The Ascent of Kawhi Leonard
We've known for a while that Kawhi Leonard is destined for great things. This season has seen the biggest jump in productivity of his career, and the improvement looks totally sustainable. Kawhi Leonard turned heads in August as he proclaimed that his ambitions included regular season MVP. At the time, I felt that was a lofty goal. Yet here we are just a few months later, hearing Kawhi's name being mentioned in MVP discussions.
Leonard's inexorable ascent into the basketball stratosphere has been a wonder to behold, and we are only now beginning to see the consistent dominance that he can be expected to produce over the coming years.
It's easy to point to Leonard's increased point production when assessing his development, but I want to take a more in-depth look at the quantitative improvements in Kawhi's game over the past few seasons.
But first, a quick disclaimer; we are comparing results from just 17 games (against below average competition) with entire seasons, so the comparisons here are based on a rather tenuous assumption that Leonard will be able to sustain this production over the course of the whole season. With that in mind, let's dig in.
Let's start with Leonard's non-shooting statistics. The first thing to note is that Leonard's minutes have increased significantly over the past 2 seasons, a 5.5 minute increase. Since this is a significant difference, I've chosen to look at most of his numbers on a per-36 minute basis.
Keep in mind that producing at the same rate for 35 minutes is much harder than producing at that level for just 29 minutes. Even if a number doesn't increase year over year, it still represents an improvement since it's sustained over a longer period. (If it weren't, Manu Ginobili would play 40 minutes a game and be considered an MVP candidate too!)
Kawhi's per 36 rebounding numbers improved by half a board per 36 from 2014 to 2015, and look to remain mostly the same this season. For comparison, LeBron James averaged 7.6 in 2012-2013 and 6.6 in 2013-2014, numbers which Kawhi has been eclipsing for some time now. This means Kawhi is rebounding at an absolutely elite level for his position. The list of power forwards and centers who average less includes Blake Griffin and Dirk Nowitzki.
Kawhi has never been known for his ballhandling. His 2.6 assists per 36 minutes is probably the most average facet of Kawhi's game. On a team boasting playmakers like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw, Kawhi has never shouldered much of the ballhandling load. This isn't to say he's unskilled, just that it has never been his responsibility to facilitate the offense for long stretches of the game.
In the 2014-2015 campaign, Kawhi assumed a more prominent role in the offense, and his per 36 assists numbers rose from 2.5 to 2.9. However, he also saw his turnovers rise from 1.5 to 1.7. This season, Leonard's assists are a bit lower at 2.6 per 36, but his turnovers are even lower at 1.4. As a result, Leonard's assist to turnover ratio is sitting at a respectable 1.77, good for 15th among NBA Small Forwards.
This season, Leonard seems more confident in dribbling into traffic, and is less likely to lose his handle when driving into the lane. This looks like yet another aspect of Kawhi's game where we're seeing incremental gains each year. Although his assist numbers are a bit down this year, the eye test indicates that Kawhi's vision is continuing to improve as well. It's not hard to imagine a post-Ginobili era in which Kawhi runs the offense, at least for the second unit.
Leonard's calling card has always been his defense, culminating last season with a DPOY nod. So far this year, Leonard's steals are down a bit, but his blocks are way up (bolstered no doubt by the 5 blocks he tallied in Friday's contest against the Nuggets). If you look at "Stocks," which are simply steals plus blocks added together, you still see a nice progression year over year: 3.0 in 2014, 3.4 last year, up to 3.6 this season.
Once again, those numbers are per 36 minutes played, which means Leonard is producing at an even higher rate for longer stretches this season. All while his PPG have gone from just 12.8 to 16.5 to 22.0.
While Kawhi has seen a nice progression in his non-shooting numbers, the real leap has come on the offensive end. He's become a solid number one offensive option. When the Spurs ball movement fails to produce great shots, the Spurs can now simply toss the ball to Leonard and count on a more efficient shot than most of the league can expect. Watch how Leonard turns this lemon of a possession into sweet, sweet stepback lemonade:
That's a pretty soft landing for failed offensive possessions, and while it might not mean a whole lot for the Spurs' offensive ceiling, it makes a helluva difference for their offensive floor.
The numbers paint a pretty clear picture of Kawhi's emergence as the Spurs number one offensive threat. Just look at his scoring numbers, along with the beautiful sea of green that is Leonard's shot chart this season:
Kawhi's 22.0 PPG represent a big leap from last year's 16.5, which was itself a big jump up from the previous season's 12.8. Even if you look at his scoring from a per 36 perspective, those numbers increase markedly year over year. What's even more remarkable is that Kawhi is doing this while shooting a better FG% than in previous years. Which brings me to the most impressive part of Kawhi Leonard's ascent.
