In the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.
In the Game of NBA Kings, you are the best or you aren’t.
The Kingdom of LeBron has been forfeited. As despite great season averages this year, the Lakers have missed the playoffs and LeBron seems to moving into the twilight of his career.
Now, some of you will be overly attached to LeBron and throw his stats at me and say something like “he’s still playing great. It’s not his fault his teammates suck and they can’t build around him. LeBron is still the best you’re just caught up in recency bias.”
I assure you social media keeps me aware LeBron can still play good basketball. But where is he? And why did he quit on the Lakers this year. Inexcusable behaviour from the best player.
So that’s it. Crown forfeited.
If we do this exercise again in a year and the Lakers make the playoffs, we can re-examine LeBron.
But right now we need a new King.
We have four contenders for the crown.
Kevin Durant. James Harden. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kawhi Leonard.
This is the four. That’s it. Take your opinions on other guys somewhere else.
I tried to think of the most fair and accurate way to compare these four players and I devised something simplistic but also unnecessarily complicated.
In 10 categories of basketball greatness, the four kings will be ranked from 1 to 4, with the top ranked player in every category receiving 3 points and the lowest ranked player getting none. At the end we tally up the points and that is our new NBA overlord and ruler.
This is to avoid bias on any particular skill, stat or intangible, a sin all basketball fans are guilty of. This is impartiality at its’ absolute apex.
Naturally some of you will rebel against the tool much like the scouts from Moneyball rebelled against Brad Pitt.
But if you just follow the model, we can achieve great things.
We’re not necessarily talking who averages the most points. We’re talking about the best of the four at getting buckets at an efficient clip against any defenders. It also is referring to the ability to score the best in a variety of ways on as many spots on the floor as possible.
Giannis has had an impressive average this year at 27.7 points per game and 28.4 in the playoffs. He’s a dominate finisher who shoots over 50% from the field and can dunk on anybody in the league. However he is a poor outside shooter to say the least and he has been inconsistent at the line. Giannis is not close to taking this category.
Kawhi Leonard has dominated scoring the ball this post season, averaging 31.2 on 57% shooting. He can knock down a three ball, get to the rim and finish with power or finesse, hit a nasty step back or float the ball over the top of a defender in the lane. He is the only consistent source of scoring on his team and sets the tone offensively.
Meanwhile Harden averaged the most points in the regular season at 36.1 (the 7th highest PPG in a regular season of all time) and did so shooting 47% from the field as a high usage playmaker and scorer. However he’s now dipped to 31 and shooting under 40% from the field in the playoffs, becoming more inefficient as a scorer.
While the playoffs do matter, it’s hard to put Kawhi over Harden based on small sample size, particularly as Harden has been a more consistent all around scorer than Kawhi for some time.
It isn’t hard however to say this: Kevin Durant is one of the best all time scorers. 35.4 points per game in the playoffs will make people say that about you. He is the most versatile scorer of the bunch as he is able to match the shooting of league bests like Stephen Curry, finish at the rack as good as Giannis and hit shots with a hand in his face like a peak Dirk or Kobe.
Unlike the other players on this list, no one has actually stopped Durant from scoring. And unlike the others on this list, Durant has been one of the best scorers in the league (if not the best) for a decade now.
Results: Durant +3(3), Harden +2(2), Kawhi +1(1), Giannis gets no points (0)
While the last category was more competitive at the top, this one isn’t really much of a contest for first. Harden clearly is the winner here, as the only player on the list who has averaged over 7 assists in a season and actually had one year where he had 11 assists. Harden wins this.
Who’s second? All the averages are in the 3-5 range which is typical amongst scoring small forwards. I would tend to put Kawhi out of the running for second and in the final position because he appears to be more of a solitary player than Giannis and Durant. Kawhi is going to have 30+ and play awesome D, but you need to find a way to spread the ball around through someone else or through your system.
Giannis has been impressive as the point forward for the Bucks and his ability to distribute has been a pleasant positive in his potential MVP year. He is very much the engine that makes Milwaukee go and while you could say that about Durant too, Durant doesn’t have to shoulder the same load in this regard that Giannis does.
If we’re splitting hairs between those three, role matters.
Results: Harden +3(5), Giannis +2(2), Durant +1(4), Kawhi no points (1)
This is about who’s the best with the ball in their hands, who can create with the dribble and who is the best at keeping the ball safe.
At first glance, your gut says Harden. He hits a tonne of his shots off the dribble, his crossover is sick and there are massive amounts of IG clips with defenders falling over from a move Harden has made. What brings this into question is the turnovers.
On any average night, Harden will have 3-4 turnovers. This doesn’t get better in the post season, where his turnover average creeps up to a dangerous 5 turnovers. The increased trapping and defensive pressure does get more TOs out of the beard.
