Appreciating Kawhi Leonard's Offense
Kawhi Leonard can play defense. We all know that.
Since entering the league, Leonard has made a name for himself by playing lockdown defense.
His Defensive Rating has gotten better every year he’s been in the league, culminating with last year’s stellar performance when he was first in the league with a Defensive Rating of 96.4 and won Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first wing player to take the crown since Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) in 2003-04.
Like Andre Iguodala this year, he won the Finals MVP in 2014 largely in part to his defense on LeBron James. This past year, Leonard also led the league in steals per game, the only non-guard to place in the top six. Throw in top-10 finishes in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and Defensive Win Shares, and it’s clear that Kawhi Leonard can play defense.
But that's not what this article is about.
In Defense of His Offense
Leonard is one of the best defenders in the league, but he’s so good that it overshadows his offense. Casted as an outstanding defender and a non-factor on offense, Leonard has demonstrated that the latter is anything but correct.
Last year, Leonard averaged 16.5 points per game, his third consecutive year improving his scoring average. He averaged seven more points per 36 minutes this year compared with his rookie season, and he did it efficiently, shooting .479 from the field, which actually marked a regression from 2013-14's field goal percentage of .522.
Among all players in the top 35 in scoring, only Paul Millsap took fewer shots.
Leonard even ranked 15th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), a stat notorious for underrating defensive impact.
This past year marked a symbolic changing of the guard in San Antonio. Leonard led the team in scoring, the first time since Tim Duncan's rookie season that someone other than Duncan, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobili accomplished the feat.
Still, he’s more than just a low-output scorer. Leonard has proved that he can score at a higher volume too. In games in which he took 14 shots or more, he averaged 20.8 points and shot just a shade under 50%. In the Spurs' seven-game series loss to the Clippers, Leonard averaged 20.3 points and posted a 32-point game and a 26-point game with solid marks in other counting stats.
This season, Leonard also showed his ability to score from everywhere on the court and to do it effectively.
In 2014-15, he was among the top 20 players in the league in post-up efficiency. Similarly, he had a 43.9 Effective Field Goal Percentage on pull-up shots last season, which ranked 16th in the league.
Closer to the basket, he's also found success. His field goal percentage of 68.3% on shots within five feet was the 11th-best in the league among players who averaged at least three such shots last season, according to NBA.com
LaMarcus Aldridge Comes to Town
When the Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge, they were immediately cast as title hopefuls. But what does the power forward's addition to the team mean for Leonard?
We can try to estimate the impact by looking at last year’s Blazers’ squad. With Aldridge on the floor, Portland’s small forwards received fewer shot attempts than when he was on the bench. Nicolas Batum averaged 3% fewer shots per 36 minutes, Arron Afflalo averaged 4.9% fewer shots, and Steve Blake averaged 5.4% fewer. This doesn't bode well for Leonard, who already has few plays run through him.
Yet, the addition of Aldridge may actually allow Leonard to increase his scoring output. For all ball-handlers with at least 100 possessions running pick and roll, Leonard was 14th in scoring efficiency with 0.9 points per possession. In Portland last season, Aldridge found the ball in his hands in pick and roll situations 263 times, good for seventh in the league.
With Aldridge, the Spurs will likely run more pick and roll plays, and Leonard, one of the best pick and roll ball handlers, will benefit from it.
Also working in his favor is Father Time. Over the past three years, the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker has averaged seven fewer shots per game. Someone will have to pick up the slack, and Kawhi Leonard has shown he can be the one to do it, though a share of the possessions will surely go to Aldridge.
Leonard is without a doubt a top five small forward in the league. The pair of LeBron James and Kevin Durant seems pretty secure at the top. Carmelo Anthony and Paul George both garner the headlines thanks to their positions as their respective teams' definitive number-one option. Last year, Carmelo had a usage rate of 32.4 and George had one of 28.3. Kawhi on the other hand had a usage rate of just 23.0.
If Leonard can continue to play stellar defense and raise his scoring numbers as his usage increases, he could surpass Anthony and George and start knocking on LeBron and Durant's door.