There’s something about his unrelenting demeanor and stone-cold glare that makes me gain a respect for Kawhi that I simply don’t have for other NBA stars. It is a competitiveness that I haven’t seen much of in the NBA since Kobe retired years ago. It’s gripping, it has the ability to strike fear in opponents, and its very welcomed in a modern-day NBA that people say is too buddy-buddy.
That same demeanor has Kawhi on the cusp of taking down the greatest basketball team ever assembled. Kawhi and the Raptors head home to Scotiabank Arena with all of Toront — all of North America — behind them. On Monday, they will attempt to close out the 2019 NBA Finals in five games, a feat that only a week ago would’ve been considered inconceivable. It is the classic underdog story, everyone is yearning for the beast to be slayed. Luckily for the Raptors, they have their own beastslayer.
Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t be surprised by this. The Raptors do have Kawhi, who wins when it matters most. In the 19 total postseason series’ he has played in, he has a 15-4 record — and he’s on the cusp of making it 16-4. In 109 postseason starts, he has a record of 72-37 (good for a winning % of 66%). That mirrors MJ, arguably the all-time great postseason performer, who won 119 games and lost 60 — good for a winning % of, you guessed it, 66%. It also falls just a tick behind Kobe, who won 135 of the 200 postseason starts he made — which would amount to a winning % of 68%. During MJ’s extended title-run, he had Pippen. During Kobe’s title-run, he had Shaq. This year, Kawhi has… Kyle Lowry? Pascal Siakam? And don’t get me wrong, those guys can ball in their own right. But they aren’t Pippen or Shaq. And MJ and Kobe never had to dethrone a Warriors team that currently has three, and possibly four hall-of-famers in their lineup.
Box Plus/Minus (BPM) is another advanced statistic that tells the story of Kawhi’s overall playoff contributions. BPM essentially measures a player’s worth over the course of 100 possessions and it estimates a players contribution to their team when they’re on the court relative to the league-average. For example, a 0.0 BPM is average, +5 is All-NBA level, -2 is replacement level, and -5 means you’re trash. Kawhi Leonard has the fourth highest playoff BPM of all-time, falling behind only Lebron, Jordan, and Chris Paul accordingly. Kawhi’s playoff BPM is 7.41, and to give you an idea of how good that is, Kobe had a playoff BPM of 4.41 — and he won five rings. If Kawhi keeps up his historic rate of excellence in the postseason, he’ll get there too.
I know the advanced stats can be complicated, and that they may tell too much of a story, but we don’t even have to look at the advanced stats to judge Kawhi’s greatness. This postseason he’s averaging 31 PPG, 9 RPG, and 4 APG. He’s shooting at a 50% clip while making 39% of his 3-pt shots. He’s been absolutely light’s out from the free-throw line, making 89% of those shots — with many of them coming in clutch time. He has consistently guarded the other team’s best players, and he has consistently done it well; everyone knows how great a defender he is anyways. And then there are the legacy building performances: the 45-point performance against the Bucks, the game 7 buzzer-beater to take down the 76’ers. He has been everything the Raptors could’ve asked for and more. He is bringing a new life to the city of Toronto, he is finally vanquishing the Drake curse.
At the end of the day, there is really only one thing that matters in the NBA, and that is your playoff track record. If you play at your best when the lights are shining the brightest, your name will be held with high regard in the NBA circles. You can’t be an all-time great without signature playoff moments. You can’t be an all-time great without a good playoff track record. In this league, the months of May and June show us who the real stars are, and throughout his career Kawhi has done more than enough to cement himself as one of the clutchest players in NBA history. Kawhi has a clutch gene like none other, and there are few I would take over him to help lead my team to a ring. Kawhi has always been great, but this season is his shining light. If he retired right now, Kawhi would be an all-time great, and on Monday at Scotiabank, he has a chance to cement his legacy for good.