- The Raptors' All-Star has been a killer this postseason. But where does his offensive performance rank amongst the NBA's elite, and can that style win a championship for Toronto?
As crunch time possessions become ever more scrutinized, The Open Floor podcast took a a moment to size up the current state of isolation scorers remaining in the postseason. Kawhi Leonard's brilliance has been nothing short of amazing in the East. But how does it compare to the solo successes of Kevin Durant and James Harden these playoffs? Andrew Sharp and The Washington Post's Ben Golliver discuss the current pantheon of scorers, but also if iso-ball is the best way to win in the postseason.
(Listen to the latest Crossover podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Andrew Sharp: OK.
So Durant and Kawhi have a complicated history. Durant has publicly called Kawhi a "system player" on a couple different occasions. He said it first in 2014 and in 2016 he refused to recant. And I think that there's probably some simmering tension that would complicate cany kind of dream team with those two.
Ben Golliver: That's fine. Kawhi can just play defense he doesn't have to come over half court and Kevin should just play offense he doesn't have to come over half court. They can make a work.
Sharp: I think that's the whole point with Kawhi though his offense is absolutely on Durant's level right now. Which is crazy to think about.
Golliver: I don't know. I really think I really disagree with that because I think he's getting a lot of attention because he's scoring so well in isolation. But is that the best way to play? I mean, I think I've got one question: I've been, you know kind of making fun of him a little bit about, 'OK, he's in and out of lineup this and that.' But, you know, chemistry wise, everybody's falling by the wayside. They don't seem to have that offensive system to kind of make each other better. Even in Game 1, it was the Kawhi show and the Pascal show and everybody else was just kind of standing around watching. And for a lot of that Orlando Magic series it was just like, 'Hey, here's Kawhi beating up on some kids who can't guard him.' Is that the best way to play basketball? If we're going to criticize James Harden for being too iso-heavy and not really playing within a team framework and, you know, eventually hitting an upper limit on how far your team can go playing that way, don't we have to apply a similar standard to Kawhi?
Sharp: Well, we would accept that Kawhi has been twice as effective playing that style so far, and so, I think that has to matter as well. If you want to say that Durant is a better creator, who can exist within a motion heavy offense but like no—
Golliver: Slow down, slow down. When did Kawhi win playoff games as the number one lead option on an offense? He hasn't done that? He got injured—
Sharp: Game 1. Against the Sixers
Golliver: Okay. And he beat the Orlando Magic. That's going to that's gonna trump James Harden's multiple runs the Western Conference finals? Come on.
Sharp: All right. So are you saying that you would rather have James Harden than Kawhi? Because I disagree.
Golliver: As a lead off lead option of any lead offense? Yes, I would.
Sharp: OK, well then we agree to disagree on that front. I think that Kawhi is probably the most talented iso scorer alive right now. And Durant is great in a lot of different ways and maybe the more complete offensive player who is slightly better overall. But I think it's those two, and Steph, are the three best players alive at this point.
Golliver: But don't you think this playoffs has been kind of a referendum on this isolation basketball you love to glorify?
Sharp: No, that's not really my problem with Harden. The iso game would work better if he added more diversity is his offense, which at this point, we now say on every podcast—I mean that's a whole separate conversation.
Golliver: But isn't team oriented basketball winning in these playoffs? I think that's my point. Like when we've looked at these best teams and how they play when they're really humming, whether it's the Golden State Warriors—especially at times of their first round series—it's been kind of a grind here in the second round. If we look at the Milwaukee Bucks, in terms of how they played in Game 2 of their series. If we look at how Boston was getting scoring from all five positions in their Game 1 victory. And frankly how Philly was playing in Game 3 in terms of keeping the ball, you know, moving around and getting a balanced attack. Isn't that the way these teams are winning? So why are we saying Kawhi Leonard is like this God who has to be respected and he's this incredible player?
Sharp: I think that is a little bit too early to make definitive statements about what style of basketball is winning.
Golliver: It's only been five years or so.
Sharp: No, no, no, hold on. A lot of what the Warriors are winning with is Kevin Durant and isolation and him hitting incredible shots. And so, like, I understand what you're saying.
Golliver: But that's third third option.
Sharp: And if you're going to nitpick Kawhi's game, what you do is say, 'You need to double this guy. He is still only ordinary as a creator.' And that's kind of his kryptonite.And that is a valid criticism. But what I would say is, that beyond that criticism, he is just, like, A-plus in every other category. And talk to Sixers fans this week who will say, 'Playing that dude is god damn terrifying. Like he is The Terminator come to life on a basketball court. And he is also a free agent this summer. I think it's a huge story.
Golliver: I don't see it winning a title. If that's your style of play, I just don't see it. Especially not this year. I also think Golden State's isolation success from Kevin Durant, is, that's like their third or fourth option on offense right there. They're moving the ball well, they're taking care of the ball well, and this series, it's just bin a real ugly, kind of grind-it-out type series, and they go to that as their backup plan.
Sharp: That's that's how a lot of playoff games go. I mean when they start to break down, that's when you need iso scorers.
Golliver: But that's the whole point. They've also won multiple titles, by you know. with their first and second option being the ball movement, the three pointers and everything else. Look if Steph's going to be in foul trouble, yes they're going to default to the "Kevin Durant" setting. If he's going to just be on a tear and not miss a shot for two weeks straight, of course they're going to ask him,you know, to go ahead and do that. But just like you're calling on James Harden to have more diversification in the types of scoring that he's doing, you can transcend that out to the whole-level, the team-level, and say, 'You have to have more than one way you're going about doing this.' And right now for Toronto, when they're grinding down, they only have one answer. They don't have any counters and that's why they're getting clogged up and that's why they're not good enough and I think we've seen some teams, not only the Warriors, but other teams, have much more layered offensive approaches, you know, much more balanced offensive approaches. And I think we've seen since the start of the Warriors era, that's the way you win in the playoffs. It really is, having multiple different things you can do, not just getting stuck into one way, and I question whether Kawhi has the other layers, because he's not really that good of a playmaker for his teammates. He's just not.