Kawhi Leonard is a claw-handed hobgoblin on defense, and we mean that in the best possible way. Defensive skill is always a hard thing to quantify, however, much less compare. How much can you separate an individual defender from his teammates?
The truth is, you can’t. Not really. But there are ways of hinting at it, and a favorite way of some is Defensive Rating, which is how many points a team allows for every 100 possessions. If you apply it to an individual player, it’s how many points the team allows per 100 possessions while said player is on the court. It’s not a perfect stat, but more often than not, it confirms the eye test as long as a player logs enough minutes. For example, look at the leaders in individual Defensive Rating every year, going back to 1975. Well, would you look at who’s at the top of the leaderboard this year? It’s Kawhi Leonard!
Yes, it’s impressive on its own any time a player tops that leaderboard. There isn’t a single name on there that jumps out as obviously incorrect. But Kawhi’s season this year is extra special — he’s the first non-big man to top the list since Scottie Pippen in 1994-95. Going back farther in time…nope, that’s it, unless you count Julius Erving’s 1975 season in the ABA. Pippen is considered by some to be the best ever defender at the small forward position, but now Kawhi Leonard has matched him in at least one area.
The scariest part? 1994-95 was Pippen’s Age-29 season, at the peak of his powers. Kawhi’s only 23 and he’s already got an NBA Finals MVP. That sound you just heard was the rest of the NBA shuddering in dread.