Many people began to wonder if Kawhi Leonard was the best player in the league after he carried the Raptors to an NBA title last year. After all, LeBron James is the greatest player of the past decade and might be the best passer and leader in the game.
But does winning a ring automatically make you the best player in the league? Kawhi Leonard is one of the best two-way players in NBA history, which is why his move to the Los Angeles Clippers created a very interesting narrative in the league. But LeBron James has led the Lakers to the best record in the West, ahead of the Clippers, and the second-best record overall.
It is time to compare the two best small forwards in the NBA in the most important categories.
Scoring - Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi is averaging 27.1 PPG on 47.0% shooting from the field. He is also shooting 88.6% from the free-throw line and 37.8% from three. Kawhi moves and scores at his own pace, never in a rush, and always in control similar to how Michael Jordan used to do it.
LeBron James is slightly older now and is more suited to being a primary playmaker than the number one option on offense. James can still score the ball whenever he wants to, but his style of play means he is not required to score as much. LeBron is shooting 34.8% from three. His free throw percentage is not very good either (69.3%), and he is averaging 25.3 PPG this year.
Overall, Kawhi is a better scorer because he is simply younger and the primary option on offense. He can get any shot he wants and is required to score the ball more for his team while LeBron can rely on Anthony Davis.
Athleticism - LeBron James
Kawhi Leonard is very athletic at his size because he is very powerful and has a quick first step. Kawhi won't necessarily jump out of the roof, but he has huge hands and a powerful body to take and absorb contact. Leonard can throw it down at times and uses a mix of vertical and speed to get his shots off the ground. But he isn't LeBron James.
LeBron is still one of the most athletic players in the NBA, somehow. He is 35 years old yet still dominates the game due to his strength and explosiveness. James takes care of himself better than any other athlete in NBA history, and he even usurps the younger Kawhi Leonard with his athleticism.
Defense - Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard is a great offensive player, and his scoring numbers are clear to see. But Kawhi Leonard is considered one of the best two-way players in the NBA because he is probably the best perimeter defender in the league. Kawhi is averaging 1.8 SPG and 0.6 BPG this season, but his impact goes beyond the numbers. Kawhi has shown that he can lock up most players on any given night
LeBron James has not been effective on defense for a few years now, since he simply has too much responsibility on offense. LeBron does everything for his team on offense, including being a primary playmaker and also the second main scorer, which sacrifices his defensive ability. The fact that Kawhi has won two Defensive Player of the Year Awards makes this a no-contest.
Clutch - Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard has proven he is a clutch performer. The most recent example was his game-winner over Jimmy Butler to take the Raptors to the NBA Finals in last year's playoffs. Kawhi is a great shooter from beyond, has the ability to create his own show, and hardly feels rushed when he has to make a play. His patience and shooting give him the edge here.
LeBron James doesn't struggle with decision making and he is experienced enough in clutch moments to be productive. He often makes the right plays and that constitutes being a clutch player at times. But LeBron tends to shy away from tight moments, often drawing up plays for other people too often. He is almost always the best player on the floor, so he should take a bit more responsibility for scoring.
Leader - LeBron James
Other than Chris Paul, LeBron James is probably the best leader in the league. Whether it's vocally or actually leading by his play, LeBron James is a role model for every athlete in the league. James works harder than anybody in the league at this moment, spending over $1 million a year to preserve his body. He is in phenomenal shape and truly one of the great leaders in basketball.
Kawhi has improved as a leader and now takes the pressure of winning and carrying his team on his shoulders. Gone are the days where Kawhi was quiet and in the shadows of major figures like Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich, as now Kawhi has emerged as a top-3 player in the game. Kawhi leads by example, but he isn't LeBron James when it comes to leadership.
Basketball I.Q. - LeBron James
When it comes to basketball I.Q., LeBron James is probably #1 in NBA history. LeBron can do anything he sets his mind to, including leading the league in scoring or assists. LeBron is able to dominate the game in every aspect because he is a student of the game who has become a master. His experience and countless postseason appearances help him even more, and no one has his basketball I.Q.
Kawhi Leonard clearly has a high I.Q and is one of the best overall players in the league right now. He dominates the game on both ends and does not have a weakness in his game. The fact that Kawhi does things at his own pace is a clear testament to his I.Q, but he is not on LeBron's level with this aspect either.
Impact - Even
This is the hardest one to gauge. LeBron is leading the league in assists and is the best passer in the game today. He can get to the rim whenever he wants, find open guys for shots, and control the pace of play better than anybody in the league.
Kawhi's impact is deniable and he is one of the top two-way players in the game right now. He has made the Clippers a massive threat in the West and might be the favorites to win it all.
Taking everything into consideration, both players have an equal impact. Kawhi may have the scoring and defensive numbers, but LeBron James evens it up as he is simply the best passer in the league.
1 on 1 - Kawhi Leonard
At the stage of both of their careers, Kawhi Leonard is a better one on one player than LeBron James. Kawhi's shooting is key here because he is better from the free-throw line and from deep. Kawhi is also younger so he can carry a load of going one on one more often, which does give him an edge.
LeBron has never been a pure one on one scorer, as he often scorers at the pace of the game. Because he is so physically dominant and skilled, he scores the ball easier than most players at his position ever. But he has shown he can't always create his own shots as often as Kawhi can because Kawhi is a better marksman. He has the edge in this one.
Career - LeBron James
Without a doubt, LeBron has had a greater career than Kawhi Leonard. Though Kawhi is only 29 with time to add to his already Hall of Fame career, LeBron has already captured 3 NBA titles and has proven himself in every facet of the game. LeBron has made the NBA Finals 9 times, winning 3 NBA titles with 3 Finals MVPs. With a guy like Anthony Davis by his side, James has a chance to make it 4.
Kawhi has 2 Finals MVPs to his name and has a chance to make it 3. Kawhi has made 4 All-Star appearances to LeBron's 16, while LeBron has made 15 All-NBA Teams to Kawhi's 3. Clearly, Kawhi has a ways to go to match LeBron's Mt. Rushmore career, so until that happens King James has a better career and that might not change.
LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard even it up in terms of all the major attributes. They are simply too close to differentiate at the moment because LeBron James has the best career out of every player in the league while Kawhi might be the most consistent two-way player. Things may start to change if Kawhi wins a 3rd NBA title and 3rd Finals MVP which equals LeBron, but only time will tell.
LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard 4-4