If this were a Marvel superhero movie, it would be billed as The Claw Vs. The Greek Freak: King of the East.
Bigger markets—like, say, Boston and Philly—might make a push to cast their younger stars as leads for kingdom status now that LeBron James has gone West (Jayson Tatum? Kyrie Irving? Ben Simmons? Joel Embiid?).
But when you get right down to it, few will dispute that Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo already have the individual credentials to establish themselves as rightful heirs to the throne.
Of course, official coronation will not take place until the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals this May.
So for now, we shall set a reminder October 29 on our Google Calendar to make sure we watch the Raptors-Bucks game Monday in Milwaukee.
After all, it is time for The Next LeBron to wear the crown as the new King of the East.
|Kawhi Leonard||4 (34.9)||28.0||7.8||2.5||1.3||0.5||2.3||.606||24.8|
2018-19 Stats (through October 24, 2018)
Key: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assists per game; SPG steals per game; BPG blocks per game; TOPG turnovers per game; TSP true shooting percentage; PER Player Efficiency Rating.
Kawhi Leonard maintains the scoring advantage, mainly because the eight-year pro has a wider assortment of go-to moves, giving both the Raptor both the quantity and quality edge in this department. With half of Leonard’s shots coming on long 2s and three-pointers in 2016-17 with the Spurs—Leonard’s last full season in the NBA (he played 74 of 82 games)—the 6-7, 230-pound small forward averaged 28 points per 36 minutes while also maintaining an astounding .616 true shooting percentage. Consider many of those attempts came with the shot clock winding down, and you start to realize how those mid-20s comparisons to Michael Jordan were so prevalent at the time, until of course when he was felled in the 2017 playoffs with an ankle injury.
By comparison last season with the Bucks, the 6-11, 242-pound Antetokounmpo posted similar 27 points per 36 minutes with .598 true shooting percentage rates that were bolstered by an overwhelming majority of his shots coming in the paint. Unlike Leonard, who had more versatile shot selection, the 23-year-old Buck only attempted 26 percent of his shots from 16 feet and beyond, with only 10 percent coming on three-point attempts. Granted, the Greek Freak is an unstoppable force in the paint and on transition, where he makes 76 percent of his buckets within three feet of the rim, according to Basketball-Reference.com. But Leonard undisputedly has the more diversified line of attack, with pull-up jumpers, paint floaters, three-point spot-up and three-point stepbacks that are more in line with the top scorers of the game. In fact, part of the reason Leonard forced a trade from San Antonio this summer is because he wanted to further display these individual skills not getting the full spotlight in team-oriented San Antonio.
We do acknowledge the 27-year-old Leonard did not get most of the moves in his current offensive skill set until he turned 24, so we will not be surprised if Antetokounmpo in time adds similar attacks to his offensive arsenal. But as for now, we say Leonard is the better overall scorer.
Though he has decent floor game, Leonard is nowhere near the rebounder/ballhandler/playmaker that Antetokounmpo is. One needs nothing more than to witness the Bucks power forward clean another defensive rebound off the glass, turn his sight toward the other basket as he strikes fear in opposing defenses with yet another rim-attack fastbreak.
No current NBA player comes close to posting 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 ½ steals and 1 ½ blocks per game—keys to his fastbreak ignitions—like this Buck. You need someone to score a last-second bucket? Give it to Kawhi. You need someone to create a play for himself and others? Giannis is your man.
The Claw owns this category, best exemplified how the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year has shut down The Greek Freak in eight career head-to-head matchups. Granted, Leonard got to play on a better team, with the Spurs winning seven of their eight contests. Still, give the four-time All-Defense former Spur his due for shutting down the Buck offensively while also insuring he got his standard offensive numbers in the various matchups.
In those eight games, Leonard held Antetokounmpo to averages of 11 points, 6 rebounds and 2 assists in 28 minutes per game on a mediocre .537 true shooting percentage; conversely, in his head-to-heads, Leonard averaged 18-6-2 in 29 with a .600 true shooting percentage when going against Antetokounmpo, who himself has been an All-Defense performer (2016-17 second team). You see, Antetokounmpo is himself an elite defender, but as LeBron James, Kevin Durant and every other All-NBA forward can testify, nobody does defense better than The Claw.
Leonard has never been the leader in San Antonio, and the quiet storm is not being asked to do so in Toronto either, with his contract running out this summer. Veteran teammates have always been the mouthpieces for the reclusive Leonard, who only recently as a Raptor started handling interview chores.
Add to that, the mysterious saga of what happened to Leonard last season in San Antonio, and far be it for us to give him the leadership edge over the well-assuming Antetokounmpo, who may be too young to lead the Bucks to a championship, but at least is willing to put in the off-court efforts. He is also front and center as the face of the franchise and is locked into the team for the next two years with Milwaukee practically begging him to extend beyond that at the earliest possibility.
Yes, Leonard was the 2014 NBA Finals MVP for the Spurs, but all observers will concede Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were the true leaders of that team, not to mention all the other teams during Leonard’s seven-year stay there.
For the aforementioned reasons, we cannot give Leonard the intangibles edge, mainly based on what transpired in San Antonio last season when Leonard switched back-and-forth between being injured and leaking trade demands. Nobody truly knows if he is 100 percent in Toronto, so at least for the moment, we are riding with the Greek Freak.
After all, Antetokounmpo is being mentored now by new head coach Mike Budenholzer, who was with Leonard as a Spurs assistant coach in the 2013 seasons and beyond. If Coach Bud can get Antetokounmpo developed mentally to where he is currently at physically, there is nothing stopping him from finally becoming an MVP.
At first, this Head2Head seems like a tough call, but it really is not after some reflection. If we were voting for this H2H in 2017, Leonard would have likely gotten the vote. But much has transpired in Leonard’s career in the past year-and-a-half, making Antetokounmpo the safe choice here.
After all, the Greek Freak has youth on his side and—more importantly—has missed only 17 games in his six-year NBA career. Conversely, Leonard has missed 152 games in his eight-year career. That makes the choice easy for us going forward.