Watched 5 games last night and something occurred to me when thinking about the two players that really stood out: Kawhi and Steph.
I saw two possessions where Jimmy Butler (of winning with 3rd stringers fame) saw Kawhi standing in front of him and just passed the ball away. Which is the defensive equivalent of watching Kelly Oubre's face as Steph drains another 1st quarter 3.
Guys like KD and Jimmy Butler are players that you worry about. But Steph and Kawhi are guys that make the entire team panic, the other team always knows where they are either to try and stop them or to avoid them. It's the difference between being helpless and being hopeless. KD scores 30 on 72% shooting and the opponent feels helpless. But Kawhi standing between you and the basket or Steph bombing from the logo, makes players feel hopeless.
I know that AD and Giannis definitely increase the other team's stress levels. But are they at the level where the opposing coach sees them and says "Oh, shit..."?
Every player that is all-star level and above has moments where they are engaged and in sufficient rhythm that you would say the other team was panicked by their presence on the court. My contention is that, whether it can be quantified by say points per possession or plus/minus, when talking about MVP level talent, there are players that are really good like DeMar DeRozen, whose performance is contributory to the outcome of the game and other players such as Harden last year, whose performance was deterministic of the outcome of the game.
DeMar could play well for the Raptors and the Raptors could lose, he could play badly and they could win. Same thing for KD on the Warriors. But it seems less likely that Kawhi could play well and the Raptors lose or that he could play poorly and the Raptors win, just as its difficult for the Warriors to overcome a poor night from Steph or fall short when Steph is lighting it up.
Their influence on the court will either elevate or drag down all the others, because they represent a question that the other team doesn't have a meaningful answer for. As the opposition continues trying to answer the question to no avail, other players become more of a threat. Kawhi and Steph are the most fascinating examples because of the polar opposition of their effect: on offense, Steph broadens the effective field of play, while the ground that Kawhi can cover is like a big black hole on the court that causes most players to think twice about dribbling too close or passing too near.
Calling it gravity or repulsivity is only representative of the phenomenon as it relates to spacing. But I'm also talking about the isolation factor - the one that Harden exemplified so well last year. The idea that he can get points on anyone in the league, one on one. Kawhi's bump-off fadeaway is at that level, Steph's one-dribble pull-up is at that level. Harden's stepback was at that level last year. LeBron is at that level against the Raptors but was less so against the Celtics. His lack of that one defining move is probably one of the greatest criticisms of his game.
When people see those moves happen, they know it's going in. When defenders see those moves happen they feel dejected. So they do everything in their power to prevent those moves from getting a chance to happen. Creating this desperation, this panic, is what separates the good from the elite. And it isn't the same as simply putting up a lot of numbers.