Despite the fact that there is actual playoff basketball to talk about today, ESPN dedicated a good chunk of their programming to discussing whether Kawhi Leonard is recognized as one of the great talents now and of all time. Vince Carter argued on Get Up that Leonard should be in the Greatest of All Time conversation if he wins another ring with a Finals MVP.
On First Take, Max Kellerman lamented the lack of respect Leonard is given in light of his accomplishments in this league, and demanded to know when Leonard would be given his due.
And, I mean, they both have something of a point. Because Leonard is not a very gripping personality whose best basketball usually comes when it matters most (which represents a very small portion of the NBA season), he can be overlooked in ways that players of his caliber and resume should not be.
With all that being said, Leonard will never have a place in the GOAT discussion. He simply will not. That's not a knock against his skills as a player or the number of rings on his finger. But Leonard's career path and current trajectory won't allow for him to really earn a spot in any arguments about LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan or whoever you believe is the best to lace them up.
One of the more important aspects of being the greatest player of all time is being universally recognized as the best player in the league at any given moment for a number of years. Excluding his brief baseball foray, Jordan held that title for a decade. You can count on one hand how many seasons LeBron was not firmly considered the best player in all the land between 2006 and 2020.
Leonard has never held that title. The closest he probably came was 2016-17, before he suffered the injury that would spell the end of his time in San Antonio and set him on what appears to be a career-long load management strategy. He averaged 25 points per game while playing All-NBA defense and led the Spurs to a 61-win season. I say almost because that was the year Russell Westbrook won MVP. If you don't think Westbrook was better than Leonard that season, Kevin Durant was as a 25-point-per-game scorer sharing the ball with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. So was LeBron as the only Cavalier worth a lick playing games that season.
And Leonard will never get close to that title now, because in order to be considered the best player in the league, that player needs to be on the court more often than not. Leonard's load management is the best thing for him and his long-term health, don't get me wrong. But guys who miss 20 games a season on average will never be a part of the MVP discussion, and regular-season MVPs are rather important when discussing the best players ever.
Obviously the conversation will change if Leonard wins something like three more NBA championships and is the clear reason why. His 2019 Finals MVP award certainly counts for a lot, but his 2014 Finals MVP isn't the same thing. He wasn't the best player on the court in that series, he was just the most important. It was well-deserved, but in the larger discussion, it isn't the same as Jordan's first Finals MVP in 1991.
If Leonard is ever really in the GOAT discussion, it'll be because he won more than anyone else. In that case, it's justifiable. But until he has a lot more rings, it's an impossible case to make.