Durant also has some issues when it comes to turnovers in the post season when he takes teams off the dribble. It seems to be a contagious disease in Warriorland, where Durant is not asked to do as much off the dribble as Harden is on a nightly basis.
Kawhi and Giannis are tight with the basketball, probably due to the size of their freakish alien like hands (are we 100% sure those two aren’t legitimate aliens?). Kawhi keeps a tight handle in the half court, but it’s usually in spots where he’s going one on one with the defender, while Giannis is more entrusted to run an offence at the point and is an all time great ball handler in transition.
So Giannis is the closest contender to Harden here. It’s difficult for me to give this over to Giannis however given the pure wizardry Harden is capable off the dribble.
Results: Harden +3(8), Giannis +2(4), Kawhi +1(2), Durant no points (4)
Here is Harden’s first no point round. He can’t compete in this area, so I won’t waste words talking about it.
Durant, whilst 7 feet tall and a good rebounder for his position, is also a clear third.
The Klaw first made his name for the San Antonio Spurs as a great defender and rebounder. Kawhi is capable of a 15 rebound performance on any given night and has done so in the playoffs.
But the winner is Giannis.
Giannis averages over 10 boards both in the regular season (12.5) and the playoffs (11.9). He’s an overwhelming physical force on the boards who can’t be boxed out due to being too fast for a big or too strong for a small. Medium size players also won’t do because Giannis is both quicker and stronger than those guys.
If you throw the ball up against the back board and see who gets the rebound, I expect Giannis to come down with it nine times out of ten against the other three.
Results: Giannis +3(7), Kawhi +2(3), Durant +1(5), Harden no points (8)
Here’s another Harden no point round. Again, not wasting words.
Durant and Giannis are both elite defenders. With a rare combination of mobility and length, they can really ruin an offensive players day and smoother them out of a game. Durant recently did so to Harden, but Durant is a little more vulnerable to smaller quicker players than Giannis is. Giannis as well will guard the best player on the other team all game and every game more consistently than Durant will, so edge goes to Giannis.
There is, however, no discussion about the winner. Kawhi is the best perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen and/or Michael Jordan. He has completely annihilated elite offensive players with his defence on a regular basis. This postseason alone, he has made us sincerely doubt if Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris could ever score.
Kawhi can guard tall, short, fast and strong. He can take away your jump shot, driving lanes, step back, can pick your pocket and can force you to throw the ball away in a panic.
The man is a T-800 on defence.
Results: Kawhi +3(6), Giannis +2(9), Durant +1(6), Harden no points (8)
Harden no. No word waste.
While Kawhi is the clear number one in perimeter defence, he is mostly untested at the rim, as he rarely has a big man assignment and is rarely the rim protector for his teams.
Durant has played a small ball five for the Warriors and has actually been a good shot blocker for them. His height and length have made him imposing at the rim, racking up around 2 blocks a game.
But Giannis is a beast in the paint on defence as well as offence. When protecting the rim, opponent’s field goal percentage within 6 feet of the rim goes down 10%.
If you’re a random NBA player, and you’re informed that you’re field goal percentage will go down by 10% if you do something, you would avoid it as hard as Ferris Bueller avoids his principle on a day off (that movie is recent enough for a reference right?).
The stats match the eye test too, as Giannis would also be the most intimidating foe to face when driving to the hoop.
Results: Giannis +3(12), Durant +2(8), Kawhi +1(7), Harden no points (8)
Kawhi and Durant are facing off for the bronze here. Both guys can run the floor well and get a finish at the rim. Both can run to a spot on the three point line and hit a catch and shoot three. Both can get back on D and erase a shot attempt on a chase down at similar capacities.
The difference maker here is that Durant is a better fast break opportunity handler than Kawhi, and is a better dribble up transition shooter in a fast break situation. Durant gets the slight edge here.
Now to the gold medal match, Giannis and Harden. Harden is quick, crafty and smooth in transition. Not only can he score in transition at the rim or from the perimeter, but he can also make amazing passes in transition that puts him in a class above Durant and Kawhi. He can beat any transition D.
But Giannis can ruin your life.
Here’s a normal play for Giannis: Obliterate some poor soul’s fast break layup attempt after sprinting the length of the court at hyperspeed, collect what remains of the ball, take three dribble to get at the rim on the other side of the court and dunk on whatever poor soul happens to be standing in front of the ring.
Harden can beat you but Giannis can perform a ritualistic heart extraction while the Bucks fans chant ‘Kali-Ma! Kali-Ma! Kali Ma!’ (Indiana Jones is also pretty hip and happening I’ve heard).
Results: Giannis +3(15), Harden +2(10), Durant +1(9), Kawhi no points (7)
This one is more eye test than fact but, who is either the last guy you want to see in a big moment on the floor or the guy you trust most in big moments for your team.
