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Kawhi Leonard’s Only Weakness Has Become a Strength

The Clippers forward is an elite passer now, and that might make him the best basketball player on the planet

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Kawhi Leonard dominated the 2019 NBA playoffs. He carried Toronto’s offense and hit the greatest shot in franchise history to vanquish the 76ers, and then he locked up Giannis Antetokounmpo to push the Raptors past the Bucks. For an encore, he averaged 28.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 3.2 stocks per game in the Finals—often while moving around on ailing wheels—to sound the death knell for the Warriors’ dynasty, delivering Toronto’s first NBA championship and earning his second Finals MVP trophy.

By the end of the postseason, Leonard had made a compelling case that he was the best basketball player in the world. Those who’d argue for another candidate, though, could point to one blemish on his résumé: As great as he’d become as a defensive destroyer and an isolation-scoring monster, he still wasn’t quite on the level of a LeBron James or Kevin Durant because he hadn’t yet become a top-shelf playmaker.

So, about that:

Leonard’s debut with the Clippers has coincided with the unveiling of what looks like the final piece of his all-around package: an ability to consistently serve as the primary facilitator for an elite offense.

“What he is doing with us is on another level,” coach Doc Rivers told reporters after the Clippers’ blowout win over the Warriors last Thursday. “You can tell that is something he was focusing on over the summer, to be a better playmaker. His passing ability is unbelievable.”

Through the season’s first week, the 3-1 Clips lead the NBA by a mile in points scored per non-garbage-time possession and points scored per play in the half court, according to Cleaning the Glass. Rivers’s team has scored in bunches no matter who’s on the court, thanks to the elite second unit it carries over from last season, but its offense has been exceptionally dominant with Leonard at the controls, scoring 7.3 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor than when he’s off it. And while Kawhi’s teams have typically fared better on offense when he’s in the game, what’s been different so far this season is that he’s acting not only as L.A.’s top scorer and finisher, but also as its premier creative threat.

Through eight seasons, Leonard had never averaged more than 3.5 assists per game or posted an assist percentage north of 19 percent. Through four games in Los Angeles, he’s delivering 7.5 helpers despite logging just 28.8 minutes per night, and he’s notched the direct assist on 47.6 percent of his teammates’ baskets during his floor time—a rate more commonly associated with the John Stocktons, Chris Pauls, and Magic Johnsons of the world.

Leonard is passing more—42.6 passes per 36 minutes, which would be the highest mark of his career—and more productively. He tied a career high last Thursday with nine assists against the Warriors, and then set a new one in his very next outing, with 10 dimes in Saturday’s loss to the Suns. His 30 assists in a Clippers uniform are by far the highest total of any four-game stretch in his nine-year career, and they’ve come against just 12 turnovers—a 2.5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio that blows away his previous marks. He has slid seamlessly into life as his new team’s no. 1 playmaking option, and it all starts with ramping up his work in the two-man game.

Leonard has always been effective in the pick-and-roll, ranking in the 87th percentile or better among NBA players in points produced per PnR possession used, according to Synergy Sports. His efficiency has dipped a bit this season—he’s in the 84th percentile thus far—but he’s managing that despite a dramatically increased diet of pick-and-roll play. He’s finishing 10.5 possessions per game as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll this season—a number that trails only a half-dozen players, all screen-game-maestro point guards (including teammate Lou Williams). That’s a steep increase over last season, which also marked a new high for pick-and-roll-finishing frequency for Leonard.

The Clippers keep going to Kawhi in the pick-and-roll because, well, it’s working. He’s already developed strong chemistry with centers Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell, leveraging the defensive attention he draws to spoon-feed them good looks. (Zubac actually apologized to Kawhi, lamenting an inability to get Leonard more assists because opposing defenders “keep fouling me” after his feeds.) The bigs pick off a defender and rumble to the basket; Leonard shields his man with those wide shoulders and that tightened handle; and then he drops it off with clever wraparound feeds, slick pocket passes, or fastballs through traffic:

“I didn’t know he can play-make like that,” Zubac told Jovan Buha of The Athletic during the preseason.

