Kawhi Leonard has been named to the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team, and he is now the first Raptor to have ever been selected to either team. He continues making Raptors’ history. It his his fifth all-defensive selection, as he now has three first team choices and two second team.
Leonard is among the greatest defenders in NBA history, so big picture, this makes total sense. He was integral to the Raptors’ fifth-ranked defense in the regular season. However, for those playing close attention to the Raptors’ season, this may come as something of a surprise. Leonard of course only played in 60 games in the regular season, as he was limited by load management. He averaged 1.8 steals and 0.4 blocks per game, both among the lowest marks of his career. Even when Leonard was in the lineup, Danny Green or Pascal Siakam – who both played in 80 games – generally defended the opponents’ best offensive players, whether a guard (Green), wing (either), or big (Siakam). Green and Siakam, all things considered, were likely Toronto’s best defenders during the regular season.
Marc Gasol (3.6), Siakam (1.9), Green (1.5), and Lowry (1.2) all finished with higher defensive player impact plus-minus metrics than Leonard (0.3), which is an advanced stat developed by Jacob Goldstein to measure a player’s defensive output. Either Green or Siakam would have been reasonable selections, and both received votes, as well as Lowry. Green had the most votes among players who didn’t make the cut (and actually far more than Leonard, who is listed as a forward), so he was incredibly close. But Leonard, likely due to his prior reputation as a world-beating defender, won the nod in the end. And we’ve seen exactly why during this playoff run.
Leonard is, without a doubt, the best top-end defender on the Raptors. His ability to completely neutralize whomever he guards, whether Aaron Gordon, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, is unbelievable. He is too strong, too quick, too long to be beaten. Players routinely attempt and make fewer shots when Leonard is their primary defender. His monstrous hands allow him to create steals of which most players could only dream. Leonard’s defense on Antetokounmpo has allowed Toronto to pull out of an 0-2 hole against the Milwaukee Bucks and even the series. Leonard is Toronto’s best player and best defender, and this reward is well deserved if only for those reasons. He continues making history for the Raptors, and he’ll lead them against the Bucks on Thursday in search of the team’s first ever Final run.