Given an improbable choice, which golden hoop child would you prefer: Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard?
Like an eclipse of the moon, the N.B.A. playoffs this season offer an unusual crossing of shadows. Two of the league’s five best players will become free agents on July 1, and no one other than an agent or favorite uncle has a clue where they might wash ashore.
Most attention has focused on Durant, that preternaturally talented seven-foot forward possessed of a feathery touch and a hawk’s eye for a cutting teammate. He has won consecutive championships with the Golden State Warriors, and the chatter is that he might decamp to the New York Knicks and try to reanimate a long ago flatlined team.
The encoded assumption is that Durant is the pick of a fine free agent litter.
Now Kawhi Leonard has shouldered his way into that conversation. He already had tossed up an improbable falling out of bounds game-winning shot, snared one-handed rebounds and wrapped Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ transcendent star, in an iron-claw defensive embrace. Then on Thursday night, limping and no longer airborne, he unpacked his every move, scoring 35 points on an assortment of floaters and jumpers and put backs. He also dished nine assists and pulled down seven rebounds to give the Raptors a three-games-to-two lead in its Eastern Conference finals series.
As Leonard, 27, is two years and nine months younger than Durant, does the star currently in residence with the Toronto Raptors offer better value?
I put this how-many-angels-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin question – Leonard or Durant – to basketball lifer Clarence Gaines. He was scouting swami for the Chicago Bulls during their glory days and was vice president of player personnel during Phil Jackson’s Knick tenure. Before that sets you to muttering darkly, recall that Gaines insisted on drafting a Latvian unicorn by the name of Kristaps Porzingis.
Gaines was polite enough to offer only a hint of a chuckle at my question.
“So you’re bored?” he asked me. “If you can get either one of them you take them yesterday, today or tomorrow.”
O.K., but …
Gaines saw that I was not getting off the telephone and so offered more. To draw the comparative measure of those stars who loom as Himalayan peaks next to their contemporaries, you must dive into arcana. You begin with comparative statistics, which are impressive if perhaps not decisive.
Leonard’s playoff road this year is paved with gilded statistics. He has averaged 31 points and 8.4 rebounds a game during a run that has taken his team three rounds into the playoffs into a taut battle with the Milwaukee Bucks. He is shooting 52 percent from the field — and his performance only swelled as he dived into the crucible of the playoffs.
A counterpoint is in order: Durant pulled his calf muscle in the Warriors’ last series, and so he sat out the conference final. Gone is not forgotten. Before his injury, he was averaging 34 points – the highest playoff average of his career — and five assists per game, and shooting 41 percent from beyond the 3-point line. He sunk a dagger deep into his team’s toughest competitor so far, the Houston Rockets. And he’s a savvy defender.
In other words, he’s not bad.
Both men remain startlingly calm in the game’s frenzied eye. In a game against the Bucks this past Tuesday, Leonard did not pile up points and rebounds, but he gave the distinct impression that performance was the result of intelligent design. He does not possess the improvisational shooting soul of a Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving, but he reads a game’s rhythms like a book.
The Bucks in that Tuesday game kept closing on him like a Venus Flytrap whenever he feinted toward the hole. So he pounded the ball and waited for the defenders to descend and whipped the ball to teammates who in turn hit others cutting to the basket. Toronto’s coach Nick Nurse termed these Leonard’s “hockey assists”, meaning smart passes that lead to assists in turn.
On defense, he crouched low and extended those giant mitts of his. He has put in stints covering Antetokounmpo, and it’s safe to guess the Greek’s dreams are now bewitched by visions of Leonard.
Like many basketball men, the basketball man Gaines’s mind runs to minutes played and durability and usage, which is to say how much stress-filled time the stars spend with the ball in their hands. The grandest stars run year after year deep into the playoffs and over the course of their careers will wind up playing entire extra seasons-worth of games.
LeBron James has played 46,235 regular season minutes – and another 10,049 minutes in the playoffs, or nearly one-fifth of his career. Durant has played 31,305 regular season minutes and another 5,586 in the playoffs.
Leonard’s workload has been somewhat lighter. He has accumulated 14,404 minutes in the regular season and another 3,523 in the playoffs.
Injuries are another measure, and reflect the wages of a cumulative wearing down. Durant has missed more than a dozen games per season in the last few years. Leonard unexpectedly missed most of last season with a quad strain, the mystery of which was compounded by Leonard’s diffidence and refusal to discuss that nature of that injury. He occupies that area between taciturn and mum.
“You see muscle and tendon strains, those are overuse injuries,” Gaines said. “You are more susceptible to that with age.”
Which brings us to the actuarial charts. NBAminer.com crunched data and discovered that a basketball player’s prime is 29 years old, that point where physical talent and the ability to see and dissect a game arrive at a handsome crossroads. Many players slip side rather quickly after that and begin the descent into athletic old age.
That might cause a general manager or two to double-clench at the notion of showering hundreds of millions of dollars on Durant, 30. Against that parsimonious impulse however, we should balance another statistical reality: The very best, those truly worth of the overused term superstar, tend to enjoy longer peaks and far milder downward slopes.
So which one … ?
Gaines smartly declined to take my bait. Me, I’d take the seven-footer who can twirl like a ballet dancer and hit 30 footers over undersized opponents. But if I were Knicks management, and the phlegmatic Leonard gets on the phone, I’d agree to take the lunch meeting and I’d pick up the check too.