The San Antonio Spurs have spent years tinkering with their style in plain sight. Since they drafted Tim Duncan in 1997, the Spurs have gone through the bruising Twin Towers and Bruce Bowen bully-ball eras; the high-octane, ball-movement era featuring Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw; and, more recently, a post-heavy attack built around LaMarcus Aldridge. San Antonio’s shifting styles have kept it current with league trends and accentuated the roster’s strengths, but traditionally, that’s meant that the Spurs’ reputation has been slightly out of step with how the team is actually playing at any given moment. Now, that disconnect between the team’s rep and its play has transferred to its best player. Kawhi Leonard is staging a bona-fide MVP campaign while playing a very different brand of basketball than he did the last time he was at the center of the basketball-watching universe.
On Monday night, the Spurs took down the Houston Rockets thanks to a late-game charge led by Leonard, who went for 39 points that included a contested pull-up three followed by a game-sealing block on fellow MVP candidate James Harden.
That’s as good a late-game effort as you’ll see most nights, but it’s also not altogether different from what Leonard does from night to night. That some are (correctly) holding it up as the moment Leonard’s MVP campaign launched in earnest is pretty solid evidence that the image of Leonard many fans have — dutiful two-way cog in the Spurs machine, in balance with the talented Spurs roster around him — isn’t really the guy who’s out there this season.
Instead, Kahwi Leonard has stopped playing quite so much like Kawhi Leonard and taken up the game of a go-to superstar. In 2013-14, the last season the Spurs won the title, Leonard’s usage percentage was just 18.3 during the regular season, which is low for a key offensive player. Of the possessions he did use, 28 percent came on spot-up shots, and an additional 22 percent came in transition; 52 percent of his 2-point shots were assisted, making him much more reliant on others for his offense than the typical perimeter star. His role was as an elite defender and a floor spacer, not a key creator in the offense.
While Leonard has steadily grown into one of the most efficient players in the league over the last few seasons, he has still carried the label of a system player. Even last season, his most-common play type was the spot-up jumper (on which he scored a phenomenal 125.1 points per 100 possessions), which has obvious value but doesn’t fit the traditional go-to guy mold.
This season is different. Leonard’s usage has spiked to 31 percent (that’s Russell-Westbrook-before-this-season range), and he’s nearly doubled his pick-and-roll possessions, going from 14 percent of his possessions last season to 26 percent this season while remaining deadly effective. His 106.1 points per 100 possessions on those plays is among the best in the league, better even than Harden’s formidable pick-and-roll game this season (101.6), albeit on about half the number of possessions per game.1 Leonard still gets a lot of spot-up jumpers, but he’s now being assisted on only 37 percent of his 2-pointers, pretty much in line with LeBron James or an in-his-prime Kobe Bryant. He’s creating his own offense now, rather than waiting for the offense to come to him.
Maybe most impressively, Leonard has done all this without dropping an ounce of efficiency. After Monday night, his 61.7 true shooting percentage had inched past his career-high from last season (61.6 percent). This is somewhat surprising, given that Leonard has gone from shooting 44 percent on 3-pointers last season to 39 percent this season. But he’s made up for that by adding more long twos to his game — often on quick curls around a high screen, as he did in the Houston game, but also in isolation on a variety of hesitation and pull-up moves — and making nearly half of them. These are the shots that had DeMarcus Cousins saying that he saw “flashes of Kobe” in Kawhi’s game, and it’s rare that workmanlike perimeter grinders are able to add them to their games so successfully. Guys learn to shoot corner threes much more often than they learn to Kobe-step.
That ability to pick up hard-to-master skills is what makes Leonard such an intriguing prospect, even now as a credible MVP candidate. He still isn’t as natural a passer as many of the other perimeter players who are the nexus of their teams, but he’s improving. And as we’ve seen with the maturation of Westbrook as a point guard, the transcendent passing gene may come only by birthright, but you can get pretty damn far with time and stubbornness. So far, Leonard has gone from a 13 percent assist rate the last two seasons to 18 percent this season. That’s partly just a function of using more possessions, but the capacity and willingness to do that are part of his growth. And the notion that at 25 years old, Leonard is playing this well but has clear paths to improvement is downright lurid.
All this newfound offensive firepower comes alongside Leonard’s reputation as an all-world defender. The game-winning block Monday night will stand out, but it’s Leonard’s body of work that speaks for itself. His defensive numbers have been a little hard to decipher this season (they dipped badly early in the season), but defensive metrics in the NBA often are. His metrics have since normalized, and while his defensive Real Plus-Minus is still just OK, he’s now back near the top of the league in points allowed per 100 possessions as the primary defender (82.1 points per 100 possessions) and is recovering on the leaderboards of other individual stats.
In all likelihood, even a sustained run of games like Monday night’s won’t do much to change Leonard’s reputation as a souped-up role player. In fact, he’s averaged 33.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.3 steals in four games in March and erupted in high-profile games, such as a dominating 41-point game in a win over LeBron’s Cavs in January.
Yet folks are still trying to act surprised about a pull-up and a chasedown coming in quick succession against the Rockets. To change those stripes, he’ll have to take this act deep into the playoffs, into the marquee rounds against marquee opposition, and outduel his more famous counterparts.
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