There's no shortage of talent in the Western Conference, and Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard stand tall amongst the gifted field.
On Wednesday, the two All-Stars will square off for the second time this week, which sparked a debate in the NBA.com offices over whether we'd rather have Luka or Kawhi right now.
Two members of our NBA.com Staff, Carlan Gay and Scott Rafferty, make their case for each player while our panel of jurors pick a side to determine the winning argument.
Without further ado, let's get to the proceedings.
Who would you rather have right now: Luka Doncic or Kawhi Leonard?
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): I'll admit, before digging into this and taking the hard stance for Luka, I had my reservations. We're talking about taking a third-year player over a two-time Finals MVP who's in the prime of his career.
Yet, after doing some digging, I feel a lot better about my choice.
Doncic isn't just any third-year player, he's an absolute phenom. Prior to the start of the season, he was the front-runner for the league's MVP award. The Mavs haven't had the start they wanted, but as they slowly get healthier, his name will re-emerge as a contender.
Again, in the third year of his career.
My colleague Scott Rafferty will spend a lot of his time highlighting Leonard's defensive advantage over Luka. I mean, it's a no-brainer - Kawhi is one of the best defenders in the NBA, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner. He made his name defending LeBron James in the Finals. But the real reason Scott will spend time highlighting Kawhi's defence is because that's all he has over Doncic.
Is defence important? Sure, but Doncic's offence is so good that it excuses his defensive deficiencies.
Over the last two seasons, Doncic has not had a negative net rating while on the court for the Mavs. This year, with Doncic on the floor, Dallas is outscoring opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Stats. When he's off the floor, Dallas is being outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions.
Again, defence is important, but with an offensive force like Luka, you can overlook some of his defensive issues and enjoy his offensive genius.
Now that that lame defence talk is out of the way, let's get to the goods.
Luka is already on the shortlist of best offensive weapons in the game alongside the likes of Nikola Jokic, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. You can make an argument that he's already at the top of that list right now, but this isn't about that. This is about picking him over Kawhi, who he's already head and shoulders above offensively in just his third year in the league.
Doncic is the better scorer, averaging over 28 points per game the last two seasons. Kawhi's career-high of 27.1 points last season was the closest he's come to Doncic's scoring average. Doncic is far and away the better passer and playmaker, averaging 8.8 and 9.1 assists per game the past two years. We praised Kawhi for his career-high 4.9 assists a season ago. Whenever Luka is on the floor, he just makes his teammates better and it's not even close.
According to Basketball-Reference, Doncic leads the league in assist percentage at 46.5 percent, meaning close to half of his teammates' buckets are coming off a Doncic assist. Kawhi had a very respectable 26.4 percent a year ago - a career high for him.
Let's also keep in mind that Doncic is doing this with a less than stellar supporting cast around him. Kawhi has had the fortune of lining up alongside multi-time All-Stars throughout his career.
So if you're like me and want your star player to elevate those around him, you know the pick is Luka. If you're like me and you want your star player to be able to play alongside anyone, you know the pick is Luka. Maybe you trust Kawhi more when it matters most because you've seen Kawhi be a part of two championships. But then you realize that Doncic has won at a high level at every stage of his career - including claiming the Euroleague title, the second-best league in the world, as a teenager. (By the way, his perceived lack of ability on the defensive end didn't stop him from winning.) It won't be long until he proves himself in the NBA once the Mavericks build a contender around him.
Initially, I thought it was blasphemous to even discuss this, but make no mistake about it, the Luka-Kawhi debate is closer than you think. And there's a real argument for Luka. I just made it.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Here goes Carlan again, downplaying the importance of defence.
Look, I get it. Doncic is incredible. He was my pick for MVP coming into the season and even if he doesn't win it this season - he most likely won't - he's going to win at least one MVP award in his career. He's that good. The things he's doing as a 22-year-old are unfathomable. He's already an incredible scorer, one of the best passers I've ever seen and there's still room for improvement.
And yet, we're talking about Kawhi here.
Sure, his offensive numbers don't pop in quite the same way that Doncic's do, but Kawhi is still one of the league's best scorers. He's incredibly efficient as well, knocking on the door of the 50-40-90 club this season with .515/.398/.879 shooting splits. (Doncic's shooting splits? .473/.349/.754, but I digress). If you're in need of a bucket, there are few players I would trust more than Leonard. He's developed into one of the most well-rounded scorers in the league, capable of getting his against almost anyone. He's proven it time and time again in his career, particularly in the playoffs, where he's won two championships and two Finals MVP awards, need you be reminded.
His game-winner over the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs is the stuff of legends.
