NBA: Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant — Who is free agency’s biggest prize?

Michael Powell, The New York Times

Posted at May 26 2019 02:47 AM | Updated as of May 26 2019 03:25 AM

As Kawhi Leonard, 27, is 2 years 9 months younger than Kevin Durant, does he offer better value? Troy Taormina and Dan Hamilton, USA Today/Reuters

Given an improbable choice, which golden hoop phenom would you prefer: Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard?

Like an eclipse of the moon, the NBA playoffs this season offer an unusual crossing of shadows. Two of the league’s five best players can become free agents on July 1, and no one other than an agent or a favorite uncle has a clue where they might wash ashore.

Most attention has focused on Durant, that preternaturally talented 7-foot forward possessed of a feathery touch and a hawk’s eye for a cutting teammate. He has won consecutive championships with the Golden State Warriors, and the chatter is that he might decamp to the New York Knicks and try to reanimate a long ago flatlined team.

The encoded assumption is that Durant would be the pick of a fine free-agent litter.

Now, Leonard has shouldered his way into that conversation. He had already tossed up an improbable falling-out-of-bounds, game-winning shot; snared one-handed rebounds; and wrapped Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ transcendent star, in an iron-claw defensive embrace. Then, on Thursday night, limping and no longer airborne, he unpacked his every move, scoring 35 points on an assortment of floaters and jumpers and put-backs. He also dished nine assists and pulled down seven rebounds to give the Toronto Raptors a three-games-to-two lead in their Eastern Conference finals series.

As Leonard, 27, is 2 years 9 months younger than Durant, does he offer better value?

I put this “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” question — Leonard or Durant — to the basketball lifer Clarence Gaines. He was a scouting swami for the Chicago Bulls during their glory days and vice president for player personnel during Phil Jackson’s Knicks tenure. Before that sets you to muttering darkly, recall that Gaines insisted on drafting a Latvian unicorn by the name of Kristaps Porzingis.

Gaines was polite enough to offer only a hint of a chuckle at my question.

“So you’re bored?” he asked me. “If you can get either one of them you take them yesterday, today or tomorrow.”

OK, but ...

Gaines saw that I was not getting off the phone and so offered more. To draw the comparative measure of those stars who loom as Himalayan peaks next to their contemporaries, you must dive into arcana. You begin with comparative statistics, which are impressive if perhaps not decisive.

Leonard’s playoff road this year is paved with gilded statistics. He has averaged 31 points and 8.4 rebounds a game during a run that has taken his team three rounds into the playoffs into a taut battle with the Milwaukee Bucks. He is shooting 52% from the field — and his performance only swelled as he dived into the crucible of the playoffs.

A counterpoint is in order: Durant pulled his calf muscle in the Warriors’ second-round series, and so he sat out the conference finals. Gone is not forgotten. Before his injury, he was averaging 34 points — the highest playoff average of his career — and five assists per game, and shooting 41% from beyond the 3-point line. He sank a dagger deep into his team’s toughest competitor so far, the Houston Rockets. And he’s a savvy defender.

In other words, he’s not bad.

Both men remain startlingly calm in the game’s frenzied eye. In a game against the Bucks on Tuesday, Leonard did not pile up points and rebounds, but he gave the distinct impression that performance was the result of intelligent design. He does not possess the improvisational shooting soul of Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving, but he reads a game’s rhythms like a book.

The Bucks in that Tuesday game kept closing on him like a Venus flytrap whenever he feinted toward the hole. So he pounded the ball and waited for the defenders to descend and whipped the ball to teammates who in turn hit others cutting to the basket. Toronto’s coach, Nick Nurse, termed these Leonard’s “hockey assists,” meaning smart passes that lead to assists.

On defense, he crouched low and extended those giant mitts of his. He has put in stints covering Antetokounmpo, and it’s safe to guess the Greek’s dreams are now bewitched by visions of Leonard.

Like the minds of many basketball men, Gaines’ runs to minutes played, durability and usage, which is to say how much stress-filled time the stars spend with the ball in their hands. The grandest stars run year after year deep into the playoffs, and over the course of their careers will wind up playing extra seasons’ worth of games.

LeBron James has played 46,235 regular-season minutes — and another 10,049 minutes in the playoffs, or nearly a fifth of his career. Durant has played 31,305 regular-season minutes and another 5,586 in the playoffs.

Leonard’s workload has been lighter. He has accumulated 14,404 minutes in the regular season and another 3,523 in the playoffs.

Injuries are another measure, and reflect the wages of a cumulative wearing down. Durant has missed more than a dozen games per season in the last few years. Leonard unexpectedly missed most of last season with a quad strain, the mystery of which was compounded by Leonard’s diffidence and refusal to discuss the nature of that injury. He occupies that area between taciturn and mum.

“You see muscle and tendon strains, those are overuse injuries,” Gaines said. “You are more susceptible to that with age.”

Which brings us to the actuarial charts. The website NBA Miner crunched data and discovered that a basketball player’s prime is 29 years old, that point where physical talent and the ability to see and dissect a game arrive at a handsome crossroads. Many players slip side rather quickly after that and begin the descent into athletic old age.

That might cause a general manager or two to double-clench at the notion of showering hundreds of millions of dollars on Durant, 30. Against that parsimonious impulse, however, we should balance another statistical reality: The very best, those truly worthy of the overused term “superstar,” tend to enjoy longer peaks and far milder downward slopes.

So which one?

Gaines smartly declined to take my bait. Me, I’d take the 7-footer who can twirl like a ballet dancer and hit 30-footers over undersize opponents. But if I were Knicks management, and the phlegmatic Leonard gets on the phone, I’d agree to take the lunch meeting, and I’d pick up the check, too.