Toronto Raptors

Breaking down which buzzer-beater was better: Kawhi Leonard or Michael Jordan?

The following article was originally published in May of 2019.

Kawhi Leonard made history against the Philadelphia 76ers, becoming the first player in NBA history to hit a game-winning buzzer-beater in a Game 7.

There's only one other player who knows what it must have felt like at that moment, to hit a shot with zero time left in a winner-take-all game.

That player is Michael Jordan, who 30 years ago hit 'The Shot' against the Cleveland Cavaliers in what is one of the most iconic shots in league history. Although it wasn't a Game 7 (it was Game 5 of a best-of-five series), that is the only other instance in NBA history in which a player hit a shot with no time remaining to win a winner-take-all game.

It naturally got us to thinking: which shot is better?

  • Michael Jordan in 1989?
  • Kawhi Leonard in 2019?

We broke down each shot from all the different angles to decide.

The in-game situation

When Jordan received the inbounds pass with three seconds left, the Chicago Bulls trailed by one point. A miss would have been a wrap on Chicago's season.

When Leonard received the inbounds pass with just over four seconds left, the game was tied. A miss would have meant five extra minutes of bonus basketball with an opportunity to win in overtime.

In that moment, weighing nothing else beyond strictly clock and score, it's hard to say Leonard carried the same pressure as Jordan, knowing that barring a turnover, he'd have a mulligan in the event of a miss.

Jordan had no such luxury.

Advantage: Jordan

The defender

The moment he caught the ball moving away from the basket, Leonard was blanketed by Ben Simmons, the 6'10" point guard with enough length, size and speed to bother pretty much any perimeter player in the league. He had easily been Philly's best option against Leonard all series long and was the only player who seemed to bother Leonard in even the slightest.

Standing over seven feet tall with a 7'6" wingspan, Joel Embiid is one the most physically imposing defenders in the entire league. An All-Defence selection last year, Embiid is on the short list of candidates to win Defensive Player of the Year and routinely smothers shots from every spot on the floor.

Embiid wasted no time in doubling as he helped on Leonard as Simmons chased the Toronto Raptors star around the perimeter.

When it came time for Leonard to release, Embiid was right there and fully extended. For a flat shooter like Leonard, that meant putting more arc on the ball and launching from an irregular angle. Short of actually blocking the shot, it's hard to play better defence.

Craig Ehlo is not Simmons, nor is he Embiid. At 6'6", he's the same height as Jordan though certainly not in the same ballpark as an athlete. He ranked eighth on the Cavaliers in blocks per game in 1988-89 at 0.2 per game and had just one in that entire series with the Bulls. In 14 seasons in the league, he never made an All-Defence team and just once averaged over a half a block per game.

There was no help defender and after a lackadaisical effort by Cleveland to deny him on the catch, Ehlo was on his own. Although he made Jordan double-clutch, let's be honest: Ehlo never stood a chance. By the time Jordan is releasing the shot, Ehlo's absolutely toast and a complete non-factor.

Beating Simmons and then finishing over the outstretched arms of Embiid makes this a no contest.

Advantage: Leonard

Degree of difficulty

Forget for a minute the other nine players on the floor and focus strictly on the shot itself.

Jordan's is one of those shots that kids re-create in driveways. Moving right to left, hanging in the air and letting it fly from 18-ish feet and then leaping for joy with that legendary fist pump celebration.

There's a reason it's one of the most rehearsed shots against imaginary defenders in parks and driveways and empty gyms all over the world, and it's more than simply the fact that it's Jordan and it's an iconic shot.

It's also replicable.

Now look again at Leonard's dagger. 23 feet away in the corner and falling out of bounds, there's no question that the shot itself is much harder.

Ask an average player to shoot both of them 100 times, and I'd guarantee you that mid-range jumper from straight away falls in far more often.

12-year old me could hit that Jordan shot with a few tries in the driveway. 12-year old me would probably still be out there trying to re-create Kawhi's magic.

Advantage: Leonard

Career trajectory

We've already gone over the fact that if Jordan misses that shot, the Bulls are finished. It would have meant their season would be over in the 1st Round for the fourth time in five seasons and it would have been a big step back for Jordan who at that point had never made it past the second round.

Though he had already won his first MVP and had just wrapped up his third consecutive scoring title, Jordan was already hearing the chorus of calls about his inability to win when it mattered.

It's one thing to get knocked out by Larry Bird's Boston Celtics or the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons. But to bow out to a Cavs team headlined by Brad Daugherty and Mark Price? If that shot doesn't drop, a then 26-year old Jordan would have been heaped on far more than he already was at the time.

Though Leonard does not have an MVP to his name, he's already a Finals MVP and a champion. There's no doubt he's taken a step up in the league's hierarchy with his dominant postseason, but in terms of the bigger picture, he's already earned the reputation as a winner and there is zero question that he can be the best player on a championship team.

If Leonard's shot rimmed out and the Raptors lost Game 7, the conversation around Leonard wouldn't have been whether he has the chops to cut it as an alpha, but rather which team he'd be playing for next. Would he stay in Toronto? Would he leave for elsewhere? That would have been the discourse far more than his merits and capabilities as a basketball player.

Jordan needed his shot to drop more than Kawhi needed his.

Advantage: Jordan

Overall team context

In May 1989, the Chicago Bulls were not yet THE CHICAGO BULLS. Aside from the aforementioned postseason flops, they weren't yet truly ready to win.

Scottie Pippen had just finished his second season and though he certainly flashed glimpses of greatness, had yet to make his first All-Star team. Phil Jackson had not yet been hired as the head coach and the overall structure of the team was far from a finished product.

Short of trading away Pippen or Horace Grant, there wouldn't have been a transformative transaction on the table that made much sense.

As it stood at the time, Chicago was not at a crossroads and in the final stages of a last ditch effort to make something of its surviving core. Even with a loss and despite a growing list of early exits, there was no doubt that many chapters would still be written.

Conversely, the entire 2018-19 season had been about far more than merely one season for the Raptors, who seemingly pushed in the chips on this entire run when they made the trade for Leonard. When you take a step back to consider everything - Toronto's painful postseason history, the impending free agency for Leonard, the chance to close out at home - Game 7 felt like the single most important game in franchise history.

A loss in that game would have been yet another season-ending in colossal disappointment, yet another on-brand defeat for one of the most snake-bitten franchises in recent history.

Instead, in the span of a few bounces on the rim that felt like an eternity and with the entire fate of the franchise hanging in the balance, everything changed.

In the broader context of what one shot might mean for a city, there's no comparison.

Advantage: Leonard

Verdict: Kawhi > Michael

Both are incredible moments and like Jordan's three decades ago, Leonard's will stand the test of time as one of those shots which lives on in eternity.

When moments like these happen in any sport, it can be easy to get caught up in the moment, to sensationalize and blow things completely out of proportion. What's new is often times falsely deemed what's best, the flavour of the month that doesn't truly warrant the in-the-moment attention when closely analyzed and examined from every conceivable angle.

When you factor in the full context, it becomes clear that recognizing Leonard's shot for everything it represents is far more than being merely a prisoner of the moment.

If it's pound-for-pound better than 'The Shot', then it's certifiably special.

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

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