Kawhi's game winner in slow motion is legendary 😮 pic.twitter.com/Jm8X4FMb0B- NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 13, 2019
As for his passing, it's no debate that Doncic has the edge on Kawhi, but Kawhi has made tremendous strides over the last couple of seasons. What used to be his greatest weakness is now a legitimate strength, and it only makes him harder to gameplan for because teams can't load up on him like they used to.
While I'm with Carlan in that Doncic's defence isn't as detrimental as some make it out to be, the gap between Kawhi and Doncic on defence is far greater than the gap is between Doncic and Kawhi on offence - assuming, of course, that you're on the same page as Carlan in that Doncic is "head and shoulders above" Kawhi on that end of the court, which I'm not. There simply aren't many players in NBA history who can do the things Leonard does defensively. If watching him contain Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals or go toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the 2014 NBA Finals is "lame," I don't know what to tell you.
One last thing, it's interesting that Carlan brought up the on-off numbers, because ... Kawhi's are far superior to Doncic's this season. According to NBA.com, the Clippers are outscoring opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions with Kawhi on the court this season. With him on the bench, they're being outscored by 1.6 points per 100 possessions.
That's a swing of 11.9 points per 100 possessions compared to 6.6 for Doncic.
I try not to put too much stock into those numbers because they come with some noise, but if you're going to use them to lift one player and downplay the other, let's tell the whole story.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): While both Carlan and Scott made compelling arguments for each side, I'm riding with Scott and Kawhi Leonard. We're talking right now; Who would you rather try to help win your team a championship? The answer is Leonard, fairly easily for me.
Doncic is incredible - he's a once-in-a-generation talent whose wizardry with the basketball has him all over the highlight reels every night. But to say he's head-and-shoulders above Kawhi offensively seems a bit much. As Scott noted, Luka is surely the better passer, but when it comes to scoring, Leonard does it much more efficiently than Doncic at nearly the same rate these last few seasons. And I'm certain that the gap between Kawhi's defence and Luka's defence is larger than the offensive gap.
When it comes to hitting the big shot, neither star player is afraid of that moment and I'd trust either of them with my life on the line to get to their spot and knock one down, but what about on the other end of the floor, coming up with a big stop as well?
Doncic is doing things we've never seen before from a 22-year-old, but if you're asking me to take one player to win a playoff series and pursue a championship right now, it's still Kawhi Leonard every day of the week.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Wow, I honestly wasn't expecting this to be close and I really wasn't expecting my opinion to sway.
That being said, give me Luka Doncic.
I'll preface it by saying I don't think defence is lame and I do have to give Kawhi credit offensively where it's due but where Carlan won me over was his point about Doncic elevating those around him. In my eyes, the Mavericks have been an overachieving bunch for the last few seasons almost solely because of Luka's ability to put his teammates in the best position to succeed.
Having closely watched Kawhi's run in 2019, I can agree that it was nothing short of legendary but I do think his departure from Toronto ended up showing us how strong of a supporting cast he actually had with the Raptors.
Leonard put the team on his back and made the big plays when they were needed but the Raptors had a legitimate championship roster.
As for Doncic, I think the infrastructure of the way this team is built would crumble in his extended absence. He's only scratching the surface of who he can become as a scorer and playmaker and, let's not forget he's got a buzzer-beater of his own that was the stuff of legends.
Against Kawhi's Clippers, no less.
That Doncic's name is still in MVP conversations as the lone All-Star on a team that is still working to improve its roster moving forward tells me all I need to know about how great he is right now. Salute to Carlan, you won me over.
Leandro Fernández (@FernandezLea): I didn't think I was going to change my mind like this. I loved both arguments, and after each one I got a feeling like "hey, he got me, I'm gonna go with this guy".
Sorry, Kawhi. But I'm taking Luka.
Both Carlan and Scott are right in highlighting what each player does better than the other, especially the defence we see from Kawhi. But Carlan made a huge point, as Gilbert said, in the scenario where we remove each other from their respective teams. Nothing is going to erase Leonard's greatness, but let's keep in mind that he got his first ring while playing with one of, if not the best, Spurs teams ever, and he won his second title with a Raptors roster that, without him, almost made it to the Eastern Conference Finals the next year.
If you remove Doncic from this Mavericks roster, they won't even make it to the Playoffs. You can add also the fact that Luka, without his sidekick (Porzingis), won two games against Leonard's Clippers during the last playoffs, playing for the first time in the postseason.
It's simple and complicated at the same time: there is no comparison between the positive impact that Luka has on his teammates to what Kawhi does for his co-stars. And that should give him Luka edge.
Final Score: Doncic 2, Leonard 1
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