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NBA Finals

NBA Finals 2019: Is Doc Rivers right about the Kawhi Leonard and Michael Jordan comparison?

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Kawhi Leonard (NBA Getty Images)

Kawhi Leonard is in the midst of one of the greatest postseason runs ever by a perimeter player, so much that he's earned the ultimate compliment: a comparison to Michael Jordan.

The latest to pile on the praise is current LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers.

"There's a lot of great players. LeBron is phenomenal, KD is phenomenal. Not that [Leonard] is Jordan or anything like that, but he's the most like him. Big hands, post game, can finish. Great leaper, great defender, in-between game. If you beat him to the spot he bumps you off, and then you add his 3-point shooting."

Aesthetically, it's hard to argue.

This also isn't the first time the Jordan comparison has been floated with regards to Kawhi Leonard, as Kendrick Perkins came to the same conclusion earlier in the postseason.

Add in the fact that Leonard's Game 7 shot to send the 76ers packing in the Conference Semifinals was just the second series-clinching buzzer-beater in a winner-take-all game in NBA history - the other coming courtesy of Michael Jordan on "The Shot" - and it's easy to see shades of Jordan in the Raptors superstar.

MORE: More impressive series-clincher: Jordan or Kawhi?

Beyond what it looks like and what it feels like, is Leonard's production actually on par with His Airness?

The short answer: yes.

Jordan's legend is built in part on his performance in the Finals, not necessarily what happened in the lead up to the Finals.

Switching hands in mid-air, the shoulder shrug, the Flu Game, the final shot against Utah ... all of it happened under the bright lights of the NBA Finals.

His most iconic performances prior to the Finals - scoring 63 in Boston Garden and The Shot over Craig Ehlo - came in years he didn't actually reach the big stage.

In order to keep it somewhat apples to apples, we're going to take out Jordan's performances in the Finals themselves and compare each of his six runs leading up to the Finals to what Leonard's done so far. The results might surprise you:

  • 1990-91 Jordan: 31.1 Pts, 51.0 FG pct, 21.9 FGA, 6.3 Reb, 7.1 Ast, 2.2 Stls, 39.1 Mins
  • 1991-92 Jordan: 34.0 Pts, 48.9 FG pct, 26.7 FGA, 6.8 Reb, 5.5 Ast, 2.1 Stls, 41.6 Mins
  • 1992-93 Jordan: 32.3 Pts, 45.6 FG pct, 25.3 FGA, 5.9 Reb, 5.8 Ast, 2.2 Stls, 39.2 Mins
  • 1995-96 Jordan: 32.3 Pts, 47.9 FG pct, 23.7 FGA, 4.8 Reb, 4.1 Ast, 1.9 Stls, 40.1 Mins
  • 1996-97 Jordan: 30.5 Pts, 45.6 FG pct, 26.2 FGA, 8.3 Reb, 4.2 Ast, 1.8 Stls, 42.2 Mins
  • 1997-98 Jordan: 31.9 Pts, 47.8 FG pct, 24.1 FGA, 5.5 Reb, 4.0 Ast, 1.4 Stls, 41.5 Mins
  • 2018-19 Leonard: 31.2 Pts, 50.7 FG pct, 21.3 FGA, 8.8 Reb, 3.8 Ast, 1.6 Stls, 38.7 Mins

All things equal, Leonard stacks up pretty nicely with Jordan. Where it really starts to get fun is when factoring in minutes and the true totality of their efforts.

Jordan is the greatest scorer in postseason history, with a scoring average of 33.5 that's nearly four points higher than anyone else.

If you combine his six runs to the Finals, Jordan averaged just over 32 points per game, slightly higher than Leonard's mark of 31.2 heading into the series against Golden State.

When taking into account that Jordan played in an era in which stars logged more minutes, his pre-Finals scoring clip across those six years checks in at 28.4, which is below that of Leonard, who is pouring in 29.0 points per 36 minutes this postseason.

Of course, there's far more to both of their games than merely scoring and it's here that Leonard's all-around brilliance begins to fully shine through.

There's a metric called Game Score that takes into account everything that goes into a box score - points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, turnovers, shooting efficiency, free throw shooting, etc.

If you average out the 81 games that Jordan played prior to the Finals in those six championship seasons, he finished with an average Game Score of 24.0.

Leonard's so far this postseason through 18 games? Nearly identical, yet slightly better: 24.3.

What does all of this mean?

For starters, it doesn't mean that Leonard is better than Jordan. Comparing one postseason run for Leonard to six different pre-Finals runs for Jordan while also removing championship-level performance in the Finals itself isn't exactly fair. Those six Finals MVP awards did happen and it would be ludicrous to exclude what led to those in any type of legitimate breakdown.

But it does mean that up to this point, Leonard has been every bit as good as Jordan was in the lead up to his biggest moments. In that regard, his play more than warrants the love bestowed upon him by Rivers.

The most meaningful games still have yet to be played and there's no guarantee that Leonard answers the call in the same way that Jordan once did.

But he's in the conversation.

Sometimes, merely entering the conversation is more than enough.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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