The battle between the reigning Finals MVP and league MVP could dictate the fate of the NBA for years to come
The defining moment of Toronto’s NBA championship run came in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. With the Raptors down 2-0, Kawhi Leonard began guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league MVP-to-be, and took him out of the series. The Bucks never found a counter, and the Raptors won the next four games. It was the first chapter in an individual rivalry that could define the next era of the NBA.
Kawhi missed 22 games last regular season as part of a load management program, which essentially eliminated him from MVP consideration. But there was little doubt that he was the best player on the floor by the end of the Eastern Conference finals. The biggest story line of the upcoming season is whether Giannis can strike back.
You don’t have to go far to find a historical precedent: Kawhi vs. Giannis could be the 2020s version of LeBron vs. Kevin Durant. Kawhi (27) was three years older than Giannis (24) in last year’s playoffs, and LeBron (27) was four years older than Durant (23) when they first met in the 2012 Finals. That experience made the difference in both meetings: Kawhi and LeBron were savvier and more well-rounded players than Giannis and Durant, respectively, at that stage in their careers.
Kawhi exposed the biggest weakness in Giannis’s game: his outside shooting. The Bucks superstar shot 76.9 percent on shots within 3 feet of the rim last season and 25.6 percent from behind the 3-point arc. Milwaukee built its offense around his ability to score over one defender and find open 3-point shooters if the defense sent help. It didn’t have a Plan B if he was shut down.
Toronto, meanwhile, didn’t ask Leonard to defend much in the regular season. The former two-time Defensive Player of the Year used most of his energy on offense and averaged a career-high 26.6 points per game. His ability to shut down the opposing team’s best player was the emergency option for the Raptors. And when Toronto’s backs were against the wall after losing the first two games in Milwaukee by a combined 30 points, Toronto coach Nick Nurse broke the glass box.
Few players are better equipped to defend Giannis than Kawhi. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Kawhi’s freakish combination of strength, length, and defensive IQ allowed him to wall off the MVP in the paint and keep him on the perimeter. After Kawhi began guarding him in Game 3, Giannis’s numbers dropped off dramatically:
Giannis has improved by leaps and bounds in his first six seasons. The final step is becoming a better shooter. There is nothing that any defender, even Kawhi, could do if he could consistently dribble into jumpers.
Leonard should be his role model. Like Giannis, Kawhi came into the league as a poor shooter. He worked tirelessly over eight seasons to become nearly automatic from the perimeter (38.3 percent from 3 in his career). As a result, Kawhi is a more versatile scorer than Giannis, despite not being as long or athletic. He doesn’t have to live at the rim; he can score at will from any area of the court. Leonard was just as dominant on offense as he was on defense in the Eastern Conference finals and averaged 29.8 points on 44.2 percent shooting, 9.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game.
The unanswered question from the series is whether Giannis could have shut Kawhi down. Antetokounmpo more than held his own when he got the chance; he just didn’t get many chances. Kawhi was the primary defender on Giannis in 160 possessions in the conference finals, compared with Giannis guarding Kawhi on only 35 possessions. Flip those numbers and Milwaukee probably would’ve advanced.
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer had valid reasons for not putting Giannis in that role. He used Giannis primarily as an off-ball defender in the regular season and kept him on nonshooters so that he could sag into the lane and protect the rim. This strategy allowed Giannis to help anchor one of the best defenses in the league and earn runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.
But the defensive strategy didn’t translate to the highest levels of the playoffs. One of the most valuable things a star can do in a series is shut down another star. That is when players with two-way ability such as Giannis and Kawhi can separate themselves from elite offensive guards like James Harden and Steph Curry. Giannis has the physical tools to guard any player.
The Bucks will have to use him as a perimeter stopper next May and June. They took a step backward in the offseason when they lost Malcolm Brogdon, who was one of their best defenders, 3-point shooters, and playmakers. His absence won’t be felt much in the regular season, when they can patch together a platoon of youngsters (Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, and Donte DiVincenzo) and ring-chasing veterans (Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews) on the wing. But none are as good a two-way player as Brogdon, and his absence will limit Milwaukee’s versatility in the playoffs. Last season, the Bucks could put Brogdon and Khris Middleton on the opposing team’s best perimeter scorers. Now Giannis will have to be in the mix.