When opponents send two defenders to the ball and take away his driving lane, Leonard has looked to swing the ball back to a teammate popping back behind the 3-point arc. Rivers has made those possessions more dangerous—and made defenses work even harder—by running staggered screens with big and small personnel, and by having crack-shot guards like Landry Shamet and Patrick Beverley come up to screen for Kawhi:

The variety and quality of the players with whom Kawhi’s sharing the floor helps make things simpler, too. The Clippers front office has surrounded Leonard with effective dive men and credible shooters at every position, who merit defensive attention on their own and ensure that Leonard gets to play in enough space that he doesn’t necessarily have to make super complicated reads. That’s allowed Leonard to do what he does best: take the shortest path to the optimal decision. “He keeps the game very simple,” Rivers told Gerald Bourguet of FanSided.

But even though Leonard makes things look easy, what he’s been doing hasn’t been all that basic. Leonard’s running the Clippers like a seasoned point guard, reading and manipulating the chessboard better and faster this season, and moving everything—himself, the ball, the defense—at precisely his own pace.

Whether operating from the top of the floor or out of the low block, Kawhi has looked comfortable at weaving through traffic, getting to his preferred spot on the floor, collapsing the defense, and then slinging the ball to the corners, resulting in a ton of clean looks for waiting shooters:

Leonard has shown the capacity to be a lead playmaker before—most notably in his last two postseasons. It looked like he started to unlock that part of his game with the Spurs in 2016-17, when he averaged 4.7 assists per game through two rounds; then came Game 1 of the conference finals against the Warriors, and Zaza Pachulia, and the injury that would essentially scuttle the next year of Leonard’s career. Kawhi operated as his own offensive system for most of his lone year in Toronto, but took on a greater playmaking role as the season wore on and wound up averaging a tick under four assists per game in the Raptors’ run to a title.

This season, though, Leonard’s running the show at an entirely different level. He’s creating 18.3 points per game for his teammates via assist; before this season, according to pbpstats.com, his career high was 8.7. His assist-to-usage ratio has more than doubled from last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, reaching about the same level as LeBron’s from 2018-19.

Maybe the wildest part: Leonard’s doing all this extra passing while still dominating as a scorer. He’s averaging 27 points per game with a sparkling 61.4 percent true shooting percentage and is finishing 37 percent of his team’s possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover committed, by far a career-high usage rate. The Clippers’ decision to re-sign Beverley in free agency this summer looks especially prudent; he’s the perfect fit next to a super-high-usage wing creator. Beverley recently told Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times, “If I can do it with James Harden, I think I can do it with anybody in the league.” The only player in league history to post a usage rate higher than 35 percent, an assist rate above 40 percent, and a true shooting percentage north of 60 percent, as Kawhi’s doing right now? You guessed it: Harden, two seasons back.

There are caveats here—the microscopic four-game sample size; the possibility that all of the teams the Clippers have played (the Lakers, Warriors, Suns, and Hornets) will end the season in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency; the reality that he’s taken on this outsized playmaking role in part to make up for the absence of the injured Paul George, who’d be shouldering a big part of the load if he was available. In all likelihood, Leonard’s numbers and creative workload will tail off a little bit after George returns to the lineup and once the Clippers start playing some quality defenses—like, say, the one they’ll face Wednesday night in Utah.

Whether or not he keeps up this pace, though, Kawhi has opened this season with a clear statement: The lone purported weakness in his game has become a strength. He’s 28 years old, he’s healthy, and now he’s complete—a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, an efficient three-level scorer, and now a defense-manipulating playmaker who can get a teammate a bucket damn near whenever he wants. What do you call a guy like that? “MVP” has a nice ring to it, if Leonard plays enough minutes and games to really go for it. Failing that, though, “best player in the world” will probably suit him just fine.