Let’s start here: there is a philosophy that Giannis is a 46 minute man. Giannis is not known as a closer and he has not had to show that he is a closer of the highest order so far. There’s room to change our minds, but this hasn’t happened yet.
Harden is a supreme offensive talent as mentioned previously, and has hit his fair share of clutch shots. But he has also failed more often than Kawhi and Durant in big moments, plus he is more likely to be pulled from the game in big defensive moments than anyone else on the list.
So it’s down to two guys, Kawhi and Durant. Kawhi is a more clutch defender, which is an important edge however slight. Kawhi has also hit some huge shots at the end of games to propel his teams to wins.
But Durant has done that, in the Finals, two years in a row.
Durant is the closer you want because you trust him more to hit the biggest shot.
When everyone clears out, the shot clock is winding down and he’s one on one with the other teams’ top defender, you trust him the most.
A close second for Leonard, but a win for KD here.
Results: Durant +3(12), Kawhi +2(9), Harden +1(11), Giannis no points (15)
Yes this matters.
For everyone who’s going to complain about this category, keep it to yourself.
Resume matters in basketball. It gives you legitimacy, experience and confidence. However it doesn’t overwrite all the other skill based areas of consideration, thus still only worth three points.
Giannis has been MVP great for one season and just won his first playoff round ever so he gets the fourth place as a result.
Kawhi is a Finals MVP, three time All-Star and a two time defensive player of the year. However he has been inconsistently included in the top of MVP voting and his legacy as a top guy on a team is solid but not excellent.
Harden is a league MVP, seven time All-Star, a three time league leader in points, a league leader in assists and a four time All-NBA first teamer.
Harden has also finished second in MVP voting twice (one of which was the Westbrook year he should have won the award) and won a sixth man of the year.
An impressive resume…however here’s KDs
- 2 x Finals MVP
- 1 x MVP
- 3 x Second place in voting for MVP
- 6 x All NBA First Team
- 5 x Scoring Champion
- 10 x All Star
- 2 x All Star MVP
- Made the Finals with OKC
If Durant handed you his basketball resume, you would be more impressed with his than any of the other three. No argument otherwise.
Results: Durant +3(15), Harden +3(14), Kawhi +1(10), Giannis no points (15)
In what I personally regard as the most important category, this is about who is great all the time. Day in day out, you can rely on this player to play at his absolute best.
Unfortunately, there is no stat for consistency to base this on. So this one is all eye test and reason.
Harden gets a last place, as the playoffs have tended to be a place where he has faltered and followed 30 point performances with scoring efforts in the low teens.
Harden has had too many games where he excessively turns the ball over and misses shots to give you confidence he will be great every time.
Kawhi is still an injury concern. It was only last year he sat out an entire season with a mysterious lower body injury. On top of that, Kawhi played 60/82 games in the regular season, garnering an immense amount of rest. It’s hard then to say he’s more consistent than Durant and Giannis if he’s not been on the floor playing basketball as much.
Now it get’s really difficult, because Durant and Giannis are two of the most physically impressive and consistently performing players the league has to offer. Giannis on a bad night is still a great night for another player.
But this is a more recent development for Giannis, who is in the later stages of his first season as a consensus MVP candidate.
Unfortunately for Giannis, the determining factor in terms of consistency is being so over a longer period of time.
Kevin Durant has been consistently in the top 3 player conversation for 10 years now.
You have no doubt that he is going to be great no matter what time of year it is, because he’s been great in every possible situation across any and all teams his been on.
Therefore, Durant is the most consistent.
Results: Durant +3(18), Giannis +2(17), Kawhi +1(11), Harden no points (14)
Here’s how it shook it in the end.
Some observations, Kawhi suffers because he appears to be a more solitary player than the other three. Kawhi is plug and play almost to fault, who can fit in any system but isn’t the kind of player you can put on the floor to set the culture for everyone else on offence. He gets to his spots, he gets buckets and whatever else you’re doing with other players you can figure out yourself.
Harden is the most talented offensive player of the bunch, but suffers because of his inability to affect games with his defence and rebounding. His inconsistency also hurt him and ultimately is too much to overcome to be regarded as the top guy.
If he puts together a few more years of consistent greatness (perhaps starting with a title this year), we can revisit the argument for Harden.
What we really learned is Durant and Giannis are duelling for the top spot, which has gone to Durant purely for the fact that he has been sustaining this high a level for a longer period of time.
Again, this still matters just as much as anything else and Durant’s sweep of the closer, resume and consistency categories ultimately put him over the top of Giannis.
Perhaps a potential showdown in the NBA Finals can provide us reason to bounce Giannis over KD or vindicate this assessment in putting Durant first.
Long live King Durant of *Golden State.
* subject to royal relocation.