Usage vs. Efficiency
There is a close relationship between a player's offensive efficiency and the volume of their usage role. Generally, the larger a player's offensive role, the less efficient their play becomes. Likewise, a role player who exclusively shoots open corner threes or an occasional layup will be very efficient in their scoring.
We can measure a player's efficiency by simply looking at their Effective Field Goal percentage (eFG%). To determine the volume of a player's role, we turn to Usage Rate, which attempts to answer the question, "What percentage of a team's possessions does a player consume?" Possessions are "consumed" when a player attempts a field goal, turns the ball over or shoots free throws.
Here's a helpful diagram:
Every player falls into one of those four quadrants. The best teams are comprised mostly of players in the top two quadrants. Most players who are above average efficiency are also below average usage - i.e. top left quadrant. If you asked a player like Danny Green to become a high usage player, his efficiency would probably plummet. So if you tried to fill a lineup with low usage, high efficiency players, their efficiency would probably fall since as their usage rates increased.
On the other side of things, players who boast a high usage rate are only valuable if they also maintain an average or better effective field goal percentage. (Somebody tell Byron Scott. Or better yet, don't)
What makes a player in the top right quadrant so valuable is that they can soak up possessions while doling out punishment in the form of highly efficient looks. This allows you to surround that player with high efficiency, lower usage players. These role players can stay in their usage sweet spot, and contribute efficient scoring, while the star scores both in volume and efficiency.
Last year, Sports Illustrated put together a graph charting the league's 60 most prolific shooters and their usage rate vs. effective field goal percentage. I dug it up and inserted Kawhi Leonard's 2015-2016 numbers, along with lines noting league averages for eFG% and Usage Rate, creating the four quadrants from the more entertaining chart above.
The further up and to the right a player falls, the greater their value. As you can see, Kawhi's 2015-2016 efficiency numbers put him in some pretty elite company. In fact, there was only one player last season who boasted both a higher usage rate and eFG percentage than Kawhi: Dirk Nowitzki, a player whose defensive contributions, shall we say, lag behind Kawhi's just a bit.
Leonard's current eFG percentage of 57.8% tops even MVP Stephen Curry's, and blows away Anthony Davis, LeBron James, James Harden, and just about every other major star in the league. Leonard's usage rate still remains somewhat lower than most of those players, but there is still some room to grow in that regard.
To get a feel for how Leonard's Usage/Efficiency is trending as he progresses, let's take a look at how his location on that chart has changed over the past few seasons.
Here are Kawhi's eFG% and Usage Rate numbers for the past three seasons:
And here are those numbers charted:
Here we see that in 2013-2014, Leonard was firmly ensconced as an efficient role player. His Usage Rate was below average, but his efficiency was an outstanding 57.6 eFG%.
In 2014-2015, Leonard made a big leap in his Usage Rate, going from role player to featured scorer as he jumped to a 23.1% Usage Rate. As you would expect, his efficiency suffered, dropping to a merely "good" 52.0 eFG%. This is the essence of the usage/efficiency tradeoff - if you increase a player's usage, you can expect their efficiency to suffer.
This season, Kawhi's Usage Rate increased once again as expected. But incredibly, rather than suffering another understandable drop in efficiency, Leonard's efficiency actually increased, topping his 2013-2014 "role player Kawhi" eFG%! I cannot overstate how remarkable that bidirectional improvement is.
One last way of measuring a player's efficiency is with the Player Efficiency Rating, or PER. PER tries to capture a player's per-minute contributions in a single number. Here we see Kawhi's precipitous rise to a number that currently ranks 5th in the league this season:
Keep in mind that the highest single single season PER ever recorded was Wilt Chamberlain's 31.82 in 1963. If sustained over an entire season, Kawhi Leonard's 27.49 PER would top Tim Duncan's career best 2003-2004 campaign (27.06), and rank just ahead of David Robinson's 1990-1991 season (27.43). Spurs fans will agree that is some excellent company to keep.
And so we have our complete picture of what Kawhi has become: a unique combination of high usage, ultra high efficiency, elite defense and outstanding rebounding.
Where does Leonard go from here? His efficiency cannot realistically improve very much. There's just not much room to the north on that chart. Where there is room to continue to grow is in Usage Rate. Leonard has already seen his Usage increase 42% over the past two years, so it's natural to assume his role will continue to grow. As Kawhi shoulders ever heavier loads for the Spurs, maintaining his already outrageous efficiency while doing so will be his next great challenge.
Kawhi Leonard is already breathing some exceedingly rarified air, and I for one am excited to witness his unrelenting ascent into the hoops heavens. I bet you are too.