Kawhi Leonard is creating for his teammates with the same ruthless efficiency he scores with, and it could be what takes the Clippers to the next level.
We know Kawhi Leonard as a mid-range assassin who uses his strength and ball-handling to get to his spots; a multi-positional defender with one of the best steal rates in the NBA; and a “board man” who has, in fact, gotten paid. Those skills enabled Leonard to become one of the best players in basketball — a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time Champion, and a two-time Finals MVP. But the biggest thing holding Leonard and his Los Angeles Clippers back from reaching the next level has been a lack of playmaking. Until now.
Leonard has strung together the best offensive season of his career this year, averaging 27.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and just 1.8 turnovers on 51/39/87 shooting splits. His true shooting percentage of 61.7 is a career-high, and only six players have been more efficient while using at least 30.0 percent of their team’s usage this season. What is most impressive, though, is that Leonard is doing it while being a high-level creator, reading the floor at a rapid speed and using his playmaking gravity to score and his scoring gravity to create for others. Leonard has gotten to the point in his career where he can comfortably make every pass in the book without turning the ball over, which no one could have expected when he entered the league.
Coming out of San Diego State in 2011, Leonard had enough physical tools to get drafted in the final spot of the lottery by the San Antonio Spurs (via a trade). At 6-foot-7, 225 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and comically large hands, Leonard checked a lot of boxes for a modern NBA wing, but his inconsistent jump shot and subpar ball-handling skills left scouts unsure if he could ever be a good offensive player. What sticks out most reading Leonard’s pre-draft scouting reports is not that scouts underrated his playmaking, but that they barely mentioned it at all.
In his two seasons at San Diego State, Leonard was simply not asked to create for others, nor did he seem to possess the skills required to do so. Leonard averaged just 1.02 assists per turnover in college, and while his steal rate and turnover percentage were both impressive — indicating that Leonard’s “feel” was ahead of his playmaking numbers — most players have a hard time dramatically improving skills such as playmaking in part because it requires in-game reps rather than shooting in an empty gym. Look at the best playmakers in the league and the vast majority of them had the ball in their hands in college.
Leonard’s ascension to a do-it-all point-forward in the ilk of LeBron James, then, is quite rare. It’s a byproduct of the work he has put in and the improved “feel” he has developed as a result, allowing his coaches to increasingly trust him with the ball in his hands. And it could allow him to one day surpass James as the league’s best player.
In his final playoff run with the San Antonio Spurs in 2016-17, prior to getting injured, Leonard showed flashes of playmaking potential, averaging a career-high 4.6 assists per game along with 2.2 turnovers in 12 playoff games. However, after getting traded to the Toronto Raptors in 2018, who already had an elite point guard in Kyle Lowry and added a playmaking center in Marc Gasol, Leonard didn’t have much of an opportunity to expand his playmaking duties, averaging 3.3 assists and 2.0 turnovers over the course of the 2018-19 season. Instead, Leonard went on one of the most impressive scoring runs in postseason history, leading the Raptors to a championship on 32.0 percent usage with a 61.9 true shooting percentage while he averaged just 3.9 assists and 3.1 turnovers.
So, when Leonard had a choice of where he wanted to play for the first time in his career in 2019, he left Lowry and the Raptors and chose Paul George and his hometown Clippers despite them not having a true point guard. But maybe Leonard chose the Clippers in part because they didn’t have a real point guard. As funny as the “Kawhi really chose Pat Bev over Kyle Lowry” jokes are, and as frustrating as it can be to watch him direct Reggie Jackson on the court, Leonard has gotten to be the Clippers’ de facto point guard over the past two seasons, and he seems to be enjoying the freedom that comes with that role. More importantly, he has taken dramatic steps forward as a playmaker in the past two seasons — and the Clippers are enjoying the best offensive season in franchise history — because of those improvements.
