Kawhi Leonard finished 2nd in MVP voting this season, and has established himself as possibly the best two-way player in the NBA.
I’ve been analyzing how the best players at certain height ranges would fare against each other in a hypothetical 1-on-1 tournament.
I sought to examine how Leonard would fare against his peers around his same height. The height range will be 6’5’’-6’8’’. We’ll call this the “medium” division, and pick the 8 best players in the NBA that are between these heights.
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As with the 2 categories before, it was difficult to narrow it down to just 8 players. I finally came up with the rankings of 1) LeBron James… 2) Kawhi Leonard… 3) James Harden… 4) DeMar DeRozan… 5) Jimmy Butler… 6) Carmelo Anthony… 7) Draymond Green… and 8) Klay Thompson.
It would be a tournament-style gameplay where the 1 seed plays the 8 seed, the 2 seed plays the 7 seed, the 3 seed plays the 6 seed, and the 4 seed plays the 5 seed in a 1-on-1 game to 21 points.
The winners of the matchup advance to the next round, where the highest seed plays the lowest seed.
These 8 players have a combination of speed and strength that make each one a threat to advance to the finals. Some are shooters, some are lock-down defenders, but all of them are fierce competitors who believe that they are the superior player in the group.
Who would win a tournament like this? Let’s go through each matchup based on their rankings and figure out who would be most likely to pull off a win in a 1-on-1 tournament like this.
Next: First Round: James vs. Thompson
Jun 5, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) go for a rebound in game two of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Somebody had to have the misfortune of going up against James in the first round, and it turns out that the second Splash Brother has to draw the dreaded assignment. Thompson first came into the league as purely a spot-up shooter, but has developed into a multi-faceted scorer who can drive to the hoop and use his athleticism to create his own shot. His silky jumper distracts from what a talented defensive player he is, often having to guard the opposing team’s most talented offensive perimeter player to take some pressure off the less defensively skilled Stephen Curry. Although Thompson is a great defender, containing James in this setting seems like a mythical task for him. James has a combination of strength, size, and quickness that barely seems realistic, and he’s able to use those skills nearly as well on defense as an on-ball defender. Thompson has his moments in this game, but James barrels to the rim at will, ensuring his victory.
Next: First Round: Leonard vs. Green
April 7, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) during the first quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
This is definitely the matchup that sportswriters would eagerly spin into a metaphor for the duality of existence, while also acknowledging multiple paths towards enlightenment. Both guys are the two best defenders in the NBA. Green is more versatile, but nobody can demoralize a perimeter player quite like Leonard. In this setting, Green only guards one person, so that versatility doesn’t get utilized like it would in a normal game. Each player came into the league as a defensive-minded energy guy, and both have blossomed into offensive talents. Leonard is a quiet, tranquil presence on the court who lets his play do the speaking for him. Green is a volatile, boisterous performer who wears his emotions on his sleeves and motivates himself through vocal expression. Non-fiction best-sellers would be written about this game in retrospect. After a back-and-forth grueling session of physical basketball, Leonard uses his superior shot-creation skills to own the midrange battle. Green is stripped of his ability to impact multiple areas of a game in a 1-on-1 setting like this, and Leonard is more suited to pull through to win a game like this. Leonard advances.
Next: First Round: Harden vs. Anthony
February 15, 2015; New York, NY, USA; Eastern Conference forward Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks (7) shakes hands with Western Conference guard James Harden of the Houston Rockets (13) before the 2015 NBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden.Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
During the Leonard vs. Green game, Harden and Anthony trade some funny glances between each other, as if to indicate that no such defense will be on display while they take the court together. What they lack in defense, however, they make up for in remarkable offensive prowess. It’s almost going to be decided by who has the ball last, because defensive stops are few and far between. Harden is showing fantastic ability to put the ball in the hoop, particularly on his midrange step-back jumper that’s making Anthony look completely helpless. Anthony counters by using his height and weight advantage effectively, dominating Harden in the painted area. Two of the most talented scorers in the NBA seem to be separated only by this distinction, and Anthony pulls off the upset to advance to the next round.
