Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard are in the middle of a great matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals. While the Bucks seem to be the superior team to the Raptors, the superstar matchup is a lot more intriguing. While players like Kyrie Irving and Joel Embiid deserve some recognition, Kawhi and Giannis have separated themselves in this debate. So, which of these two players is the best in the East? Let’s take a deeper look.
The Case for Giannis Antetokounmpo:
As seen by the basic statistics, Giannis is a numbers monster. He can score 30 efficiently while getting double digit rebounds with elite defense. The problem however is Giannis’ shooting. His 25.6 percent from 3 isn’t good at all but it has been improving at a good rate by the months. The basic stats don’t tell the whole story however. Giannis’ true dominance comes from his incredible impact and value. At a net rating of +12.8, an On-Off of +9.7 per 100 possessions,and a +9.1 plus/minus, we can see how valuable to his team Giannis is. His team is just 4-6 without him, which would be approximately a 33 win pace over a whole season. Looking at pure skill, Giannis is able to post anyone up and score at will in the paint. He also is great at drawing fouls and kicking it out to the open shooter. Giannis uses his strong physical frame on the defensive side of the ball as well, where he can guard all positions effectively, and uses his arm span to get deflections and easy fast break points where he excels. Giannis may not be a great shooter, but he has a great IQ where he limits his outside shot attempts and uses his height to score easily at the rim. He sets screens and is very unselfish, meaning he buys into team basketball allowing him to lead the Bucks to the best record in the NBA. Giannis is also a good player in the clutch, where his FG% rises to 62.5% due to the his exceptional IQ which allows him to utilize his physical gift and score at will in the paint. Giannis had never made it past the first round of the NBA playoffs prior to this season, but in 2014 he was not a star player, and the next two years he made it, he played teams that were far superior to his. In 2016-17, Giannis took the 3rd seeded Toronto Raptors who went 51-31, to 6 games. Despite the loss, Giannis put up 24.8 PPG on 53.6 FG% along with 9.5 rebounds. Giannis had a worse team that the Raptors but still made the series competitive. The following year, Giannis lost in 7 games to the 2nd seed Boston Celtics who went 55-27 and went on to take the LeBron James lead Cleveland Cavaliers to 7 games in the Eastern Conference Finals.. The Celtics were missing star Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but Giannis was playing one of the best coached teams in the league, while playing with an interim coach in Joe Prunty. In that series, Giannis put up 25.7 points on 57% from the field to go along with 9.6 rebounds. This season, Giannis was surrounded with a quality supporting cast and an elite coach, allowing him to take the next step. So far in these playoffs, Giannis has been averaging 27.1 PPG on 51.4 percent from the field to go along with 11.7 rebounds, but most importantly, two series wins and currently being up on the Raptors 2-1 in the ECF. Giannis has evolved as a player this year, and has taken a major leap forward in his leadership, defense, and playmaking. All in all, Giannis has proven he can be the best player on a championship caliber team, giving him a very strong case for the best player in the East.
The Case for Kawhi Leonard:
Kawhi Leonard is also a monster on the stat sheet, being able to score effectively and efficiently from anywhere on the court all while playing elite defense. Kawhi can shoot the ball effectively as well as seen by his great 3 point shooting and free throw shooting. Leonard is one of the best two way players in the game and has many quality traits such as his ability to turn it up in high pressure moments such as in the clutch or in the playoffs. Kawhi does have some flaws however. His playmaking is subpar and he doesn’t quite elevate his teammates as well as one could hope. Kawhi isn’t the best leader as he basically quit on the Spurs but he definitely is a solid leader on the court. Kawhi’s agility on the court allows for him to get to the rim at will where he can use his strength and patience to score or draw a foul. Kawhi is also very strong which means he can easily post up defenders who attempt to guard him. His 3 point shot is also great so the defender has to be play up, but then Kawhi can use his speed to go right by. This shows off Kawhi’s great versatility and ability to score from anywhere, which helps him in clutch situations. Kawhi is also impactful to his team but not to the extent of Giannis. Leonard has a net rating of +7.8, an On-Off of +5.4, and a +/- of +5.9. The Raptors also played very good without Leonard this season, with a record of 17-5, which is approximately a 63 win pace over the course of a whole season. including a victory against the Golden State Warriors. Kawhi definitely loses the impact and value debate against Giannis. As mentioned before, Kawhi is a sub par playmaker averaging just 3.3 APG. He does average 6.7 potential assists per game but only passes the ball 30.1 times per game, showing that he is mainly focused on creating for himself which is a huge knock. Kawhi is one of the most talented and skilled players in the league but he struggles is some of those major aspects. However, in the clutch Kawhi really gets it going. Leonard hit 4 game winners in the final 10 this season, including a historic one in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2nd Round. Leonard also has been spectacular in his postseason runs, where he has won one ring and one Finals MVP, and has put up great numbers in his other runs. In 2014-15, Leonard put up 20.3 PPG on 47.7% from the field in a tough 7 game loss to the Clippers. The following year, Leonard put up 22.5 PPG on 50% shooting from the field in 10 games before the 6 game loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2nd round. In 2016-17, Leonard put up 27.7 PPG on 52.5% from the field. Kawhi was brilliant in those playoffs, and lead his team to be up double digits in Game 1 against the juggernaut Golden State Warriors before his postseason ended after he landed on Zaza Pachulia which caused him to suffer an ankle injury. This year, Leonard is averaging 31.8 PPG on 52.5% from the field and is currently down 1-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the ECF. Kawhi has been great in these moments, but again, his lack of playmaking is a major knock on his play. Kawhi is a very efficient and high IQ player as seen by his quality shot selection as well. Kawhi is extremely skilled but he has areas to work on in his game.
Verdict: Both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard are elite players and you can’t go wrong with either one, but if I had to choose one, it has to be Giannis. Giannis has one flaw in his game which is his shot, but he’s already improving on it, and quite frankly he doesn’t need on. He is more valuable and impactful to his team than Kawhi, and elevates the players around him, which can be seen in this series. Kawhi is putting up his 30 points, but Giannis is doing that along with getting his teammates involved. If Kawhi can come back and win this series then there is a much more serious debate to held, but as of right now, Giannis is the better player. He has already proven himself to be a top 5 player in the league, and a Finals appearance will solidify that, and may put him at the spot of best player in the world.