Everything comes back to Giannis for the Bucks. They are heavy favorites to make it back to the East finals, where they will likely face a loaded 76ers team that lost a seven-game nail-biter to the Raptors in the second round. Giannis will have to dominate his matchup with Ben Simmons in the same way Kawhi dominated him last season. And if he can carry his team to the NBA Finals, there’s a good chance that Kawhi will be standing in his way again.
The Clippers should be the title favorites—they have the reigning Finals MVP, another MVP-caliber player in Paul George, and as much quality depth as any team in the league.
For Milwaukee to have a chance against them, it needs Giannis to make the same progression that Durant made in his playoff matchups with LeBron. Durant went point-for-point with LeBron in the 2012 Finals, but he couldn’t make his teammates better on either side of the ball. So while LeBron guarded Durant, Oklahoma City closed games with James Harden on LeBron. The key to that series was that LeBron filled out the box score in a way that Durant couldn’t:
The two didn’t meet again in the playoffs until the 2017 Finals. A lot had changed in the meantime. They were on different teams, and KD had expanded his game. He was no longer a one-dimensional scorer; he could do everything on the court at a high level. The Warriors took control of that series by playing Durant at the 5 and trusting him to anchor the defense so they could spread the floor wide open on offense. LeBron was as great as ever, but Durant had closed the gap:
Giannis should be even better next season, despite struggling at the FIBA World Cup this summer. He turns 25 in December, meaning his prime is still years away. (He won’t be the same age that Kawhi was in 2019 until 2022.) The biggest question is who he will be playing for at that point. If he doesn’t accept a supermax extension from Milwaukee next offseason, he will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2021. There are already rumors linking him to Golden State.
That’s where the KD analogy should scare the Bucks. Durant spent the first half of his career watching and learning as LeBron dominated in a way few players ever have. Durant realized that the only way to beat LeBron was to create his own version of the Heat with the Warriors. The same thing could happen with Kawhi and Giannis, especially if Giannis loses Round 2 in the Finals.
Leonard hasn’t just been teaching his younger rival lessons on the court. He went a step beyond LeBron and Durant by dictating the terms of his superteam and choosing a partner (George) under contract somewhere else. Kawhi essentially turned a multibillion dollar industry into a pick-up game at the YMCA.
Giannis would have the same opportunity in 2021. Giannis has said in that “loyalty is in his DNA,” but he doesn’t actually owe the Bucks anything. They lost the moral high ground when they sign-and-traded Brogdon just to save a few bucks. Keeping a title contender together is incredibly expensive, but Milwaukee disarmed while the league is in the middle of an arms race between superstars. Giannis can’t just think about Kawhi. Anthony Davis and LeBron have formed a superteam of their own, while Durant should be back in the title mix in 2020-21.
The Bucks have two years to show Giannis that he can trust them with his prime. He will have a lot of appealing options if he hits the market in 2021. He could team up with the Splash Brothers in Golden State, lead a younger team built in their image in Atlanta, form a European Big Three with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas, or pair up with Pascal Siakam in Toronto. There could be even more options if he’s willing to follow the Kawhi playbook. Every young star in the NBA will at least pick up the phone if Giannis calls. Devin Booker? Karl-Anthony Towns? Nikola Jokic? The NBA’s new tampering rules aren’t going to stop him. The only limit is his own imagination.
Supersize two-way wings are the most valuable players in the NBA; it’s no coincidence that LeBron, Durant, and Kawhi have won eight of the last nine Finals MVPs. Basketball becomes tennis for stars at that level of the game. Kawhi can look across the playoff bracket in 2020 for matchups against LeBron and Giannis in the same way Rafael Nadal can for Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
The rash of injuries Golden State suffered in the 2019 Finals meant the matchup between Giannis and Kawhi in the East finals determined the NBA champion. That same matchup might dictate the fate of the league in 2020, 2021, and maybe beyond.