LeBron James has been widely considered to be the greatest small forward ever, and the best player in the league right now. His unparalleled athleticism paired with his impact on the game is unquestionably great. It is no wonder why he has managed to capture multiple NBA Finals MVPs and regular-season MVPs throughout his illustrious career.
However, the arrival of Kawhi Leonard as a multiple-time NBA Champion has threatened LeBron’s throne tremendously most recently. Many actually begin to wonder if Kawhi is actually the better player, mainly thanks to his ability to shoot efficiently from the floor and play dominating lock-down defense. Not to mention, Kawhi in many people’s eyes, has had more success when the game is on the line.
In order to put the debate to rest, and clear up any form of recency bias, it is time to find out who the better small forward is.
Inside Scoring - LeBron James
Kawhi Leonard is a beast in the paint and is able to absorb tremendous contact and still get the shot off. He has a naturally soft touch around the rim and has a powerful frame that keeps him under the rim at all times when he decides to attack.
But LeBron James is a different level. He is the greatest attacker of the basketball we have ever seen, and there is not a single player in the league that can stop him when he decides to take the ball to the hole. His mix of power, strength, speed, and explosiveness is unmatched and he takes this one over Kawhi Leonard.
Outside Scoring - Kawhi Leonard
LeBron James has certainly become a better shooter from the outside as he has matured, and is no longer a liability from the perimeter.
However, Kawhi is simply a better scorer from outside. He has mastered the mid-range fadeaway and is a much better straight-on three-point shooter. Kawhi can be as deadly as the league's best from the perimeter, and he edges LeBron here.
Playmaking - LeBron James
As good as Kawhi was last year with the Raptors, by showcasing his overall game, he is nowhere near the playmaker James is.
LeBron is one of the greatest passers of the ball we have ever seen, and has the strength to make the most difficult passes seem easy. LeBron is a master at controlling the pace of the game with his passing, and is simply a better playmaker than Leonard who prefers to score the ball.
Athleticism - LeBron James
This one is a bit closer than many people think. While LeBron can run and jump out of the gym, Leonard has the physical advantage of massive hands. He is a master at swiping the ball, deflecting passes, and using his hands to force players in a certain direction. Not to mention, he can palm the ball with ease which helps his offensive game tremendously.
But James is simply a freak of nature and might be the best athlete we have ever seen. LeBron edges Kawhi on this one.
Defense - Kawhi Leonard
Defense is Kawhi Leonard's calling card. He is probably the best perimeter defender in the league thanks to his tenacity, skill, and physical abilities. He can completely shut down opponents and leave them searching for answers.
James was an incredible athlete early in his career, and was a good defender in his own right. As he has aged, he has slowed down and is nowhere near the defender Kawhi is. Kawhi takes this one by a landslide.
Rim Protection - Even
When it comes to rim protection, this one is tied. LeBron is an incredible athlete who can get up and swat shots away. Not to mention, he can handle all five positions over the course of a game and protect the rim in that regard.
Leonard is not quite as athletic as James but is just a terrific defender. Even when he is undersized, Leonard knows how to make players work for their shots and always contest layups. Leonard's defensive prowess makes this one even.
Rebounds - LeBron James
LeBron James averages over 7 rebounds per game for his career, compared to Leonard's 6 rebounds per game. LeBron clearly has the edge in rebounds, and he is actually a better rebounder. He is a better leaper and can snag rebounds from the rim with ease. He is also quicker and stronger and can fight for rebounds much easier than Leonard.
Kawhi is a good rebounder but LeBron's physicality makes it easier for him. Advantage LeBron.
Clutch - Kawhi Leonard
LeBron has failed in moments in clutch situations, and so has Kawhi. In fact, all great players have moments of failure in the most crucial of moments. But it is how often you deliver, and how you bounce back from failure that makes a great player clutch.
Kawhi Leonard is simply clutch. He can make winning plays on both ends, and is truly a dominant two-way player. Not to mention, Kawhi is a marksman from the perimeter and seems to have a better rhythm to his jumper than James. Even though LeBron has shown up in the clutch throughout the years, Kawhi's shooting and dominance on both ends in tight moments give him the edge.
Leadership - LeBron James
LeBron James always had the makings of a leader. His size, impact, and presence makes players gravitate towards him. Not to mention, he always performs at the highest level. LeBron's consistency and production is something to admire, along with his playing style. One of the major aspects of leadership is making players better, and there are few in NBA history that do that better than James.
Kawhi is a very reserved player who prefers to lead by example. While this is fine, Kawhi comes across subdued and you never know what he is feeling at any moment. He is a terrific player but not the leader LeBron James is.
Basketball I.Q. - LeBron James
Basketball I.Q. is clearly high for both players, but LeBron James edges Kawhi here. James has one of the highest basketball I.Q.'s we have seen in basketball history. He knows how to run the best plays for the right situations, and when to scratch everything and just dominate offensively.
Thanks to his sublime passing and court vision, it is hard to argue against him although Leonard is a genius defensively. Kawhi seems to always know what the offensive player will do next with the ball, and is equally as effective when reading defenders on the other end. Especially last season, Kawhi showed his true basketball i.q. by consistently making the right plays. But LeBron James has been doing it since he came into the league.
Scoring - LeBron James
Both players are masters at scoring the ball and offer different aspects of a dominant offensive arsenal. Kawhi has mastered the mid-range fadeaway while LeBron has mastered the side-step three. Kawhi is a very accurate shooter from everywhere on the court while LeBron is unstoppable at attacking the rim.
All other things equal, LeBron's efficiency gives him the edge over Kawhi. He can score easier thanks to his size and athleticism, and can pretty much get to the bucket whenever he wants. Edge to LeBron James here.
Impact - LeBron James
It is extremely difficult to rank both of these players' impact because they are so dominant. Kawhi impacts the game defensively similar to how Michael Jordan used to do, while LeBron James is a player like we have never seen before.
Both can score, and both command most of the attention each and every night.
However, LeBron's impact is undeniable. He simply covers all aspects of the game at an extremely high level, mainly due to his perfect basketball i.q. and athleticism. He can do it all, he is a walking triple-double with unbelievable efficiency. Kawhi is close but falls just short.
1 on 1 Game - Kawhi Leonard
This is another very close one. They are both large players who have physical gifts that can be used to their advantage. Not to mention, they are terrific scorers who have mastered how to put the ball in the hole.
Yet, subtle differences provide the edge for Leonard over James. Firstly, Leonard is a very accurate shooter which is extremely valuable in a one-on-one situation. Not to mention, Leonard is the better defender. Keeping someone in check and having an accurate jumper on the other end is always a recipe for a dominant one on one game. Leonard takes this one.