-win Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry, was being crowned the new king of the NBA. That is until Curry and the Warriors blew a 3-1 Finals lead to James and the Cavaliers behind a mythological-like three-game stretch from The King.
This season, the same talk has continued, just with different names. Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo rise to stardom has prompted the conversation that he may now be in the mix to take James’ throne. Russell Westbrook, posting the NBA’s first triple-double season average since 1961-62, threw his hat into the ring for “best player in the league.” And, of course, Leonard’s ability to dominate on both sides of the ball keeps his name in the mouths of people across the basketball community landscape — from Popovich to Skip Bayless — about being the man that has finally taken a step past James.
For a player who has made it to six straight NBA Finals, advanced past the first round of the playoffs all 12 times he’s been there and just led the Cavaliers to a 4-0 sweep of the Indiana Pacers in a series that saw him average a near 30-point triple-double, the narrative that James is slowing down feels more like impatience and boredom waiting for his sustained greatness to end.
While James’ unwillingness to truly relinquish the title of “best player in the NBA” lingers around for perhaps a few more seasons, that doesn’t discount the nominations of players like Antetokounmpo and Leonard from ever claiming that title as their own.
At just 22 years old, Antetokounmpo took the Toronto Raptors to six games, averaging 24.8 points and 9.7 rebounds in the process. Leonard, 25, already with an NBA title and Finals MVP to his name, is headed to the Western Conference semifinals after averaging 31.2 points, six rebounds, and two steals in the Spurs’ opening-round series.
James himself even recognizes the ability that a guy like Leonard possesses, saying before this season started that Leonard was the player who guards him the best. But, if you ask Leonard himself, he isn’t worried about being the “best” anything besides a team.
But that doesn’t change or impact the narrative floating around the notion that James’ days as the NBA’s top dog are over. There will still be those individuals, biased or not, that will continue to not give James his due.
Both of these players are world-class caliber in terms of talent, and almost certainly project to play out long dominant careers, but there’s still a 6-foot-9 250-pound road block in the way.
Throughout his playoff career, James has averaged 28.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game. Leonard has never posted those statistics is a singular game. In James’ first playoff run, back in 2005-06 as a 21-year-old, he pulled the Cavaliers through 13 playoff games. That’s more than the 12 playoff games Antetokounmpo has appeared in during his first two playoff runs combined.
At 32 years old, after 14 seasons and nearly 50,000 minutes played, James still was capable of single-handedly orchestrating a 26-point comeback — the largest in NBA playoff history — against the Pacers in Game 3 of their first-round series, registering his 17th career postseason triple-double in the process. James’ 41-point, 13-rebound, 12-assist line had only be reached one other time in NBA playoff history, by none other than himself back in the 2014 NBA Finals.
Just one week later, Leonard notches 29 points, nine rebounds, and four assists on the way to a Spurs win in Game 6. That line prompts Popovich to take his stance that Leonard is the league’s best player, and he achieves his greatness with class.
However, there is just one class reserved for the league’s best player, and with no clear signs of slowing down, James is still the teacher.
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