NBA fans and analysts love nothing more than a good debate about who is the best player in the league today. For many, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James continues to hold that distinction. Others might nominate the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has become the most unstoppable force since Shaquille O’Neal.
Another player who deserves significant consideration is Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard. Few players can rival Leonard’s game on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, even in the wake of his leg injury a few years ago.
Ascent to stardom
The Indiana Pacers drafted Leonard with the 15th pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, only to trade him to the San Antonio Spurs later that night. At the time, Leonard was seen primarily as a defensive specialist who could also knock down three-pointers at an above-average rate. His scoring, meanwhile, slowly improved over his first few years with the Spurs.
During the 2013-2014 postseason, Leonard played a key role in leading the Spurs to a championship victory over a Miami Heat team featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.
The 22-year-old Leonard’s performance earned him NBA Finals MVP. Leonard followed that up by taking home Defensive Player of the Year honors in both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.
During the 2015-16 season, Leonard also saw his scoring average balloon nearly five points per game, to 21.2. He would improve that number again in 2017-17, averaging 25.5 points per game.
That season also saw Kawhi set a then career-best number of assists per game, with 3.5, while also stealing 1.8 balls per game.
Injury, drama, and trade to Toronto
Up until the 2017-18 season, the Spurs were confident that Kawhi Leonard was going to be a franchise player, leading them to countless titles in the years to come. Those dreams fell apart in the wake of an injury saga that began in December 2017, when Leonard suffered a right quadriceps injury in a game against the Dallas Mavericks.
Leonard briefly returned from the injury in January, only to suffer a shoulder sprain. Meanwhile, his quadriceps injury continued to nag him.
Eventually, the Spurs’ medical staff cleared Leonard to return to the court. But Leonard sought out a second opinion that encouraged him to take a more cautious approach.
Tension increased between Leonard, the Spurs front office, and the rest of the Spurs roster. Leonard was reportedly unhappy with how the Spurs handled his injury. He would not return to the team that year.
During the offseason, reports came out that Leonard wanted out. A month later, with no hope of reconciliation, the Spurs traded Leonard and teammate Danny Green to the Raptors for a package centered around DeMar DeRozan.
Kawhi Leonard is the best defender in the NBA today
Chances are you already know what happened in the following season, with Kawhi Leonard leading the upstart Raptors to a championship victory. Yet rather than stick around Toronto, Leonard chose to sign with the Clippers as a free agent. His three-year contract was worth $103 million, and gave him an opt-out clause in 2021, in case he didn’t like the way the tea was going.
While that is undoubtedly a lot of money, even in today’s salary-inflated league, everybody agrees that Leonard is well worth the price. Leonard has matured into one of the most lethal offensive forces in the league, with a silky smooth touch that reminds many commentators of Michael Jordan.
Meanwhile, despite his leg injuries, Leonard also remains the most potent defensive player in the league. Leonard has the ability to shut down the best player on any team he faces.
His mere presence on the court forces opposing teams to abandon or drastically alter virtually all of their offensive schemes. According to The Ringer, so long as he remains healthy, Leonard has a real case as the most impactful player in the NBA today.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference