By Mackenzie Rivers & Chris Dell
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'Kawhi = Jordan'
Both 2021 Kawhi Leonard and 1996 Michael Jordan are both worth six points to the betting line.
No, we're not saying Kawhi right now is better than MJ was in 1996 - not even with modern day training, strategy advances, etc. Given everything, Kawhi is definitely worse. But there is no shame in that.
An important caveat to mention here: Totals are up 13% since 1996, so there are more points of value to go around everywhere. That puts 1996 Jordan's real value at 6 with a 25 year time-period adjustment.
Another key note is that we were wrong about MJ after all - he was way better than everyone could have predicted, including Vegas. How fun would a sports almanac from the future have been in the 1990's?
We believe that we've also been wrong about Kawhi for most of his career.. He's been one of the best players in the league since the 2013 NBA Finals. In fact, most think he's just been in the top 10 for a year or so, or at least since he won his second NBA Finals MVP with as many teams in 2019 with the Raptors.
"Oh Kawhi, that guy! Doesn't he never play because he hates Greg Poppovich? Right, and didn't he have that great half vs. the Warriors and then got hurt?" Right - but didn't he also win that championship with Toronto, too?
We have upgraded Kawhi one full point during this year's NBA Playoffs, now equaling his 2019 late playoff run rating. But is he still that guy from San Antonio and Toronto though? The same 2x Finals MVP guy?
Kawhi has averaged 30 points/game during an NBA championship run as well, and well, that's just a fact.
The only other players to do that in NBA history have been Kareem, MJ, Shaq, LeBron, Hakeem and Kobe.
# of Times Averaging 30 PPG During A Championship Run:
- Jordan: 6
- Kareem: 1
- Hakeem: 1
- Shaq: 1
- Kobe: 1
- LeBron: 1
- Kawhi: 1
Kawhi has found in himself among the elites more often than not in his career, from becoming the league's youngest ever Finals MVP and more, and he's back to playing like the best defensive player in the world when his team needs him the most. As teams around him change their game plan to stop him, he has adapted himself to remain optimal both offensively and defensively. When (and if) the Clippers face elimination again in these NBA Playoffs, both his points over and steals/blocks over props are worth a look. Just look at what he did in the defensive prop category statistically in Round 1 vs. the Mavericks:
- Game 1: 4 steals, 0 blocks (4 stl/blk)
- Game 2: 2 steals, 0 blocks (2 stl/blk)
- Game 3: 1 steal, 2 blocks (3 stl/blk)
- Game 4: 2 steals, 2 blocks (4 stl/blk)
- Game 5: 1 steal, 2 blocks (3 stl/blk)
- Game 6: 2 steals, 0 blocks (2 stl/blk)
- Game 7: 4 steals, 1 block (5 stl/blk)
Betting Kawhi's over in steals (5-2), or steals + blocks combined (5-2) would've given you a 14-7 record in the first round against Dallas, with each prop typically lined at O/U 2.5 (steals/blocks) and1.5 (steals).
In the final two rounds of Kawhi's title run, he went 8-4 (4-2 in both series) to the over 2.5 steals/blocks while defeating the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors in six games a piece, respectively, and last year in his conference semifinal series against the Denver Nuggets he went over 2.5 steals/blocks in six of seven (!) games. We now have a sample of 32 games from Kawhi's last five playoff matchups (since the conference finals in 2019 with TOR), and he's gone 22-10 (69%( to the over 2.5 steals/blocks in that span.
Simply put - the more his team needs him, the more Kawhi delivers. And it's just not with the offensive outbursts like we had in Game 6 at Dallas either, when he poured in 45 points in a must-win scenario.
A young Kawhi once emerged on the NBA scene as a premier defender, sure, but while he's raised his offensive game to elite levels since, he still remains just as elite on the defensive end than ever before.
But it's not just the steals and the blocks that show Kawhi's defensive importance to his teams' bottom line - it's also his defensive rebounding. Through his 20 total playoff games with the Clippers both this year and last year, Kawhi has cashed his over prop on 7.5 rebounds 14 times, good for a more-than-stellar 70% hit rate. In the 32-game sample in Rounds 2 or later over the last three seasons? Not 70%, but not bad either: 69% hit rate AGAIN. Kawhi has gone the exact same record of 22-10 to the over 7.5 rebounds, the exact same hit rate he has with his steals/blocks. So why mentioned the over/under 7.5 rebounds here?
Well, just like the current line of over/under 2.5 steals + blocks, the 7.5 is also the current line for Kawhi's rebounding prop in Game 1 of the Utah Jazz/Los Angeles Clippers Round 2 series. You'll see a lot of bettors on Kawhi for his points prop, and we're OK with that, although we'd personally rather wait to bet his scoring props over as we get deeper into a given series and the more high leverage spots that come with it. For a grind-it-out, defense-first star like Kawhi, we know through history that he'll always give his best effort in contributing to his team in all areas of the court - especially in the playoffs when they need it the most - including the three defensive stats that really matter: steals, blocks and those defensive rebounds.
Potentially matched up early in this series against a slow-footed duo of Bojan Bogdanovic/Joe Ingles and/or smaller scorers like Mike Conley/Donovan Mitchell/Jordan Clarkson, we can expect Kawhi to take advantage in each of the steals/blocks departments while also finding his way around the glass as Rudy Gobert makes it more difficult for the Clippers' bigs to amass #'s on the boards like Ivica Zubac, Marcus Morris and even Paul George. Kawhi could often be matched up on that end with Jazz PF Royce O'Neale, who while he's a solid 3-and-D role player, he stands just 6-feet, 4-inches and will struggle to keep Leonard at bay on the glass. Point blank, look for the claw to have his hands all over the ball in this pivotal Western Conference semifinal series, and not just when it comes to scoring points with the basketball.