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If Kawhi Leonard is a shutdown corner, what if he played free safety?

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San Antonio's best defender might be so good that the normal rules don't apply to him.

NBA: Boston Celtics at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

A couple years ago, after a game in which Kawhi Leonard tied a then-career high in steals, I had the chance to ask him a question. There was a play in the game in which he seemed to bait the opponent (I think it was Toronto) into making a bad pass, purposefully playing off his man and then pouncing on it to pick it off. I had read that Leonard played some high school football, so I asked him if, in situations like that, he ever thought of himself as a cornerback baiting a quarterback into a “pick-six,” a popular nickname for an interception returned for a touchdown.

Leonard, being the most literal soul in all of creation, considered my dumb question for half a second and replied, “No, never.”

I thought of that interaction after reading Matt Moore’s story about Leonard’s defense for CBSSports.com. Ironically, while Leonard doesn’t think of football at all while playing defense, opponents seem to be treating him like a “shut-down” cornerback, doing their best to isolate him on one side of the court and running their offense through the other side, even if it means ignoring one of their best wing players, the way the Bulls sometimes did with Jimmy Butler or Dwyane Wade in the game Moore highlighted in his piece.

We’ve heard the phrase “Kawhi Island” before the past couple of years to describe the sensation of Leonard bottling up the league’s marquee scorers and you may know that it was a takeoff of “Revis Island,” which was coined a few years ago for New York Jets star corner Darrelle Revis, who could lock up receivers back in the day.

Casual football fans may be familiar with Revis or Seattle’s Richard Sherman or Arizona’s Patrick Patterson as the preeminent corners in the game that opposing passers generally avoid testing, but in the 80’s and 90’s Deion Sanders was the first superstar cornerback to become a household name, somebody who was so good at his craft that teams would literally not throw to his half of the field.

And if you’re a football fan of a certain age, you know Sanders, for all his brilliance, was a member of some sorry defenses playing for the Atlanta Falcons, most memorably on this day in 1990 where San Francisco’s legendary Jerry Rice, lined up on the opposite side of the field away from Sanders all afternoon, scored five touchdowns in a 45-35 win for the 49ers.

Sanders wasn’t the problem (though it’s fair to wonder why his coach didn’t line him up opposite Rice that game). It’s just that one guy can only do so much. When he played with better players on San Francisco and then Dallas, those defenses naturally played better and won championships.

Moore’s story highlighted how opponents have had success running offense away from Leonard and his facts aren’t in dispute, but I think it only tells a part of the story. Leonard’s defensive rating currently stands at 105.7, per NBA.com’s Stats Index. But Pau Gasol has shared the floor with Leonard for 570 of Leonard’s 873 minutes so far, per NBAWowy! Tony Parker has played 408 minutes with him. And all three have played together for 339 minutes, ostensibly against the opponent’s top talent, producing a 107.4 defensive rating. However, in 112 minutes with no Gasol, Parker or David Lee at his side, Leonard’s had a 95.4 defensive rating (and about a plus-30.0 net rating). LaMarcus Aldridge has shared the floor with him in 101 of those minutes, while Patty Mills played 84 minutes and Dewayne Dedmon 67. In 136 minutes playing with Dedmon Leonard’s defensive rating lowers to 102.0 (with a plus 17.5 net) and in 96 minutes with Dedmon and no Gasol or Parker, it’s 100.0 even, with a 20.1 net.

All that doesn’t excuse Leonard completely, to be clear. Both by the numbers and the eye test he’s been objectively worse this season in his own end in individual match-ups, as both Moore and our own Bruno Passos showed. But I don’t think Leonard is doing the defense much good hanging out on the weak side, no matter who he happens to be guarding.

