Watch basketball long enough and you’ll be witness to reincarnation. I’m not talking about the natural tendency to compare incoming players with established ones. That’s a necessary strategy for coping with a lack of hard data, a framework for talking about rookies and such without resorting to palm reading or bullshit. The most entertaining thing about those kind of player-equals-player forecasts is when they go wildly wrong — as they often do, because human beings are fallible and, quite often, dumb.
No, I’m talking about the real and spooky thing that happens when a player’s talent, size, and skills intertwine in a way that feels like an older player reborn. Like how DeMar DeRozan’s slashing, angular midrange game and wiry, fast-twitch athleticism is a modern take on Latrell Sprewell’s (minus the bad 3s, braids, and coach strangulation). Or how Isaiah Thomas’s fearless downhill skittering and sui generis ground-bound shot-making has evolved into a more efficient Allen Iverson hologram. That’s what I’m talking about. Basketball players have two arms, two legs, a head, and there are a finite number of ways the human body can marshal its limbs to put a ball through a cylinder, so it’s inevitable that players will remind you of previous players.
The eeriest and most incongruent of these metaphysical reimaginings is Kawhi Leonard’s shocking and ongoing transformation into a cutting-edge remix of Peak Kobe Bryant.
I will now take a few seconds to soak in the hatred that Lakers and Spurs partisans are probably projecting at me for similar yet philosophically opposed reasons. If I’ve made Lakers fans mad with this take, it’s for comparing any corporeal human, non-Jesus-level deity, to say nothing of one who plays for a Western Conference rival, to Kobe Bryant. Spurs fans are likely upset because I just compared Kawhi to a player who he is now better than. (I asked Spurs fan Shea Serrano if he was mad that I compared Kawhi to Kobe. “It’s an apt comparison,” he said.) Whatever. Now you want proof. Please look at these numbers, contrasting Kobe’s 2008 MVP season and Kawhi’s 2016–17 campaign.
Now, stats aren’t everything — despite Kobe and his stans’ insistence that rings are the most important metric. Numbers, in and of themselves, do not fully capture a player. They don’t account for style and can’t measure the impact a player can have on an audience. Numbers are a coldly rational way of measuring achievement in the most basic sense. They exist totally separately from the emotional framework that makes sports great.
That said: Look at how similar those numbers are! After controlling for Kobe’s heavier minutes load, some interesting differences — though mostly small ones, particularly on the offensive end — come to the fore. Leonard is more efficient than Bryant was. No surprise there. Kawhi gets his points in fewer shots and at a higher percentage; Bryant got to the line more.
The most remarkable and counterintuitive similarity, considering San Antonio’s motion offense, and Kawhi’s innate unselfishness, is Kobe’s edge in assists and assist percentage. This despite Kobe’s unwillingness to relinquish the ball and his propensity for forcing up shots over double and triple coverage. Kawhi’s passes happen within the flow of San Antonio’s beautifully whirling offense. Bryant, meanwhile, was prone to burning clock and hunting for an opening before moving the ball to a teammate, who would then have to launch a shot.
Most importantly for this seemingly absurd exercise of apples to oranges, Leonard’s usage rate, 31.1 percent, is essentially identical to Bryant’s MVP-year usage rate of 31.4. That’s the highest percentage of plays used by any Spurs wing since George Gervin, and it’s the sixth-highest mark in franchise history. The last Spur to use over 30 percent of the team’s plays was Tony Parker in 2008–09, when Coach Pop handed the Frenchman the keys to compensate for an aging Tim Duncan.
The resemblances run deeper. Kobe’s defining trait, from the moment he entered the league, was his rabid, mono-maniacal thirst for the kill shot. It was as if taking bad-idea jumpers under intense pressure was the only way for him to not feel dead inside. Kobe Bryant launched four consecutive air balls in a crucial Western Conference finals game — as an 18-year-old rookie — and turned that epic meltdown into his mission statement, the first brick in a legacy.
When a weatherbeaten 37-year-old Bryant put up 60 points on 50 shots in his final game to power Los Angeles to an epic viking funeral comeback win for the ages, no better ending to his career could be imagined. Kobe was like a basketball version of the sphinx’s riddle: What shoots four air balls in the morning, two air balls at noon, and three air balls in the evening? A shooter. And shooters shoot because they must.
Now watch this, and tell me it doesn’t remind you of Kobe.
It is spring 2017, and among the various signs that this timeline is hurtling toward the dark maw of an irreversible global apocalypse is that the selfless no-I-in-I Kawhi Leonard is the closest thing we have to a remorseless über-gunner. The Spurs’ Game 4 loss to the Grizzlies is illustrative of Kawhi’s evolution from quiet defensive destroyer who gets his points within a team concept to quiet defensive destroyer who gets his points within a team concept until it’s clutch time, at which point his balls swell to the size of planets.
Kawhi’s much improved ballhandling will likely never replicate the intricate detail of Bryant’s handle. Similarly, Kawhi’s suite of scoring moves at the basket is spartan compared with Kobe’s. Kawhi drives in for straight-up spine-crusher dunks or layups. Kobe’s forays to the rim were a choose-your-own-adventure experience.
But the junkyard doggedness; the I-AM-THE-MAN, sheriff-at-high-noon swagger; the assuredness with which he takes his team onto his shoulders; the Memento-disease-like ability to banish bad plays from his conscience seconds after they occur; the overall impression you get while watching Kawhi that he is an assassin, and one that greatly enjoys his work — that’s the pure Kobe, minus divisive cult of personality, sundry team chemistry, and off-court issues.
Kobe’s clutch time (five minutes to go, score within five points) usage rate in 2007–08 was 41 percent. This season, Kawhi’s was 40 percent. Bryant averaged 2.5 shots and 3.8 points per game in crunch time. Kawhi averaged 2.6 and 3.7. Kobe used 41 percent of the Lakers’ crunch-time possessions. Kawhi used 40.4.
The major difference is because of his ne plus ultra ability to drill into an opponent’s chest on defense, Leonard’s clutch-time net rating is a stupefying plus-24. Kobe’s was a shrug-inducing plus-5.5.
There are human beings graduating college today who do not know a world in which the Spurs win less than 50 games. And San Antonio has done it with a parade of guys whose on-court personalities never pop out of the backdrop of the team aesthetic. Under Popovich, the Spurs pioneered a brand of egalitarian no-drama teamwork that is seductive and undeniably effective. The team hasn’t had a losing season since 1996–97. The illusion Pop created is that if his formula can be reverse-engineered, a team could win with six or eight good basketball players instead of one or two exceptional ones plus role players. The Hawks tried that and failed. The real secret of the Pop era is: To win it all, you need that guy, that superstar, that killer, that Kobe-like figure. Today, that Kobe is Kawhi.