With Manu Ginobili out with injury and then recovering in February and Tony Parker out for most of March, Kawhi Leonard raised his offensive game significantly. Let's look at what Kawhi did differently during that time and see if there is any evidence that he should see his offensive role expanded even further.
What has Leonard done differently?
With Parker and Ginobili out, or ineffective, Leonard created more of his own offense. The percentage of unassisted field goals he made increased from 35.9% to 46.6%. He became less of a three point spot up shooter and had more of his points come in the paint and from mid range. With increased usage and three more shots per 36 minutes, Leonard improved in most categories, which suggests he could be a very dangerous offensive weapon. But where is he taking his shots from and where is he the most effective?
Fewer three pointers, more mid-range jumpers and shots at the rim
Leonard has three general areas where he has traditionally been most effective: the corner, mid range and at the rim. Over the last couple of months that didn't change, except for a pretty steep decrease on success rate from the left corner. In terms of how often he is assisted on his field goals, Leonard ranks within the normal range in both shots at the rim and corner threes both before and during the past couple of months. The big discrepancy comes in the percentage of unassisted shots from mid-range, which was 70% over the last two months as compared to 25% prior to February.
In terms of shot location, the biggest change is that Leonard is taking a lot fewer three pointers. Only 27.9% of Leonard's shots over the last couple of months have been three pointers, down from 34.2%. Leonard is taking fewer three pointers from all over the floor, but the biggest decrease has been from the left corner. The shots he is not taking from the corner he has taken from mid-range and at the rim.
Seeing Leonard take and make more shots at the rim is certainly encouraging, but a great corner shooter taking fewer shots from there and more from mid-range is not what I'd call good strategy. Without Parker creating those open corner looks, it was a necessary adjustment for Leonard, and he has been so ridiculously good from mid-range throughout the season that the negative impact we would expect to see was mitigated. Now that Tony's back, does Leonard still need to create for himself? Let's leave that question for later and focus on whether or not Leonard would thrive with a change in role first.
Leonard is at his best off the ball
Per MySynergySports.com, most of Leonard's offense this season comes in three types of play: spot-ups, transition buckets and cuts. Synergy uses point per possession resulting from the different plays and ranks the players. Leonard ranks 156th in spot up situations, most likely because of his inability to hit non-corner threes. In transition, he's an excellent 37th, and on cuts he's 98th which is quite respectable. Those are obviously all off-the-ball offensive plays.
On the ball, Leonard gets mostly good PPP (Points Per Possession) numbers but hasn't really had a lot of tries. His transition opportunities outnumber his isolations, plays as the pick and roll ball handler, and post ups combined. While he definitely shows promise in most aspects of the offense, it might be too much to ask Leonard to suddenly produce consistently on isolations or as a ball handler, especially with so few games left in the regular season and so little experience doing it in the past. It could even backfire and end up detracting from the areas in which Leonard excels now. But if the other Spurs can't create, the risk might be worth it. Let's look at the Spurs' on-the-ball offensive threats.
Should Leonard defer in terms of shot creation?
In isolations, Tony Parker ranks 12th in the league on a copious amount of tries. As a pick and roll ball handler, by far the most used play for Parker, he ranks 9th. Tim Duncan ranks 32th in post ups (which is fantastic considering the opponent will always put their best post defender on him) and Tiago Splitter ranks 30th. Manu Ginobili ranks 60th as a pick and roll ball handler, a play that constitutes over 30% of his total offense. And in a lot less tries than Manu and Tony, but still significantly more than Leonard, Gary Neal ranks 15th.
What Synergy doesn't track is another aspect that would probably hurt Leonard's case: passing. Ginobili and Parker are expert playmakers in the pick and roll, and Duncan is a fantastic passer out of the post. Despite being a willing and solid passer within the system, Leonard has never excelled at racking up assists and has never shown particularly good court vision. For comparison's sake, only Matt Bonner averages fewer assists per 36 minutes and a smaller assist percentage. A huge part of that has to do with their role, but Leonard simply doesn't seem like much of a creator yet.
So how can Leonard get more touches?
Ideally, Leonard would mostly work off the ball, as he has in the past, but would get some touches as a fail safe. The Spurs, like most teams, run pick and roll sets on one side of the court and, if it doesn't work, they revert the ball to the weak side. By having Leonard in the weak side, the Spurs could swing the ball and have Leonard either attack his man if the opponent fails to rotate in time or use a pick to get him separation for that deadly mid-range J. Similarly, when Ginobili is on the court the other team usually sticks their best perimeter defender on him. Giving Leonard the ball to isolate or post up early in the shot clock if he has a smaller defender might allow Kawhi to exploit the advantage and kick it out if he doesn't, with enough time to run a different set.
Finally, the Spurs have experimented a bit with running 1-3 pick and rolls with Stephen Jackson without having great success. Trying it with Leonard, though, might be worth a shot since it could provide both him and Parker with matchup advantages on switches. That would give Leonard another play to work with that is close to his comfort zone. If the defenders switch, he will have a smaller defender in the mid post to shoot over or post up, and if they don't he simply needs to spot up in case Parker attacks and needs an outlet.
But mostly, the Spurs should keep running their offense and trusting Leonard's great off ball game to provide him with opportunities and give him a longer leash to figure things out for himself. Leonard is a smart and unselfish player. With more experience he'll know when to push and when to defer. Now that he is getting more minutes, the opportunities will be there, so there's no need to force anything.
Even though he has exceeded expectations throughout his young career, Kawhi shouldn't be asked to adjust to a completely different role on offense, especially considering the Spurs seem to have guys that are better suited for on-the-ball offense right now. But by exploring subtle options that still play to Leonard's strengths, the Spurs can add one more offensive option to the bevy of sets that Popovich uses. At this point, and with other players struggling with their shot, his spot-up shooting form the corner and his off-the-ball movement is too valuable to jeopardize. But The Big Island is definitely showing glimpses of the big time offensive player he is becoming. We will just have to have a little patience.
Stats via NBA.com, Synergy Sports, Hoopdata and Basketball-Reference