Next: First Round: DeRozan vs. Butler
Mar 14, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Chicago Bulls forward Jimmy Butler (21) defends against Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) at Air Canada Centre. The Bulls beat the Raptors 109-107. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
DeRozan is a handful to try to stay in front of, but Butler has been one of the best two-way players in the NBA during recent seasons, and is able to hold his own against a scorer like DeRozan. He’s not a good 3-point shooter unless it’s from his beloved left corner, but DeRozan is reliable if not spectacular from midrange. It’s his ability to get to the rim that he’d ride in a tournament like this. Butler is the more well-rounded player. He’s made the NBA All-Defensive Second Team for 3 straight seasons, and has averaged 20 points or more per game for 2 straight seasons. Both are listed at 6’7’’ and 220 LBS, yet Butler had a shooting percentage in the painted area better than DeRozan by over 7 percentage points this past season. Butler ends up defeating DeRozan with the help of his tenacious defense and high shooting percentage near the hoop.
Next: Semifinals: James vs. Butler
Apr 9, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) is fouled by Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) during the second half at the United Center. Chicago won 105-102. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
James has had the challenge of going up against guys who can guard him better than the vast majority of players around the league. It means that James has to work a little harder to advance, but he’s still just too difficult for even a guy as defensively talented as Butler to stop. James struggled with his outside shot this season, and too often he bails his defender out by settling for a perimeter jumper. In a contest like this, though, James realizes that with no help defense to impede his penetration, he can feast on attacks to the rim. Butler does all he can, but it’s no match. James has made the All-NBA Defensive First Team every season dating back to 2008, and had 2 Second Team appearances before that. His remarkable slashing ability combined with his elite defense is too much for Butler to handle. James advances to the finals.
Next: Semifinals: Leonard vs. Anthony
Jan 8, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; New York Knicks small forward Carmelo Anthony (front) shoots the ball under pressure from San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (behind) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Leonard stood by himself under the basket without saying a word during the Harden vs. Anthony game. While other players were amazed at each player’s offensive repertoire, Leonard studied each move and made a mental note of it. His basketball IQ is nearly unparalleled, and his drive to improve is commendable. Leonard is assigned tough defensive assignments every game, and Anthony may be one of the most difficult players to guard in the NBA, but Leonard goes above and beyond to strip Anthony of some of his aura of invincibility in a setting like this. When Leonard has the ball, Anthony isn’t capable of guarding him. It doesn’t matter that Anthony works to put the ball in the hoop a decent amount of times in the game, because Leonard is a great shooter anywhere on the court, and he pulls up and buries jumper after jumper over Anthony. Leonard can stop Anthony far more easily than Anthony can stop Leonard, and Leonard wins the game to advance to the finals.
Next: Finals: James vs. Leonard
Jan 14, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James (23) is defended by San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
The fans could not have asked for a better finals. Each guy is a committed defender with an array of skills on offense to score points. It’s going to be a close game. Leonard knows that he has to keep James out of the paint. Once James establishes himself near the hoop, he’s almost impossible to prevent from scoring. If Leonard keeps James in front of him and tries to wear him down physically, his best chance of winning is to have James settle for midrange jumpers that he’s statistically below average at converting. It’s a compelling game, but Leonard can’t quite pull it off. James is aware of his weaknesses, and seeks to punish Leonard inside. He falls victim to deferring to teammates too often, but in a scenario like this, he realizes that it’s up to him to create a shot for himself, and he’s aware that he’s much better the closer he gets to the basket. Leonard fights to get his shot off against James, and he’s a terrific enough shooter that James isn’t able to keep his scoring output down. In the end, however, James gains the victory and shows the basketball world why he’s a close-to-perfect 1-on-1 player with physical abilities too difficult for an opponent to overcome.