ESPN released their All-time list and ranked Kawhi Leonard 25th. Much of the reason he ranks so highly is because of his time with the Toronto Raptors and what the has done for the city.
Every year there is a new list determining who the best NBA players are. Whether it is all time or the current time. ESPN has released a new NBA All-time ranking this week. As expected ESPN’s new all-time rankings have no long time Toronto Raptors player, but it does have Kawhi Leonard, who is ranked at the 25th spot. Which is pretty high for a guy who hasn’t even completed his 9th season yet.
I’m here to tell you that his run as a Toronto Raptors player is what cemented him as a top 25 player of all time. Yes, it may seem obvious, but if it weren’t for that run, he wouldn’t even be on this list in the first place (okay maybe not).
I mean he would have some achievements with one Finals MVP and championship, he might’ve made it in the 50-60 range, but nowhere near where he is now, at least not where he’s at right now in his career with no regular-season MVP in his hands.
I am not trying to say that Kawhi isn’t an accomplished player in the regular season. He is after all a four-time All-Star, All-star MVP, five-time All-defensive player, two-time defensive player of the year, and three-time All-NBA. The glaring hole in his portfolio is, of course, the lack of a regular-season MVP award.
This is the biggest critique when having to rank Kawhi Leonard. But does that really matter? James Harden (ranked 32nd) and Steve Nash (ranked 30th) have three MVPs between them, yet they have no championships or finals appearances. Why does not having a regular-season MVP mess up his placement so much if he was able to win two championships nonetheless, including one with the Toronto Raptors.
If Kawhi did have a regular-season MVP, his ranking would probably see him at 23rd. Surpassing Charles Barkley (ranked 23rd) and Elgin Baylor (ranked 22nd) — I think that Robinson should be higher than Charles Barkley and Elgin Baylor both and he should be ranked 22nd. Arguably Kawhi already has a better list of accolades than both Barkley and Baylor who both have zero combined championships. They are obviously rewarded for their longevity and raw stats, which they are miles ahead of Kawhi in that department.
We can also re-look at James Harden and Steve Nash, who are scrutinized for their lack of playoff success. Both players have been instrumental in their team’s success in the regular season. The offense is run through them, and without them, the team would falter.
That’s never the case with Kawhi. He has never been THE piece a team needs to depend on to be successful in the regular season (okay maybe the 2016-2017 Spurs team). Without Harden, the Houston Rockets are nothing. Without Steve Nash, the Suns wouldn’t have been special. But without Kawhi Leonard, teams are still good without him. The 2017-2018 Spurs were still 47-35 in a season that saw Kawhi only play 9 games. Yes, not nearly as great as the 2016-2017 team, but a winning team nonetheless.
Even in his time with the Toronto Raptors last season. Without Kawhi Leonard they were, in fact, a better team, with an incredible record of 19-4. Come playoff time, however, the Toronto Raptors wouldn’t have lasted long without him in the playoffs.
Kawhi’s playoff success
There is a reason Kawhi is ranked 25th, even without a regular-season MVP. And that is his playoff resume. He has two finals MVPs for a reason. You can just look at last season’s run with the Toronto Raptors. He was the most dominant player in the whole playoffs.
Kawhi Leonard single-handedly carried the Toronto Raptors against the Sixers averaging almost 35 points (he had third-most points ever in conference semi-finals). He probably will also have the most iconic and remembered shot in basketball history.
This series alone solidified himself as a top-three player in the league and a top 25 player of all time in ESPN’s rankings. Although he did fall off a bit after the series, he was still the focal point of the Raptors offense and absolutely shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo when he was assigned as his primary defender when they fell two games to none. They ended up winning four in a row and making the finals after that adjustment.
Even when Kawhi was standing on his last leg against the Golden State Warriors, he was still putting up good numbers. He was able to deny yet another team of a three-peat — something he already did with Spurs when he beat the Miami Heat in 2014 — and cemented himself as a top player in the league again.
Kahwi in 2019 playoffs – 30.5 PPG/9.1 RPG/ 3.9 APG/.490 FG%/.379 3P%/.884 FT%
I know he is no longer a Toronto Raptors player anymore, but his legacy got a whole lot better after his one year stint in Toronto. He never really promised much, and there was always ongoing speculation that he was leaving next year anyway. But even with all that, he still gave it his all and delivered Toronto its first championship ever.
If Kawhi Leonard were to ever go even higher in the rankings, which I think he will, I don’t even think he needs a regular-season MVP (although it would help a lot). If Kawhi can find a way to win Finals MVP and add another championship with a THIRD team, then he might be in the conversation for the top 15 players of all time soon enough.
In the end, it’s just a shame that Kawhi Leonard didn’t stay to defend his title. He’ll forever be loved by the city of Toronto and we can’t forget he brought the NBA championship outside of the US after 72 years of the NBA’s existence.