In his fourth NBA season, Kawhi Leonard battled various injuries to put together another solid campaign, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors and further solidifying his place as the new face of the Spurs. Even though the team's title defense ended in a disappointing first-round exit, the year left little doubt that the future of the Silver and Black is safe in Leonard's giant mitts.
The conversation then jumps to not 'if' Kawhi is a franchise player, but where he stands among those other athletes you can call by their first name. An article on NBA.com recently looked at the top 10 players to build a team around. It won't come as a surprise to readers of this blog perhaps that Whi made the list (he's number 9) -- after all, we posed a similar question about him near the end of the regular season, in which I was on my own lonely, contrarian island.
Is 9 too low for an elite wing defender who is yet to glance his offensive ceiling? Or are we overvaluing a guy who's not a rim protector and averaged 16.5 points a game last year? Let's give this a quick Goldilocks treatment. Then, please share your thoughts below.
If you're making the case that he doesn't belong in the top-10 (or -9) discussion, it's helpful to start with the omissions. LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving and Marc Gasol are among those who got All-NBA recognition this year, and the Bulls are likely to sign another young perimeter guy in Jimmy Butler to his own big contract.
All the names above are either purer scorers or rim protectors, and most have more carved out roles on offense. As good as he is at shutting down point guards and wings, Kawhi won't be able to completely dictate what opposing offenses do on every play. He's also still coming into his own with the ball in his hands and is less proven than dudes like Aldridge, Thompson and Cousins.
Youth is one of the factors that Kawhi has over the rest of the list. At this point, would you rather have five more years of Kawhi Leonard, from 23 to 28, or five more of Chris Paul, who'll be 35 by the end? Even now, while Paul is a terrific defender, he's not as versatile as Leonard and who knows when his body will break down. Durant's foot is a serious concern for his future and his Thunder teammate doesn't exactly have the type of game that suggests long-term good health.
A lack of any significant flaws to his game also makes the Spurs small forward a great cornerstone. With Griffin and Harden, you'll need to compensate for defensive shortcomings with other spots on the roster. If anything, Leonard does the opposite, allowing other flawed players to join and have their potential maximized playing alongside someone who erases mistakes.
And then there's Leonard's growing trophy case. It may never hold the Maurice Podoloff Award, but to be a DPOY and Finals MVP at this stage of his career lays a foundation for even brighter things.
People argue that, in a vacuum, you either want a dominant big man or elite playmaker to build your team around. It's sound logic, and it certainly worked in San Antonio over the past two decades.
But the thing about the Spurs is that they're not a vacuum; they're CERN. They could create a void if they wanted to, but they're more likely to engineer a system that pushes Kawhi, and the rest of the team, to their full, logic-smashing potential. That's what makes them one of the best-run organizations in sports, and a perfect fit for a completely driven, still-pretty-shy kid from California -- one who couldn't care less about an arbitrary list (or for that matter, an article discussing that list).