Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
In 2014, Kawhi Leonard won the Finals MVP, much to the chagrin of many a LeBron James fan. Leonard fans, though, loved it.
Leonard’s first venue into the national spotlight wasn’t followed up by an MVP season, or even an MVP-caliber one. Rather, his ascension has been steady, where he’s added efficient offense to his unparalleled defense and now breaks into the top-five player conversation — particularly if we factor both ends of the court. But to take the next step, he needs to be the true “team leader.” With Tim Duncan retired, can he lead the San Antonio Spurs to another 50-win season and be the offensive centerpiece?
One hallmark of Leonard is his steady year-to-year improvement. He’s won two Defensive Player of the Year awards, is only discovering his offensive potential and is barely 25 years old. Look at how he’s improved each season based on several advanced stats:
Leonard finished fourth in Win Shares last year and second in MVP voting. If he keeps improving, he’s going to be on top of the mountain.
The question is, How much more room is there for him to improve? Leonard’s big liability is that he is not a shot creator, and without that ability, it’s going to be hard for him to generate many more shots for himself and his teammates. Since that is pretty much the only thing he hasn’t become good at, it’s about the only thing that keeps him from going up. But with Chris Paul and James Harden right behind him and looking like MVP contenders too, if Leonard doesn’t add those aspects to his game, he’ll drop to No. 7.
The man with ginormous and cushiony-soft mitts is shockingly good at the catch-and-shoot, notching an effective field-goal percentage of 63.0. He’s also a beast when he gets close to the rim. And his overall shot chart is not Anthony Davis-sized eyebrow-raising:
But that’s a bit deceptive. Leonard’s shots are far more likely to be assisted, which are generally easier shots to create. When you look at the percentage of unassisted shots he has compared with the other six of the top seven, you see a distinction:
Only Durant had a higher percentage of his shots assisted. He had a higher shooting percentage and is one of the best offensive players in the history of the game. And this also says nothing about creating for others, where Leonard lags severely behind.
To become an elite offensive player, Leonard has to be able to create offense out of nothing, not just be a perfect fit in an elite system. He’s very good, but he’s imperfect.
When all is said and done, Leonard might be considered the greatest wing defender in history, and do that in an age when wing defenders matter more than usual. Right now that distinction should go to Scottie Pippen. And he’s not even offended by the comparison, so you shouldn’t be either.
Leonard is the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year for good reason, but that doesn’t really manifest itself in the 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks per game he averaged. Last year, the Spurs’ historically good defense had a 94.9 rating when he was on the court and a 99.2 rating when he was off it, according to NBA.com. That’s worse than when anyone else sat.
The Spurs had other good defenders, but Duncan was at the end of his career and nowhere near his prime. Danny Green’s shot was off, but his defense was fine. Leonard was the champion of the defense. Opponents shot 5.6 percentage points below their season average when he was the closest defender and he habitually took on and shut down some of the best offensive players in the league.
His length and athleticism make him the perfect weapon-stopper, even if he’s not the perfect weapon on offense.