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The 15 Facts That Explain Kawhi Leonard’s All-Time Great Playoff Run

How does the Raptors star’s legendary 2019 postseason stack up in the annals of NBA history?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Game 6’s heroics belonged mostly to Toronto’s point guards, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, but these NBA Finals, like these entire playoffs, belonged to Kawhi Leonard. The first-year Raptors star completed one of the most impressive postseason runs in recent history on Thursday, sealing Toronto’s first title by hitting three free throws in the final second. He scored just 22 points in Game 6, his lowest output of the Finals, but he could be forgiven a somewhat slower night after all that he had already accomplished this spring.

Leonard’s past—which included a 2014 Finals MVP run with the Spurs—first established his playoff bona fides. His present confirmed his status as one of the NBA’s top players. And his future remains a mystery, as Kawhi prepares to enter free agency this summer as perhaps, with Kevin Durant injured, the most sought-after player on the market. Before rampant speculation overtakes the NBA narrative, though, let’s take one final moment to commemorate Leonard’s postseason triumph. The following 15 notes and statistics all point to that same resounding conclusion: Kawhi just delivered a playoff performance for the ages. (Unless otherwise specified, the following facts refer to the 16-playoff-team era, which dates back to 1984, and specifically to players who appeared in at least 10 games during a given postseason.)

1. With his four-bouncer against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals—perhaps the league’s most important shot in modern memory, given the assorted ramifications that resulted—Leonard became the first player in NBA history to win a Game 7 with a buzzer-beater. (Michael Jordan won a do-or-die Game 5 with his famous shot over Craig Ehlo.) But you probably knew that already. Let’s move on to the new goodies.

2. Leonard is just the third player in league history to win Finals MVP with multiple teams, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Bucks, Lakers) and LeBron James (Heat, Cavaliers).

3. Of course, Leonard didn’t just lead the Raptors in the Finals. He led them throughout these whole playoffs. Let’s start by looking at the most basic statistic: points. Here is a list of every player since 1984 to average more playoff points per game than Leonard—who finished with 30.5—on a championship team:

  • Michael Jordan, 1993 (35.1 points per game)
  • Michael Jordan, 1992 (34.5)
  • Hakeem Olajuwon, 1995 (33.0)
  • Michael Jordan, 1998 (32.4)
  • Michael Jordan, 1991 (31.1)
  • Michael Jordan, 1997 (31.1)
  • Shaquille O’Neal, 2000 (30.7)
  • Michael Jordan, 1996 (30.7)

There are two key takeaways here: Leonard had the highest playoff scoring average since 2000. And that Jordan guy was pretty good.

4. Scoring isn’t the only measure of success, though. Let’s turn to game score, a statistic devised by John Hollinger to capture the entirety of a player’s box-score contributions in a single number. Leonard’s 24.2 cumulative game score in these playoffs is mighty impressive. The only champions with a higher average game score than Leonard in 2019 are Larry Bird in 1984 and 1986; Jordan in 1991, 1992, and 1993; Olajuwon in 1995; and O’Neal in 2000. So once again, Leonard is tops since 2000.

5. Among all players with at least 10 playoff games in a season since 1984 (not just the champions), the top eight game scores—and 10 of the top 11—belong to either Jordan or James. Leonard is great; historically so. But he’s not Jordan or James in terms of full-game impact every night.

6. Unlike some other prolific scorers, Leonard achieved his point totals with tremendous efficiency. His 62 percent true shooting mark in these playoffs made him a member of another elite club: players who averaged 30-plus points per game while maintaining a 60-plus true shooting percentage. Besides Leonard, that list in the 16-playoff-team era is just Adrian Dantley in 1984, Bernard King in 1984, Alex English in 1985, Jordan in 1989, O’Neal in 1998, and James in 2009, 2017, and 2018.

7. None of those eight prior seasons ended with a championship, however. Leonard is the first champion to eclipse 30 points per game with 60 percent true shooting.

8. Another all-encompassing statistic is win shares, which divvies up credit for a team’s victories proportional to each player’s contribution. By this measure, Leonard is deemed responsible for 4.9 win shares in these playoffs. That’s the sixth-best mark for any player since 1984, behind only Tim Duncan in 2003, Dirk Nowitzki in 2006, and LeBron in 2012, 2013, and 2018. Players since 2003 have some advantage here: The first round expanded from best-of-five to best-of-seven that year, affording first-round winners an extra victory to divide among their players.

9. Leonard inspires more fun facts because he recorded all of these achievements in his first season with the Raptors. Limiting our sample size to just post-1984 removes some notable performances of this ilk, such as Magic Johnson’s rookie postseason with the Lakers in 1980 and Moses Malone’s debut playoffs with the 76ers in 1983. Throughout NBA history, only those two, Kevin Durant in 2017, and Kawhi this year have won Finals MVP in their first season with a team.

