Introducing the Kawhi Leonard Era

Just how underrated is Kawhi Leonard?

Kawhi Leonard grabbed people’s attention after holding his own with the Miami Heat this past NBA Finals. But when most NBA watchers think of up-and-coming players, guys like John Wall, Kyrie Irving, and Paul George usually come to mind.

Is Leonard underrated? What do the numbers say?

Our basketball efficiency stat here at numberFire, nERD, takes into account both offensive and defensive performance in order to gauge what a player’s value is to his respective team. For example, LeBron James had a nERD of 27.3 in 2012-2013, which means that we could expect a team with four league-average players plus LeBron to be 27.3 games over .500 (68-13). This is a ridiculous number. For perspective, it was the second-highest nERD season posted since 2000, with only Bron’s 2009 campaign (30.1 nERD) eclipsing it. Kevin Durant posted a 26.4 nERD in 2012-2013 (also ridiculous), and the next highest rated player was Chris Paul with a 17.2 score.

So let’s now take a look at the four guys I discussed in the intro and see where they’re at the past two years.

PlayerAge2012-2013 ORtg2012-2013 DRtg2011-2012 nERD2012-2013 nERD
John Wall23105103-5.41.8
Kyrie Irving211081101.51.1
Paul George23104974.85.9
Kawhi Leonard22114996.35.8

While Leonard may not have the name “it-factor” due to being on a Tim Duncan and Tony Parker dominated team, we see that he has brought more value to his team than each of these other young guys.

These statistics above do not judge raw skill, so I’m not saying that Leonard is more skilled than Kyrie or Wall – merely that he is more efficient, both offensively and defensively. This, in turn, brings more value to his team and thus garners more wins. Granted, it does take point guards a little longer to develop defensively, which explains Kyrie’s awful defensive numbers.

Defensive Prowess

We’ve heard the old adage “defense wins championships.” Last year, per, the final four NBA teams looked defensively (metrics-wise) looked like this (numbers from the “defense four factors”, read here):

TeameFG% RankTOV% RankDRB% RankFT/FGA RankTeam DRtg Rank
Miami Heat9524139 (103.7)
San Antonio Spurs513333 (101.6)
Memphis Grizzlies329212 (100.3)
Indiana Pacers1266121 (99.8)

Now more than ever teams are focusing on becoming elite defensively – it’s the recipe for a title. In the age of LeBron and Durant, kids are growing up wanting to be point-forwards and wing players. They're adapting their game more to Pippen than MJ. That position can make or break teams. Leonard is that prototype guy for the Spurs. Paul George is that guy for the Pacers. The Grizzlies didn’t have it in Rudy Gay so they traded him away. The top-two guys right now for the 2013-2014 draft are Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, college freshman who play that forward wing position.

Budding Offensive Star

We've seen Leonard as the defensive guru, and now we're going to watch him step up his game offensively as well. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has been quoted this off-season talking about wanting Leonard to take more of an attacking role and become THE guy for the Spurs. We’ve already seen this in the preseason, as he has regularly taken defenders off the dribble for pull-up jumpers. Expect to see it a lot more starting next week.

In Kevin Durant’s first two NBA seasons, he posted nERD’s of -7.1 and 4.9 respectively before hitting double digits in his third season with a 12.5 nERD. Look for Leonard to quietly approach double digits this season and the Spurs to (as usual) tear through the regular season en route to a top playoff seed. He may not be as sexy as these other young guys, but he’s just as good.

As the Spurs transition out of the Tim Duncan era, enjoy watching as the Kawhi Leonard era begins.