When the Spurs first acquired Kawhi Leonard, they did so with the hopes of stealing an elite perimeter defender mid-draft. At SD State, Leonard was a do-it-all wing defender, seemingly defending guards and post players in the same game. At 6-foot-7, Leonard had the size to handle the more physical players, while possessing the length and agility to bother smaller players (ex. Kemba Walker in ’11 tourney).
After landing on Pop’s Spurs, a team lacking some depth and plus defenders in the front court, Kawhi seemed to be in the perfect position to allow his defense to dictate playing time.
As the regular season nears its end, we can agree that Kawhi has definitely been a huge addition for San Antonio, but stats show that his impact, or rather positive impact, has come on the offensive end. Popovich decided to make Leonard his most trusted perimeter defender right away. From the outset of the season, Leonard has been given a variety of defensive assignments, everyone from LeBron James and Kevin Durant, to cream of the crop scorers like Carmelo Anthony and Joe Johnson, and even distributors like Chris Paul and Deron Williams. Heck, he even went all ’07 warriors on Dirk Nowitzki (Leonard held him to 0-for-5 shooting on five possessions).
Unfortunately, Leonard’s reputation (on the defensive end) are exceeding his actual results to this point in his young NBA career. According to Syngery Sports Technology, Leonard has allowed .881 points per possession this season, which ranks him in the bottom 36 percent of the league (303rd overall).
Okay, I’ll take it a step further. Leonard has actually been so bad on defense that at times, the opposing team has singled him out as the “hey, there’s a mismatch … let’s take advantage of it” guy. In one-on-one situations Leonard has allowed 47 percent shooting, and .932 points per possession, which ranks in the 18th percentile. Next comes the pick-and-roll D, where Leonard has been just as, if not worse. He is allowing 49 percent shooting and .917 points per possession, ranking him in the 16th percentile. If these numbers don’t make much sense, just know this- higher is better. Leonard’s percentile is too much on the lower side for even a ‘good’ perimeter defender. It’s not all bad news though: Leonard has been excellent at guarding post-ups.
What caught my eye, however, is that Leonard was described as a defensive juggernaut, but his real contribution to the 40-15 Spurs has come on the offensive end. Leonard is an average defender, but his size, length, and athleticism will allow him to be an elite one. From a basic eye-test (me just watching games on league pass when i can), I can see his ‘freshman’ status in the league surface when I see how regularly Leonard gambles for steals, a big source of his defensive struggles and blown assignments.
Focusing now on the other side of the game, Leonard has met and far exceeded offensive expectations within the first few months of his NBA career.
For the last fourteen years, success down in San Antonio has been system driven. No big free agents, low-numbered lottery balls, or even blockbuster trades. Everything about that team, offense and defense, is about clearly defined roles. For example, Tony Parker (who has been playing like a MVP this season) understands his role as a distributor and attacker, depending on the situation. DeJuan Blair focuses on one thing all game, rebounding. Pre-season, the San Antonio reserves were made up spot-up shooters; the one thing they had been missing on a consistent basis was a slasher/hustle guy to create space for the shooters. They obviously got sick of waiting around for Richard Jefferson to find his game. If anyone spots it, please ship it next-day up to Oakland. Note- The Warriors will pay an extra $11 million with two more years to go instead of the one year they would have had with Stephen Jackson.
Leonard’s slashing ability allows him to take advantage in a plethora of situations, whether it be when a team focuses on sharp-shooters like Matt Bonner or Gary Neal, or being in right spot for a Tony Parker drive and dish.
According to stats from NBA.com, Leonard has taken 326 shots this season, and of those 326, 165 have come at the rim. Let me get my calculator …. 50.6%. About half of his shots have come by the basket! That’s a higher percentage than even, say LeBron James, who is known for his strong drives to the basket. In fact, Leonard hasn’t taken more than 25 shots from any other spot on the floor.
From what I’ve seen, Leonard’s constant barage to the basket reminds me of the Phoenix Suns version of Shawn Marion. Sure, he could also be the average contributor like a Matt Barnes, but let’s go with the more promising comparison for now. Ala Young Matrix, Leonard is tremendous without the ball. Another stat from Synery Sports: For wing players with at least 50 possessions on cuts to the basket, Leonard ranks fourth in basketball by producing 1.365 points per possessions on 65% shooting.
I brought the Marion comparison up primarily because of Leonard’s impressive offensive rebounding numbers. Of all SFs, Leonard ranks third in offensive rebounds rate. Leonard produces 1.138 points per possession on offensive put backs, which is better than guys like Kevin Love and Serge Ibaka.
The Spurs have an anchor in the middle (TD), a stud running the show (Parker), good shooters (Bonner), a deep bench (Manu, Diaw, Cap’n Jack), and Leonard finishes their puzzle by adding efficiency through hustle and effort. After shooting 29% from 3-point range in college, I didn’t expect to see Leonard stepping back 23 feet for a shot. Somehow though, the great Popovich used some of his special Gandalf-like powers, and since the beginning of February, Leonard has since shot 45% from deep. To Pop’s style and liking, he’s hit 49% of his 85 corner threes.
It seems to have become accepted among NBA geeks that under the hierarchy of the “best” shots, the corner three is only behind dunks/layups, and free throws. According to Sports Illustrated:
“Teams last season shot 39 percent on corner threes, which is about the same percentage teams shoot overall on two-pointers outside the restricted area. Teams last season shot about 35.5 percent on all three-pointers, meaning they shot something like 33.5 percent to 34 percent on three-pointers taken anywhere but the corners.”
“Lots of studies have found that limiting raw three-point attempts matters more than opponent three-point percentage. The raw number of corner-three attempts allowed last season correlated more strongly with both winning percentage and overall defensive rating than shooting percentage on corner threes, according to work by Maroun and McGuire.”
Long story short- the corner three is a great shot, something Popovich has understood for probably decades.
For now, I can see Leonard’s ceiling being a prime Shawn Marion. Some say Bruce Bowen, but Leonard’s athleticism pushes me away from using that comparison. Although the numbers don’t necessarily prove it, he is a good defender and will continue to guard whoever the team needs him to. And we already know he can rebound, and has a knack for that ball. Leonard’s hard-work, enery, hustle, and intangibles will allow him to be a key contributor to championship-contending teams. His feel for the game, at this age, is rare and the Spurs organization has been a perfect fit for him. With such a well-crafted system in place, Leonard has been given the necessary guidance, while having the freedom to act as the team’s x-factor.
Stats from Synergy Sports Technology and NBA.com/stats were used in this column