10. Since 1984, the statistical company Kawhi keeps among first-season-with-a-team players is astounding. During that time frame, here’s a ranking of the players who tallied the most playoff win shares in their debut campaigns with a franchise heading into 2018-19:

  • Charles Barkley, 1993 Suns (4.6 playoff win shares)
  • Kevin Garnett, 2008 Celtics (4.1)
  • LeBron James, 2011 Heat (3.8)
  • Dikembe Mutombo, 2001 76ers (3.8)
  • Chauncey Billups, 2009 Nuggets (3.2)
  • Kevin Durant, 2017 Warriors (3.1)
  • Ray Allen, 2008 Celtics (3.1)

That list contains a host of legendary playoff runs—and Leonard bested them all with his 4.9–win share total.

11. The more remarkable comparisons, though, come when contemplating how singular this playoff run might look in retrospect, if Leonard leaves Toronto in free agency this summer. That kind of rental-year performance would be truly unprecedented, with no other season coming close. He would, for instance, become the first rental player to win Finals MVP.

12. The previous top playoff rental player by win shares was Tyson Chandler for the 2011 Mavericks (2.7), as he formed a Finals-winning frontcourt tandem with Dirk Nowitzki. The other top options aren’t nearly as memorable as Leonard this year:

  • James Posey, 2008 Celtics (2.2 win shares)
  • Tim Thomas, 2006 Suns (1.7)
  • Damon Jones, 2005 Heat (1.7)
  • Danny Manning, 1994 Hawks (1.5)
  • Rodney Rogers, 2002 Celtics (1.5)
  • Bismack Biyombo, 2016 Raptors (1.5)

If Leonard leaves in free agency, his 4.9 win shares mean that he was worth as many wins as the other two top rental players in the 16-playoff-team era combined.

13. Here is a list of the top previous rental players from 1984 until now by playoff points per game instead of win shares:

  • Manning, 1994 Hawks (20.0 points per game)
  • Xavier McDaniel, 1992 Knicks (18.8)
  • Jarrett Jack, 2013 Warriors (17.2)
  • Lamar Odom, 2004 Heat (16.8)
  • Nate Robinson, 2013 Bulls (16.3)

That Nate Robinson run was outrageous fun. He scored 34 points in a triple-overtime win! And yet, if he qualifies near the top of a leaderboard, it merely demonstrates the weakness of that particular player pool. Leonard exceeded 30 points per game. No other rental player has exceeded 20.

14. If that isn’t enough, Leonard’s cumulative game score in these playoffs was 24.2. Here is every previous rental player who reached a total even half that high:

  • Manning, 1994 Hawks (15.2)
  • Jack, 2013 Warriors (12.6)
  • McDaniel, 1992 Knicks (12.5)

That’s it. By game score, Leonard was basically twice as good in the postseason as any other rental player during the 16-playoff-team era.

15. But let’s not think about Leonard’s possibly leaving Toronto just yet, and instead conclude with one longer note about what he has meant to the franchise. He brought the city a title, obviously; he also turned in by far the best set of postseason performances in team history. Seven of the top 14 game scores in Raptors playoff history now belong to Leonard; so do 11 of the top 22. (Vince Carter’s seventh-best playoff game, by comparison, is 73rd on the all-time franchise list. His 11th-best game is in 213th place.)

The black diamonds on this graph denote all of Leonard’s game scores this postseason. The red circles denote all other game scores in franchise playoff history (among players with at least 30 minutes played). Look how closely concentrated Leonard’s diamonds are to the left, with the exception of one bad outlier game—his 5-of-19 shooting effort in Game 3 of the first round against Orlando. Every other game this spring inspired a solid Leonard performance, or better.

The most tragic part of this graph is the reverse end of the leaderboard, home to DeMar DeRozan—the main player Toronto traded away in its package deal to acquire Leonard last July. DeRozan enjoyed plenty of excellent playoff games in Toronto—he has 10 of the top 50 games on the graph—but also struggled often under a playoff glare. The worst game on that graph belongs to DeRozan, when he somehow collected a negative-5 game score in one 2016 loss to the Heat. Overall, six of the 13 worst games belong to the man now growing stronger alone. Here’s that graph again, with all of DeRozan’s games highlighted instead of Leonard’s.

Look how much more spread out DeRozan’s playoff games are. He was good and decent and bad. But that’s not a unique slight against DeRozan, who had the misfortune of facing LeBron year after year, while Leonard’s Raptors team could avoid the King entirely. Most players are good and bad and decent—but not Leonard.

So where does this all leave Leonard’s run, legacy-wise? He won his second Finals MVP, in his first and maybe only season with a new team, by recording one of the five or 10 best playoff runs since the postseason expanded to 16 teams. He scored at the most prolific rate of any champion in nearly 20 years; he had the best combination of scoring rate and efficiency of any champion in the entire data set. If he ends up leaving Toronto this summer, he’ll have set a new standard for rental players; he’ll also be the greatest playoff performer in Raptors franchise history, regardless of what comes next. And he accomplished it all while contending with a talented 76ers team, a historically dominant Bucks team, and a Warriors dynasty that might have started to crumble at Leonard’s hands. This title is Toronto’s; this postseason was Kawhi’s.