“It’s grown a lot,” Leonard said about his playmaking development early this season. “Coming into the league, nobody knew who I was. [There] was nothing expected of me. And uh, you know, I’m not getting the ball. Now, I’m able to, you know, touch the ball a lot more, get in some pick-and-roll, get in some isolation situations. I’m just finding my guys.”
The Clippers seem to agree, surrounding him with finishers rather than creators this offseason, adding Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard instead of a point guard like Ricky Rubio, who they reportedly considered. Essentially, they are trusting Leonard and Paul George (who has also improved his playmaking, albeit to a lesser extent) to run the offense.
What’s changed for Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers this season?
While his assist numbers look similar to last season, averaging 4.8 assists with a 22.6 assist percentage, a deeper analysis reveals that Leonard is doing significantly more with less. New head coach Ty Lue has installed a less heliocentric offense with more ball movement, and the team’s assist percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, and assist ratio numbers all have improved. Despite seeing his touches and usage decrease, Leonard is being more efficient when he does have the ball in his hands, with a usage-to-assist ratio of 0.72 and career-best assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.7 and turnover percentage of 7.6, the latter of which ranks in the 96th percentile for his position.
In fact, of players averaging 4.8 or more assists per game, Leonard has the lowest turnover percentage by more than a full point. Of players who averaged 4.8 or more assists over the course of a full season, he is on pace to have the lowest turnover percentage of all time.
There is a reason advanced stats like Leonard so much. On top of valuing scoring efficiency and defense, they value players who don’t turn the ball over, because transition opportunities off of steals are one of the most dangerous plays to give up. His historically low turnover rate is especially impressive considering Leonard is still averaging 60.1 touches per game and usually has the ball in his hands at the end of games when defenses hone in on him and force him to make tough decisions, which bodes well for the playoffs.
The other significant difference this season is that Lue is putting Leonard in a much more diverse set of situations as an offensive initiator. While Leonard ran pick-and-roll on 32.8 percent of his possessions last season — Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell were No. 1 and 2 in regards to who he assisted most — Lue has enabled him to play in a much wider variety of situations, and Leonard has spread out his playmaking duties as he plays in transition (10.7 percent of the time), posting up (16.0 percent), in isolation (17.3 percent), and in the pick-and-roll (24.9 percent).
By being so multifaceted, Leonard is creating for more of his teammates and putting them in better positions to succeed, which goes a long way in a playoff series where offensive unpredictability is more important. He is generating so many clean looks that it’s no wonder Leonard’s teammates are shooting 51.0 percent off of his passes this season, compared to just 42.9 percent last season.
Analyzing the film, Leonard has done a good job utilizing the skills that make him a great scorer — strength, footwork, ball-handling, touch — to set up his teammates all over the court, and he is reading the defense fast enough to utilize those strengths.
Leonard is also doing a better job of using scoring gravity to pull in help defenders and find open teammates. In the clip below, he gets a solid help-defender, Kevin Durant, to bite on his pump-fakes twice in the same game, leading to open shots for teammates.
The other thing Leonard is doing well is using his passing gravity to generate easy scoring looks for himself. Help defenders are constantly second-guessing themselves against Leonard, afraid to leave shooters or rolling big-men open, and Leonard is reading the floor much better and being aggressive when the help doesn’t come quick enough.
The Clippers currently have the second-best offense in the league, including the second-best half-court offense and the sixth-best transition offense, per Cleaning the Glass. They are plus-14.8 per 100 possessions in the 901 minutes Leonard has played this season, with the majority of his impact being on the offensive end.
As much as people continue to harp on the idea that the Clippers need another point guard, their offense has not been the problem this season. Leonard has filled the point guard void by improving his playmaking to the point where, in classic Leonard fashion, he has become one of the most efficient creators in the league.
Leonard has followed in James’ footsteps to become an elite playmaker who can consistently make the right decisions with the ball in his hands in every almost scenario while turning the ball over at a historically low rate. If he has any chance of overcoming James in the playoffs, that could be what makes all the difference.