As much as people want to debate LeBron James versus Michael Jordan, there could be another player who compares favorably to His Airness.
That player is San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard.
“I think that he’s alone right now as a guy who’s as good on one end as he is on the other, and I don’t know how many players we can say that about in this league,” NBA on TNT voice Kevin Harlan said on CBS Sports Radio’s The DA Show. “So if we’re saying that he is one of the top five offensive players and maybe the best defensive player, that puts him in a category presently where no one else is. So he’s in that conversation.”
Harlan, interestingly enough, asked Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for a historical comparison to Leonard toward the end of the regular season.
“He looked at me,” Harlan recalled, “and he says, ‘You’re going to laugh, and you’re going to think I’m nuts, but to me, he is a young Michael Jordan. He’s built differently. He may not have the outward aggressive feel that Jordan always passionately showed. But he has all those same things.’ Now Jordan probably came to the league with a lot of the stuff built in, whereas Kawhi has watched a ton of tape and tried to do one thing every summer that enhances his game.”
This year, it was passing, and Leonard – in addition to averaging a career-high 25.5 points per game – averaged a career-high 3.5 assists. He’s bumped that number to 4.8 in the playoffs.
“That is just another column that he has been able to color in,” said Harlan, who sees other similarities between Leonard and Jordan. “He holds the ball like Michael when he is working in isolations. His defense has that same aggressive feel to it. I think he could exude even more of his offensive flair if he chose to, but he’s not that kind of guy and that maybe is the separation between the two. But the game is very, very close to watching.
“When Pop told us it was Jordan, there are many, many similarities – and (Leonard) has watched a ton of Jordan tape,” Harlan continued. “He’s watched a lot of Kobe tape. He is a thirsty learner. He is constantly looking to incorporate something into his game, and he’s got arguably the greatest pro coach ever to help feed him that. So that is a wonderful experiment that continues to evolve.”
Harlan was also asked about Popovich’s aggressive, surly demeanor during sideline interviews. The 68-year-old often snarls at reporters, and Harlan, quite frankly, understands it.
“He’s old school, and I think he absolutely positively detests these coaches being mic’ed up,” Harlan said. “I think he thinks this is the most ridiculous thing that the league has ever done, and in every coaches’ meeting every summer at the end of every season, he is the first one to stand up and complain vehemently about these coaches being mic’ed. I think he just feels there’s got to be some kind of sanctuary where there is no outside influence.”
Popovich does not like being interviewed during games, and reporters, as it turns out, do not like interviewing him.
“I have not worked with a single sideline reporter at CBS or at Turner who has not brought this up and said, ‘I am scared to death to ask him a question. What should I ask?’” Harlan said. “It almost serves as this gigantic cloud over every broadcast: What is Popovich going to do? How is he going to treat us? Can we even use it because of his answer? I get it. It’s a public game, and I get that, but I don’t know that the fan is getting that much out of these sideline interviews, to be quite honest. And so, I just think that he’s old school. This is his way of saying, ‘I’m just not going to give you much. There’s not much to say. The questions you ask are never going to be really where I’m thinking. I’m in the middle of trying to re-engineer my team and get them pointed in a new direction or continue on the same way.’ The last thing that (coaches are) even thinking about is having a coherent answer. They all look really uncomfortable, and to be quite honest, I think they look bad. I don’t think it enhances the broadcast.”