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Far from nothing: A shallow dive into Kawhi Leonard’s advanced stats

Well, it happened. Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor.

Due to the uncertainty of the move and the mixed emotions that come with moving a player of Demar DeRozan’s tenure/character, many north of the border seem to have soured Leonard already. However, a word of caution: considering how important Oklahoma Cities’ fans and culture were in making Paul George fall in love with the city last year, Canadian public opinion will have to change if there is any hope at retaining Leonard, and soon.

Earlier this week, I made the case for acquiring Leonard almost out of obligation as I assumed the rumors weren’t rooted in much truth. In making that case, I briefly touched on how Leonard’s advanced stats capture his talent more than his counting stats do, but I didn’t really do that argument its justice as there is far more to his all-time-great impact. It really can’t be overstated how rare of an opportunity it is for a player of this caliber to become available. So, with the poor optics of the move and the conflicting emotions of all parties involved put aside briefly, let’s get basketball nerdy for a minute and discuss how special of a player Leonard truly is.

Offense

While touted most vociferously for his defense, Leonard’s impact is possibly even better on the flashier side of the ball. While at 25.5 ppg, 48.5% FG, and 38% 3FG in 2016-17 his counting stats are already impressive enough, his steady improvement since entering the league has elevated him to unthinkable levels off efficiency as he has addressed virtually every hole in his game.

Per Synergy Sports, in Leonard’s last two healthy seasons he finished in the 96th and 99th percentiles for offensive points per possession. That level of efficiency is almost unheard of with a superstar’s usage. Leonard attains such statistical bliss through his diverse skillset as his healthy scoring diet prevents him from relying too much on certain skills which frees him from developing any predictable “crutch” on offense. Despite being the first option, Leonard always takes the best option available as he can score efficiently from any level. It’s no accident that in 2016-17 the Spurs offense dropped from 112.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor to a paltry 102.6 with him off of it. That’s essentially the difference between the 1st and 27th ranked offenses from that year (per Zach Lowe).

Furthermore, any argument that Leonard’s offensive success is a product of San Antonio’s system is vehemently false. While the Beautiful Game Spurs are every basketball purist’s “one that got away”, recent iteration’s of the Spurs have stopped playing such egalitarian basketball for a reason: Leonard is that good. In his last healthy season, when the basketball world was losing their minds over how James Harden and Russell Westbrook were “doing it on their own”, Leonard may have done more, and more efficiently.

Per FiveThirtyEight, according to the Championship Leverage index, Leonard’s ability to carry a mediocre Spurs roster in 2016-17 to an elite 61 win offense may have created an even greater winning impact than either of Westbrook or Harden that season. Leonard reached that mark by being above both MVPs in points per possession in pick and roll, while also falling slightly between the two in points per possession for isolation (per Synergy Sports). Certain teams provide more spacing than others, but that kind of do-it-yourself ability exists in a vacuum. It works anywhere.

Defense

OK, I lied earlier when I said he might be better offensively. Honestly, there’s no real way to know, but cmon, any casual fan who watched a Spurs game the last five years can tell how dominant he is on that end of the floor. NBA Teams don’t gameplan to keep opposing wing players on the weak side for entire offensive possessions for just anyone, only all-timers get that kind of treatment, and Leonard most certainly is one.

There are plenty of statistics to quantify Leonard’s impact as every year he is one of the league leaders in everything from steal rate to defensive win shares but the most telling stat comes per Andy Bailey, who found, for perimeter players, Leonard ranks second all-time in career defensive box plus minus trailing only Andrei Kirilenko. As polarizing as the other stars in the league are, you’d be hard-pressed to find another with even half Leonard’s defensive resume.

Don’t expect him to slow down in that regard either. In nine games this season, despite looking 80% of himself at best, Leonard was on pace for career highs in both steal and block rate (per Basketball Reference). In fact, his steal rate would have led the league by a mile. Stats like this tend to remind you that despite his greatest achievement of Finals MVP coming four years ago, Leonard is only now hitting his prime at 27, and likely hasn’t even reached his ceiling.

Overall

Dominating both sides of the ball as Leonard does generates astronomic catch-all advanced stats. While a lot of these are confusing just know they all are trying to answer the same question: who creates a winning impact? And virtually everything from Win Shares to Real Plus Minus to Five Thirty Eight’s 9 category mess answers that question with a similar group of 4-5 guys at the top; Kawhi always among them—if not at the top.

The most encouraging stat in capturing Leonard’s absurd two-way impact comes from John Hollinger’s famous Player Efficiency Rating (PER), which had Leonard tops in the league as he tore through the 2017 playoffs, his last healthy stint, after being only third in the regular season. That ability to ramp it up in the playoffs is a welcome sight for Raptors’ fans who’ve had no such fortune in the past (save Norman Powell, sometimes).

Moving on from DeRozan was a difficult decision and the optics are undoubtedly disagreeable, but the Raptors obtained a legit superstar in every sense of the word. It may take some time for fans to like him, but the Raptors most certainly got more than a little bit of nothing.

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