Monday, April 25, 2016

Unfettered Optimism: The Emergence of Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard is my new favorite player.

I didn't follow basketball much growing up. Sure, I watched the Jazz-Bulls finals in the 90s (rooting for the Mailman) and part of the Lakers' finals runs in the 2000s. One team that really stuck with me though, for some reason, was the starting 5 of the 1999 San Antonio Spurs championship team. As I grew older, I began to respect a player like David Robinson much more. That lead me to Tim Duncan. I was enamored with the seemingly simple way Duncan played. The footwork, the rebounding, the post-play, it was simple, but elegant, it was all stuff you would hear about how to do in a basketball camp.

Even as the team transitioned to being the Tony Parker show, I still staunchly held to the long-held ideology, that if the Spurs ever needed a bucket, you could just throw it into Duncan in the post, and everything would work out fine.

Then came that stretch after 2007. Tim Duncan started looking older, Manu Ginobili started looking more fragile. The Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair experiments happened. The cycle of vets cycling through the door (e.g. Kurt Thomas and Antonio McDyess) continued. The Spurs weren't winning championships. George Hill was good but he wasn't a difference maker. Shooters like Gary Neal and Roger Mason just weren't enough to push them over the top. Despite being a draft steal, DeJuan Blair showed enough limitations offensively that we knew wasn't going to work out. Rather than adding athleticism, Richard Jefferson merely proved to the world that Chip Engelland was truly a shot doctor as he coached Jefferson's 3-point shot to over 40% while shooting more 3s per game.

Then came the 2011 NBA draft.

Due to their consistent regular season success, the Spurs only had the 29th pick in the 1st round (which they used on Cory Joseph). A decision was made. George Hill was traded to the Pacers for the 15th pick (just out of the lottery), who was Kawhi Leonard.

It would be easy to say, "and the rest is history..." but of course we haven't gotten to the rest yet. Kawhi Leonard was a billeted as a defensive specialist. We all knew coming into the draft that he was physically gifted (6'7" with a 7'3" wingspan and hands the size of Shaq's). DraftExpress had listed him as being at best being comparable to Shawn Marion. That was exciting enough, the Matrix was solid on those Phoenix teams. That's what we all thought he'd be, athletic, slasher, lock-down defense, hitting the occasional open 3, grabbing all the rebounds.

We look at him now, the 2014 Finals MVP, back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016, and an All Star in 2016. I don't want to go overly the top with the statistics because you've probably seen them all before, but let's consider where he's gotten to in his 5th year in the league (all statistics from
  • 15th in points per game at 21.2
  • 19th in total points scored in the season at 1523
  • 12th in steals per game at 1.8
  • 14th in total steals in the season at 128
  • 3rd in 3 pt shooting percentage at 44.3%
  • 11th in free throw percentage at 87.4%
  • 6th in PER at 26.0
  • 8th in true shooting percentage at 61.6%
  • 12th in effective field goal percentage at 56.5%
  • 7th in offensive rating at 121.4
  • 3rd in defensive rating at 96.0
  • 7th in offensive win shares at 8.3
  • 2nd in defensive win shares at 5.5
  • 4th in overall win shares at 13.7
  • 4th in overall box plus/minus at +8.3
There's more I could list, but that's a pretty impressive list of things to be considered in the top 20 of the league. Any one of them is fairly impressive, but so many across so many different things is what makes Kawhi stand out. Yet beyond that, Kawhi has stood out even to the eye test. While he's not flashy and showy like some of the other big name stars, such as Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, or Stephen Curry, Kawhi quietly and efficiently gets it done, much in the same manner as his teammate Tim Duncan did before him.

When you watch Kawhi and his development as an offensive juggernaut in addition to already being considered the best defensive player in the league, the first thing you notice is that Kawhi doesn't really have any go to move. While that was a knock on Kevin Garnett during his time in Minnesota, somehow it seems to work for Kawhi. For Kawhi it's all about efficiency. While he doesn't have any offensive move that really stands out, it's more because he's elevated all aspects of his offensive game more so than him being a jack-of-all-trades, master of nothing. Shooting off triple threat, post up, or catch-and-shoot situations all seem pretty natural for him. While he doesn't have the flair of some of the players we've grown accustomed to watching, for me, it's become kind of weird when Kawhi misses some of these shots. Tack onto that the continually stalwart defense that creates those fast-break dunks, it's not difficult to imagine how Kawhi has turned into, in the words of Charles Barkley, "the best basketball player on the planet".

I think there's something about his quiet demeanor that really appeals to me. He seems like a genuinely humble guy that just loves playing basketball. There's a certain amount of that Popovich quality of having "gotten over himself", being passionate about the game but at the end of the day understanding, it's just a game. Yet why Kawhi merits this post here today is not because of how far he's come, it's certainly leaps and bounds further than any of us could have imagined, but why I'm so stoked at the emergence of Kawhi Leonard is because we can see, he's still getting better. He hasn't reached his ceiling yet. I can't wait to see when he does.

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