Is he the best basketball player on the planet right now? Outside of “will he or won’t he” stay in Toronto, that has been a chief debate surrounding Raptors star Kawhi Leonard during his historic playoff run.
On the merits of his clutch play and two-way dominance, there’s an argument to be made — Masai Ujiri certainly thinks he is — but regardless of his place on that list, Leonard enters the NBA Finals as the best player on the floor for either side. In a series against a Golden State Warriors team that’s been to five straight Finals and boasts the NBA’s most impressive collection of star talent this generation has ever seen, that’s no easy feat.
But how does the rest of that list look and, going down the two rosters, how much of an imbalance is there in the defending champs’ favour?
Here’s a look at the player power rankings heading into NBA Finals:
1. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
What more could you ask of a superstar putting up historic stats — one of just five players to average over 31 points per game in the playoffs after 18 games (joining a ho-hum group with Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Allen Iverson).
Even when his shot isn’t quite falling — he was 9-22 from the field during Saturday’s series-clincher — his impact is almost immeasurable in countless areas of the game. That said, his heroic 17-rebound effort in Game 6 showed how Leonard is far more than an elite scorer, and it’s his all-encompassing dominance that keeps him atop this list.
I mean, come on:
2. Kevin Durant*, Golden State Warriors
The asterisk is there because Kevin Durant is injured and is expected to miss at least the first two games of the Finals and could miss the series for all we know (expect an update by media day on Wednesday) — which may be good news for Raptors fans hoping for some wins when the series opens up in Toronto on Thursday, but is bad news for NBA fans as a whole who are excited to watch a duel between arguably the game’s two best players with a championship on the line.
Before his injury, Durant was unbelievable. Like Leonard, he put on an offensive clinic each night, leading all NBA players in scoring this post-season with an average of 34.2 points per game while shooting over 51 per cent from the floor and 41 per cent from beyond the arc.
And, like Leonard, it’s Durant’s defensive ability that earns him a spot so high on the list.
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
With Durant sidelined and many debating the reigning Finals MVP’s impact on the Warriors’ title chances, the dynasty’s original and most important superstar, Stephen Curry, reminded us all of his other-worldly ability to take over games and break the spirits of Golden State’s opponents.
After a slow-ish start to the post-season in which he struggled with his shot, Curry made up for it in a big way to help send his team to the Finals, averaging a whopping 36.5 points per game in the Warriors’ Western conference finals sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers.
In that series he managed to take just over 15 threes per game, and knocked down an impressive 42.6 per cent from deep, along with over eight rebounds and seven assists per game. In a word: Dominant, and, as the Raptors are about to find out, essentially unstoppable.
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) May 22, 2019
4. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
He’s baaaaaack. After looking like a shell of his former self for long stretches of this past season, it looked like Draymond Green’s days as an All-Defence stalwart and elite point-forward were behind him.
But Green has looked like his old self during Golden State’s playoff run — particularly since Durant’s injury — and is once again playing like the Warriors’ catalyst, making an impact all over the court.
Green is nearly averaging a triple-double this post-season, with averages of 13.6 points, 10 rebounds, and 8.2 assists, along with 1.4 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. Nuts.
His three-point shot, once a weapon, has become a liability, but in every other facet of the game Green demands to be taken (very) seriously.
5. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
That Klay Thompson is, if Durant is on the floor, the Warriors’ fourth-best player right now is a testament to how insanely stacked (and top-heavy) Golden State’s roster is.
Thompson, one of the two or three best shooters in NBA history, has “only” shot 39 per cent from deep this post-season, but his ability to break open a game and force opposing defences to essentially pick their poison between him, Durant, and Curry (because you can’t stop all three) is a key part of what makes the prospect of defeating Golden State in a seven-game series so daunting.
His shooting ability and quick release makes him a constant threat anytime he’s on the floor, but, like everybody else on this list, it’s his high-end defensive ability that makes him a truly great player.
6. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry certainly won back the confidence of Raptors fans with his performance against the Bucks. After struggling to score and find his place on a Kawhi-dominant offence through the first two rounds, Lowry averaged over 19 points per game in the East Finals and showed up each and every night.
Of course, Lowry’s impact goes far beyond putting the ball in the hoop, and his penchant for drawing charges, playmaking ability and the countless “little things” he does each night while putting his body on the line should leave the Warriors dreading facing him in a seven-game series.
7. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Tough to slot on this list, given he had a bit of a downer third round against Milwaukee, averaging 14 points and 6.5 boards on just 40 per cent shooting.
But Pascal Siakam has proven his ability to be a disruptive force throughout the season, and has particular success against a Warriors squad that has seriously struggled to contain him since he’s joined the NBA ranks. Siakam will have every opportunity to be a difference-maker once again.
8. Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors
This time last week you would have never thought to include Fred VanVleet anywhere on this list, but, hey, things change. Like, for instance, VanVleet going from a scapegoat to hero in a matter of days.
If he’s going to play like he just did over the past three games, when he was a closer and the Raptors’ most consistent and potent three-point threat, then he absolutely warrants this spot. VanVleet averaged 16 points during the Raps’ last three wins, and shot 82.4 per cent from three-point range, knocking down an unthinkable 14 of 17 threes in that span. Will his hot streak continue with four days off until the next game?