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Kawhi Leonard’s Sticky Hands

Certain players have carried a reputation that the closer the defense is, the better the shot. Of course that’s a fallacy, but it didn’t stop JR Smith, Kobe Bryant, and DeMar DeRozan from earning said reputation. Leonard’s style does lend itself to similar folk tales, with his laissez-faire attitude towards primary defenders.

While there aren’t any players that shoot better with tight defense on them, as opposed to open shots – at least not over a large sample size – there are players who shoot better the longer they hold onto the ball. This is something Leonard has a propensity for, is he one of the select few?

During Leonard’s fantastic 2016-17 season – yes, the MVP candidate year – he was a terror in ISO possessions, and certainly good enough making plays off of an extended dribble. Still, he wasn’t more efficient when he was putting the ball on the floor for more than a couple dribbles. Leonard’s ability to spot-up from beyond the arc had more to do with his ascension in the Spurs system than his ISO ability.

Should we be worried then, that Leonard has almost doubled his ISO frequency from 2016-17 to now, and that he’s only scoring in the 56th percentile? I don’t think so, but there are a couple complications that are coming from his immersion into the Raptors offense. Since his defense and 3-point shooting are so much better than DeRozan’s (and most players) there isn’t much attention paid to the drop-off in playmaking, or his less than ideal offensive decision making thus far.

The Spurs and Raptors are both dealing with the changes accordingly. After 6 (!) consecutive years in the top-5 in defensive rating, the Spurs have had to adjust to a defense that features DeRozan’s shortcomings on that end; consequently, they’ve fallen out of the top-5 and currently sit 21st. The good news is that DeRozan has flashed playmaking chops that few wing players possess, and the Spurs certainly appreciate what his playmaking does for them.

On the other side of things, the Raptors are appreciative of the defensive pedigree Leonard brings. While the Raptors of last year and this year boast similar defensive ratings, Leonard’s defensive rating is 8 points better (103) while maintaining the same offensive rating (114) as DeRozan. We knew this much coming in. Leonard is one of the best defenders the NBA has. At 15-4, somehow the Raptors seem like their record is better than their play thus far. The Raptors only reach their ceiling when Leonard’s offensive role matches the team’s style.

The Passing

With the 3-point shot being such a big part of the Raptors identity this year – even as they struggle to shoot it – Leonard’s creation is important. Interestingly enough, there’s a fairly easy way to compare Leonard’s impact in this area. Leonard is creating 4.7 looks from behind the line per game for his teammates, chief among them, Lowry (1.3). The Raptors are converting a paltry 32-percent of their threes off of passes from Leonard. Not one player is averaging a single make per game.

When reviewing specific players percentages, Lowry’s sticks out like a sore thumb. With Lowry taking the lion-share of attempts from Kawhi’s passes, he’s converting at a terrible rate (23.5-percent). Compare this to the numbers that DeRozan put up with the Raptors just last year, and it’s a considerable drop off. I’m not making the case for DeRozan>Leonard at all, just this one area.

DeRozan was creating over 7 attempts per game from downtown last year. Of those attempts, the Raptors were hitting 38-percent of them. Good for nearly twice as many makes as from Leonard. Leonard’s elite 3-point shooting was supposed to close the gap – and surpass – between the overall offensive impact. This hasn’t happened as of yet, because DeRozan and Leonard’s shooting numbers from 3 are very similar. Leonard is shooting 3-percent better on .2 attempts per game more. Which leads us to the next part.

Shot Ready, No Hesitation

Kyle Lowry ‘nash’s’ the pick n’ roll, circling the basket looking for options. After shifting the defense accordingly he lobs the ball to Danny Green in the corner, Green attacks the close-out. Once the help-side defense engages with Green he kicks out to Kawhi Leonard above-the-break. He’s wide open, but he doesn’t shoot. Jab step – jab step – pump fake, the defense is now on him and any space created has evaporated.

In years past I remember marvelling at the San Antonio Spurs wing shooting 44-percent from 3.  Leonard has always been at his best as a catch-and-shoot option from downtown. In his past 3 healthy seasons, Leonard hasn’t shot less than 40-percent in those opportunities.  The problem this year is that his attempts are way down. He’s attempting almost half as many catch-and-shoot triples than in his robust 2016-17 year, even though the Raptors attempt 10 more 3’s per game than that years Spurs.

While there has been a development in Leonard’s career that dictates he take a certain amount of ISO possessions, there’s plenty of room for efficient catch-and-shoot attempts. His lack of preparation in these opportunities is a bit of self-sabotage. He may be comfortable going 1-on-1 when he lets the defense catch up to him, but it’s the wrong play.

30.7-percent of his shots are coming after 3-6 dribbles, and 29-percent are coming after 7+ dribbles. These numbers are way too high, and makeup roughly 60-percent of his shot-chart in a given game. Not to mention he’s shooting sub-40-percent in these play-types. We can’t expect him to succeed at a level similar to years past when he’s choosing the path of most resistance.

The Good:

(Shorter defender, no hesitation. Good shooters take this shot.)

Work in Progress:

(You still see hesitation before the shot goes up. He made it, but it put a hitch in his jumper. Shooters don’t often hit shots when they do this, and you can see the full disruption of this hesitation in the next gif.)

The Bad:

(Leonard’s hesitation here gives up a corner 3-point opportunity. He passes up a shot with 7 seconds on the shot clock, and he waits so long that the Minnesota defense no longer needs to scramble. The defense resets completely. Not to mention the Wolves are playing in a zone here, and Leonard’s jump-shot is vital to solving a zone.)

Phasing out his apparent reluctance to shoot without using his dribble will do wonders for Leonard, and by extension, the Raptors. The Raptors Finals dreams are sitting firmly on the shoulders of Leonard, and a version of Leonard that shoots the three better than every Raptor, save for Lowry. If he’s able to start punishing teams off the catch, he’ll be far more dangerous attacking close-outs.

The passing has never been a huge part of Leonard’s game, but he’s not a blackhole. If he can improve his decision making on offense, the Raptors ceiling rises tremendously. Leonard’s offensive game can’t be limited to ISO possessions and post-ups. We’ve all expected a fluid-futuristic offense from Nick Nurse, and that requires Leonard to stop indulging in isolations so much. Going forward, we’re looking for far more catch-and-shoot attempts from Leonard, and a smidge more passing. Let’s keep an eye out for it.

Have a blessed day.

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