The solution, I think, keeping in the football parlance, is for him to play less like a corner and more like a free safety or a linebacker. Match him up with the opponent’s worst wing instead of their best and let him freelance off them. Instead of shutting down a guy who doesn’t even have the ball, the Spurs would be better served if he improvised like Troy Polamalu used to with Pittsburgh or Junior Seau did with San Diego, just going off his instincts and roaming away from his man and closer to where the action is, in the paint or in the passing lanes. Not only would he be involved more, but it would allow him a chance to help out on the glass, where his career rebound percentage is a career-low, via Basketball-reference.com. If he got more rebounds, it would enable him to go on more of his coast-to-coast jaunts, which would improve the offense’s pace. Granted, some teams would exploit this strategy with backdoor passes to Leonard’s open man, but he can pick plenty of those off with his freakish wingspan.

The other option is to make Leonard the tip of the spear, guaranteeing he’ll be involved in the fray by having him guard the lead ball-handler. Usually checking point guards is not his forte, but I think he’d be better off doing that than hanging out on the weak side watching a 4-on-4 game that doesn’t involve him.

The one part of this equation that hasn’t been mentioned is whether Leonard’s offense is affecting his defense, not just for him but for his teammates as well. I had a theory that Leonard’s Melo-esque ball-stopping on offense has caused his teammates to get sluggish and lead-footed on the other end of the floor. I wanted to see if lineups involving Leonard passed the ball less and held it more than ones not involving him. While that data proved impossible to triangulate, it is worth noting that the Spurs’ five starters have the five slowest paces on the squad and that the team plays at its fastest with Leonard off.

I decided to explore a bit further and look at the guys’ passes made versus their passes received. You’ve probably suspected that Leonard has the highest usage rate on the team and he does, by a mile, 30.7 percent compared to Aldridge’s 24.5 at second-highest among the rotation guys. But he’s not using those possessions to move the ball, not compared to his teammates, anyway.

Made/min Received/min Ratio

Gasol 1.69 1.34 1.26

Aldridge 1.10 1.17 0.94

Leonard 0.93 1.26 0.74

Green 1.09 0.96 1.14

Parker 1.99 2.20 0.90

Mills 1.79 2.02 0.89

Ginobili 1.29 1.44 0.90

Lee 1.54 1.09 1.41

Dedmon 1.01 0.61 1.66

Simmons 1.06 1.15 0.92

Anderson 1.25 0.94 1.33

Bertans 1.23 0.95 1.29

Laprovittola 1.78 2.01 0.89

Looking at the chart, you see Leonard makes .93 passes per minute but receives 1.26 per minute, a ratio far removed from anyone on the team. The only other guys who even make fewer than 1.1 passes per minute are Dedmon, who’s pretty much just catching thunderous alley-oops these days, and Danny Green, who’s a catch-and-shoot guy. Leonard has been the antithesis of the “make a decision in 0.5 seconds or less” mantra that fueled the 2014 champions, and more often than not, his surveying of the court has led to him calling his own number.

And that hasn’t been a bad thing! Leonard is really, really good, and his supporting cast is not as good, to varying degrees. I’d hate to think where they’d be without him for a sustained stretch. But my guess is that the more Leonard holds the ball, cutting off the ball movement and man movement the Spurs are famous for, the more inactive his teammates get on the other end, removed from the flow of the game. It’s as good an explanation as any for why the Spurs have a defensive rating of 92.3 in 374 minutes with Leonard sitting, right? The team is at its best defensively with the pass-pass-pass lineup of Dedmon-Lee-Simmons-Ginobili-Mills (albeit with just a tiny 43-minute sample size) but any lineup involving the Simmons-Ginobili-Mills trio and not including Leonard has been solid, with a 97.2 defensive rating in 139 minutes.

I conclude with no false modesty that I doubt I’ve uncovered anything that the Spurs haven’t discovered already. They’re making necessary trade-offs, sacrificing here and there because the positives far outweigh the negatives with Leonard. They are 21-5, after all, and it’s not like turning Leonard into passing dynamo will all of a sudden turn Parker into Chris Paul and Gasol into his brother. Whatever improvements the team makes between now and the playoffs will be incremental.

Maybe the real lesson here is that as much as we appreciated him these past two decades, it took retirement for us to truly grasp just how phenomenal Tim Duncan was as a defensive anchor. Without him the two-time Defensive Player of the Year looks almost ordinary.