TORONTO — There was a time, in the not too distant past, when Masai Ujiri would have been labeled a heretic, a lunatic or both.
In the moments after the Toronto Raptors advanced to the NBA Finals with Saturday’s Game 6 win, the franchise’s president, with a piece of confetti still resting on his right shoulder, sang the praises of Kawhi Leonard without hesitation or qualification.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Ujiri said of the all-star forward whose arrival last summer via trade vaulted the Raptors to new heights. “He’s the best player in the league, and we’re happy he’s in Toronto.”
For years, that superlative — “best player in the league” — has been the sole domain of LeBron James, whose streak of consecutive NBA Finals appearances ended at eight this season. Right on cue, the LeBron-less void of this year’s playoffs has birthed a fascinating and layered debate about James’s successor. The upcoming Finals between the Raptors and the Golden State Warriors, which begins Thursday night, will feature three stars — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Leonard — who can make compelling cases for the throne.
There’s room for some quibbling about when James’s tenure began. Was it 2009, when he won his first MVP? Or 2011, when he launched his Miami Heat superteam and became the sport’s highest-profile star? Certainly no later than 2012, when he claimed his first title and Finals MVP.
James held immutable control of the “best player” title as he drove the Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers to Finals after Finals, with his supreme performances keeping other contenders at bay, even in defeat. In 2014, Leonard, then with the San Antonio Spurs, was named Finals MVP for his work defending James. The next year kept the same script, with Warriors forward Andre Iguodala getting the nod.
Facing elimination in 2015, James flatly told reporters that he was “confident because I’m the best player in the world. It’s that simple.” Even when Durant arrived in the Bay Area to carry the Warriors to new heights, James maintained his stranglehold. Sure, the thinking went, Durant easily won two titles and claimed two Finals MVP awards against James, but he had significantly more help. Which player, at any point in NBA history, could match the 51-point masterpiece James delivered in Game 1 of last year’s Finals?
Of course, a lot has changed in 12 months. James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, where the 34-year-old endured the first major injury of his career, a left groin strain that cost him 17 games, and missed the playoffs entirely for the first time since 2005. Durant, Curry and the rest of the Warriors’ dynasty rolled on, becoming the first team since Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics to make the Finals five straight times. And Leonard, thanks to a careful “load management” program that limited his minutes and provided ample regular season rest, reemerged as a dominant two-way force after missing all but nine games last year because of injury.
Finally Durant’s time?
James missing the playoffs opened the “best player” floodgates: The respect and deference he had long been shown by colleagues and opponents receded almost as soon as the postseason commenced. Shortly after Durant poured in 45 and 50 points in back-to-back games against the Los Angeles Clippers in late April, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr referred to his forward as “the most skilled player on Earth” and evoked Michael Jordan when asked to contextualize his mastery.
A few days later, Kerr used even stronger language: “This is the best I’ve ever seen Kevin play,” he said. “I’m biased, but I think he’s the best player in the league.”
Durant usurping James as the consensus top player long felt preordained. The Prince George’s County native appeared on a magazine cover declaring “I’m tired of being second” in 2013, and dutifully set about checking off the accomplishments needed to strengthen his case by racking up scoring titles, improving as a defender, winning championships and Olympic gold medals and prevailing over James in head-to-head matchups. He has led the playoffs by averaging 34.2 points while adding 5.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
His “best player” case starts with his complete game: He can create his own shot, score in volume, get to the free throw line and punish any individual matchup, plus he has shown substantial improvement as a decision-maker and a playmaker for his teammates. He’s versatile defensively, a devout student of the game and freakishly reliable and consistent. His critics rarely target his basketball ability, given that there is so little to nitpick, and instead focus on his decision to join the loaded Warriors or his social media spats.
“I want KD over any other player for the next four years,” one front-office executive whose team hopes to woo Durant in free agency told The Washington Post. “He can do a lot more than he shows [on the Warriors]. He is one of one [in NBA history]. He fits with [our current coach], and any coach. He fits with our roster and any roster [we might build].”
Durant, though, will be a late arrival to the Finals after straining his calf in Game 5 of the Warriors’ second-round series against the Houston Rockets. Kerr has ruled Durant out for Game 1, but the Warriors remain “hopeful that he could return at some point during the series,” the team said.
