Toronto Raptors

Is Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo the best player in the Eastern Conference?

Kawhi-Giannis_FTR.jpg
Kawhi Leonard vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo (NBA Canada Illustrations)

Now that LeBron James is in the Western Conference, the crown for the best player in the Eastern Conference is up for grabs.

There are a number of worthy candidates - Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker - but the consensus coming into the season was that it'll be a two-man race between Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It's only fitting, then, that the two superstars find themselves being mentioned as MVP candidates in the early going.

For Leonard, he led the Toronto Raptors to its best start in franchise history and has continued his strong play since with averages of 26.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals per game. Antetokounmpo, meanwhile, led the Milwaukee Bucks to its best start in almost 50 years and has continued his strong play with averages of 25.6 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.3 blocks per game.

So what does that mean for the crown of the best player in the Eastern Conference? To answer that question, let's take a close look at how they match up in five different categories.

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Category 1: Shooting

This one isn't close.

While Antetokounmpo puts far more pressure on teams in the paint, Leonard is the more complete scorer. It starts from midrange and extends all the way out to the 3-point line, where he has knocked down nearly 40.0 percent of his attempts in his career.

The combination makes Leonard one of the more efficient three-level scorers we have in the league today.

To be fair to Antetokounmpo, there aren't many players who would win a head-to-head shooting battle with Leonard. (You're basically looking at players like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard). It just doesn't help that Leonard's greatest strength on offence is Antetokounmpo's only real weakness.

Kawhi 1, Giannis 0

Category 2: Playmaking

There are a couple of ways to measure playmaking. The first is by looking at how often a player creates offence for themselves. The second is by looking at how much offence a player creates for their teammates.

Either way, Antetokounmpo has Leonard beat.

Not only have the majority of Antetokounmpo's field goals in his career thus far been unassisted - something that can't be said for Leonard - he has developed into one of the best passers at his position. According to NBA.com, the two-time All-Star created 13.7 points per game with his assists in 2016-17. He then created a similar amount (12.1) last season.

Both of those marks put him ahead of Leonard, whose career-best in that category came in 2016-17, when his 3.5 assists per game created 9.2 points for his teammates.

It's possible that we haven't yet seen the best from Leonard as a facilitator, but the same can be said for Antetokounmpo, especially now that he's in a system that better plays to his strengths.

Kawhi 1, Giannis 1

Category 3: Perimeter Defence

Antetokounmpo is one of the more versatile defenders we currently have in the league. Leonard just so happens to be one of the greatest perimeter defenders we've ever seen.

The numbers and the accolades don't quite do Leonard's defence justice. You can point to his two Defensive Player of the Year awards, the four All-Defensive Teams he's made or the 2.3 steals he averaged per game in 2014-15, which led the league, but the proof is in the tape.

Whether it's LeBron James, James Harden or Stephen Curry, nobody guards the league's best offensive players as well as Leonard. With his smarts and his Go Go Gadget-like arms, his presence alone has a way of spooking players you probably didn't think could ever be spooked.

Kawhi 2, Giannis 1

Category 4: Rim Protection

Even though they are both forwards, Antetokounmpo is more of a frontcourt player and Leonard is more of a backcourt player.

For that reason, it only seems right to split defence into two categories.

Leonard is more than capable of making plays at the rim, but Antetokounmpo finds himself protecting the basket with far greater frequency. According to NBA.com, Antetokounmpo defended 5.1 shots per game within 6-feet of the basket last season and held opponents to 54.4 percent shooting.

Those marks put him on the same page as some of the best rim protectors in the league, such as Draymond Green, Steven Adams and Al Horford.

For comparison, Leonard held opponents to 51.0 percent shooting in those situations when he won his first Defensive Player of the Year award, only on significantly less attempts (2.7 per game). Opponents then shot 62.7 percent against him in 2016-17, when he won his second Defensive Player of the Year award.

Antetokounmpo turns a lot more of his contests into blocks, too. He's been good for 1.3 per game in his career and peaked at almost 2.0 in 2015-16.

You know what that means...

Kawhi 2, Giannis 2

Category 5: Clutch

Knotted at 2-2 heading into the final category, it's time for one of Leonard and Antetokounmpo to seal the deal.

You can't really go wrong with either with the clock winding down, but let's look at two stats for the sake of argument, starting with how the best versions of Leonard and Antetokounmpo have performed in the clutch, defined as the last five minutes of a five point game by NBA.com:

Giannis vs. Kawhi in the clutch (per 36 minutes)
Player PPG RPG APG SPG TS%
Giannis Antetokounmpo (2017-18) 27.2 11.6 3.9 2.4 64.2
Kawhi Leonard (2016-17) 35.7 8.9 3.7 2.9 55.4

Leonard averaged more points per 36 minutes in 2016-17 than Antetokounmpo did in 2017-18, but Antetokounmpo makes up for it by putting up more rebounds and assists, and posting a better True Shooting Percentage.

Because he was more well-rounded and efficient, let's say Antetokounmpo has the slight edge for now.

The next step is to look at who has had more clutch moments. According to Basketball-Reference, Leonard is 6-for-15 on game-tying or game-winning shots in the final 10 seconds of a game in his career. Antetokounmpo, on the other hand, is 4-for-10.

Since there's no difference in shooting percentage, Leonard gets the slight edge for hitting two more clutch shots.

That leaves us with no other option than to compare their career accomplishments.

Is it totally fair? Maybe not. Leonard had the luxury of learning from an all-time coach for seven seasons and Antetokounmpo is on his fourth coach in six seasons. Had Antetokounmpo been drafted by the Spurs, maybe he'd have a similar résumé as Leonard did at age 24.

Even so, we can only work with what we have, and that means the player with more postseason experience and a Finals MVP trophy takes this home.

Plus, plays like this leave a lasting impression:

Kawhi 3, Giannis 2

Now let's see how long Leonard can hold onto the crown.

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