After winning the 2014 NBA Finals MVP award, we can start comparing Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs to some of the greats. Sure, he doesn’t compare to Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or even Paul Pierce at this point because of the longevity of their careers, but we can try to project where Leonard is going. Can he turn into the next Scottie Pippen?
FIRST, SOME KUDOS
Leonard is the first non-star to win the NBA Finals MVP award since Chauncey Billups in 2004 (unless you argue that Tony Parker isn’t a star…he is). He not only played great and played within the Spurs’ system, he also did an admirable job ensuring that the Miami Heat’s star LeBron James was limited to being a scorer and not much of a facilitator.
With that said, it is just Leonard’s third year in the NBA and at age 22, he’s got a ton of room to grow. He’s 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, which labels him as a small forward, but he proved with his defense of James that he’s also able to guard players with more bulk. It’s not a stretch to imagine him guarding Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh as well.
For those who don’t remember, Scottie Pippen was a legendary player who was often overshadowed by Michael Jordan. In the Chicago Bulls’ first championship of the Jordan/Pippen era (1991), Pippen averaged 21.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.1 blocks. If someone averaged those kinds of numbers these days, we’d enshrine them into the hype Hall-of-Fame without question.
Pippen was listed at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, though his chiseled frame made him look (and play) a lot bigger. He also played in an era where physicality was a way of life and didn’t have any problems staying healthy (Pippen missed just 13 games in his first six seasons). He was a serviceable scorer when he needed to be, but seemed to be at his best with Jordan at his side setting him up. Defensively, he was a beast and ended up with eight NBA All-Defensive first team selections and two second-team selections for good measure. Pippen finished his career at No. 6 in NBA history with 2,307 steals.
Despite his average height, Pippen was a terrific rebounder, averaging 7.9 rebounds during his prime (1991-1995). Passing the ball, Pippen was also terrific, as he averaged 6.1 assists during that same time. He was truly a player who could do a bit of everything and if it wasn’t for the enormous shadow of Jordan, we’d remember Pippen a LOT more fondly.
Before we go crazy and say that Leonard is certainly the next Pippen, we have to take a step back and take a deep breath. Yes, Leonard has shown that type of game, where he can do everything from hitting an open jumper to making the right passing decision to bottling up the opponent’s best player. His raw numbers were close to where Pippen’s were after their first three seasons. Take a look at this chart:
After those first three seasons, Pippen exploded. In season four, Pippen averaged 17.8 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.1 blocks (this was the 1991 championship season). Pippen then improved upon those numbers, starting his prime years that carried through the 1995 season.
Leonard showed us his talent and his potential in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, where he scored 20 points with 14 rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks on a very efficient 7-for-12 from the field. Kawhi isn’t anywhere close to the kind of passer that Pippen was, but he hasn’t had to be. The Spurs run a very team-oriented offense that swings the ball from side-to-side as well as any other. It’s not as easy to rack up assists in an offense like that, whereas Pippen often played the part of the triangle that directly set up opponents for open looks.
Is Leonard the next Pippen? He’s shown that he has the ability. He’s got the frame, the makeup and the coach to help him get there. Longevity is something we’ll never know until it’s over, but safe to say that’s his path. His ceiling is to become the next Scottie Pippen, who just happens to be one of the 50 greatest players to ever play the game.