Leonard’s surprising surge
Durant’s absence will loom large thanks to Leonard, who is enjoying the best individual stretch of his career. After hitting a series-clinching buzzer-beater to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers from the second round, his late-game scoring and lockdown defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo helped Toronto knock out the Milwaukee Bucks in six games in the Eastern Conference finals. Leonard is averaging 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in the playoffs and gamely played through an apparent leg injury against Milwaukee.
In recent weeks, Leonard has received Jordan comparisons thanks to his controlled pacing on the ball, his comfort from the midrange, his gigantic hands, his fourth-quarter takeovers and his tenacious two-way style. “They used to call [Jordan] the Black Cat,” one current player said, noting the Chicago Bulls guard’s intimidating aura. “Kawhi is the same deal.”
That Leonard, a two-time defensive player of the year, has made such a forceful thrust into the “best player” conversation is something of a surprise. Widespread recognition of his game peaked in 2017, when he finished third in MVP voting. That season ended with a thud, though, when a sprained ankle forced him out of the Western Conference finals and set off a staring match with the Spurs.
For months last season, Leonard was a ghost, managing a troublesome quad injury, working out away from the Spurs and choosing not to attend their playoff games. A summer trade to Toronto gave him a fresh start, but he played in just 60 regular season games and remained under the radar as Antetokounmpo and Rockets guard James Harden battled for MVP distinction. Given that journey, his postseason play has been remarkable. Ujiri and the Raptors surely know they would have been bounced in the second round if not for Leonard.
“I worked so hard to get to this point with the season I had last year,” Leonard said after eliminating the Bucks. “Always betting on myself and knowing what I feel and what’s right for me. I ended up coming here with a great group of guys, a lot of talent. I strove with them every day. I bought into their system. … I just want to win. I don’t care about being the best player. I want to be the best team.”
Curry has maintained a similar focus on team success since rising to prominence as the 2015 MVP and helping lead Golden State to three titles in the past four years.
The 6-foot-3 point guard lacks Durant’s length and Leonard’s imposing physique, but his three-point shooting acumen has defined the league’s pace-and-space era. Despite a slower-than-usual start to the playoffs marred by foul trouble, he turned in a defining closeout performance against Harden’s Rockets and torched the Portland Trail Blazers in a Western Conference finals sweep.
Of course, shooting is only one element of Curry’s game. His mastery of the pick and roll with Draymond Green led to immense frustration for the Blazers, who struggled to conjure effective strategies for defending Curry’s outside shots and protecting the basket from plays initiated by his passes. Curry’s long-standing success in these situations has forced opposing coaches to reduce their use of slow-footed big men and led front offices, such as the Rockets', on a search for interchangeable players who can do a better job of keeping up with him.
Although Curry has won three titles and is averaging 27.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists during the playoffs, you could argue he has yet to fully receive his due. James spoiled the Warriors’ record-setting 73-win season in 2016, and Durant’s arrival later that summer forced the two superstars to share touches, shots and accolades.
In the two years since their union formed, Curry and Durant haven’t finished higher than sixth in MVP voting. In January, Curry penned an essay pointedly titled “Underrated” for the Players Tribune. He has regularly deferred to Durant on the court and in media interviews — never blanching when Kerr or his teammates praise Durant at his expense.
“Curry is one of the biggest superstars in the league, but he never gets credit for how he plays a role,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers told The Post. “He gives himself up to the team. He moves without the ball. Just because you’re the star doesn’t mean you can’t buy into the system.”
That unselfishness, coupled with his ability to crank up his scoring and impact in Durant’s absence, has positioned him brilliantly entering this series. If Golden State wins this title with a diminished Durant or without Durant at all, Curry would be in line for his first Finals MVP award and a fresh round of historical comparisons. Even though he is only 31, his résumé would surpass every point guard in NBA history except Magic Johnson. As one rival executive put it, “History will be very kind to him.”
These Finals, then, will hinge on three interweaving narratives: Durant hoping to return from injury so that he can finally usurp James after nearly a decade of trying; Leonard angling to finish an impressive comeback and pull an improbable upset that could vault him to the top of the mountain; and Curry eyeing individual hardware and a level of appreciation that has eluded him thanks, in part, to James and Durant.
As the Warriors and Raptors chase the Larry O’Brien trophy, these three stars — all in their prime — will vie to make the league their own.