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The One Thing Holding Back Kawhi and the Raptors From Greatness

Leonard hasn’t had much trouble returning to form in Toronto. But for the Raptors to have a shot at finally breaking through in the East, he needs to help his teammates be the best versions of themselves.

A photo illustration of the Toronto Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard passing a basketball Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kawhi Leonard has been everything the Toronto Raptors could have hoped for in his first season with the team. After he had what was basically a lost 2017-18 season in San Antonio, his numbers are all near career highs: 26.8 points on 49 percent shooting, 7.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 steals per game. He is one of the best defenders and one-on-one scorers in the league, but he still has one more level to reach. The final step in his progression as a player is consistently involving his teammates in the offense. The Raptors don’t run as much of their offense through Leonard as they could, and the ball often moves better when he isn’t in the game. To make the first NBA Finals in franchise history, Toronto needs him to become someone who controls the game with the ball in his hands.

The Raptors, despite having the second-best record in the NBA (45-17), are still figuring out how to integrate Kawhi into their offense. The only player among the top 20 scorers in the league this season who touches the ball less often than Kawhi (57.5 times per game) is Klay Thompson (46.9). Thompson, an elite catch-and-shoot player, does most of his damage coming around screens off the ball. He is such a dangerous off-ball player that he doesn’t need to be directly involved in the play to threaten the defense. Kawhi is a more deliberate scorer who likes to face up his defender before attacking off the dribble. He has just been so dominant offensively this season that he has made the most out of a relatively limited number of opportunities.

Leonard has an almost unguardable combination of strength and shooting ability. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he is one of the most powerful wings in the league. There are few perimeter defenders who even have a chance of muscling up with him and staying with him on drives to the basket. He can knock them off-balance with the slightest dip of his shoulders, and he can pull up from anywhere on the court as soon as he gets an inch of daylight. Kawhi has come a long way from his college days, when he was an inconsistent outside shooter whom defenses sagged off of. He’s an elite shooter who can shoot off movement and doesn’t need much space to make shots.

Kawhi’s efficiency on 2-point shots is incredible for a player his size. He doesn’t get that much offense from the perimeter: He has the highest free throw rate of his career this season (40.6 percent) and the second-lowest 3-point rate (25.9). He gets to the rim at will and converts shots like a much bigger player. Kawhi is one of 12 players in the NBA averaging at least 13 2-point field goal attempts per game this season, and one of four under 6-foot-9. He shoots a much higher percentage on those shots (53.7) than the other three: DeMar DeRozan (48.2), Russell Westbrook (47.6), and Donovan Mitchell (46.9). Most perimeter players struggle to score through the trees in the paint; Kawhi powers through them like they aren’t even there.

The downside to being such a sure shot is the temptation to shoot every time you touch the ball. But just because you can always create an efficient shot for yourself doesn’t mean that you always should. The best players in the NBA keep the defense off-balance by alternating between the shot and the pass—they know they can score at will, so they don’t have to worry about hunting for their own shot. The more pressing concern is making sure that everyone around them is scoring. Kawhi is still figuring that part out. He is dead last in assists among the 13 players in the league who are averaging at least 25 points per game.

The result is a player who can be strangely disconnected from the rest of his teammates, even though he is such an elite scorer that he should theoretically be making the game easier for everyone else. There are times when Kawhi seems to be playing in a my-turn, your-turn offense with Kyle Lowry, except that Lowry’s turns involve the other three players on the floor while Kawhi plays on an island by himself. The Raptors get an assist on only 56.2 percent of their field goals when Kawhi is on the floor, which is the lowest rate of any member of their rotation still on the team after their midseason trades. That number shoots all the way up to 62.2 percent without him.

Lowry has changed his game to make Kawhi more comfortable. The point guard made his fifth consecutive All-Star Game this season, but he did it while playing a different style of basketball than he has been known for in Toronto. He is averaging the most assists (9.2 per game) of his career, and the fewest field goal attempts (11.4 per game) since the 2012-13 season. There was more of a 1A-1B arrangement between Lowry and DeRozan, with the two longtime friends each sharing the burden of scoring and passing over the course of the game. Lowry and Leonard have a more rigid separation of roles, with the former focusing on playmaking in order to free up the latter to gun for shots.

Lowry’s role may be more valuable to the Raptors than Leonard’s. Their offense falls apart without Lowry creating shots for his teammates: Their net rating drops from plus-9.8 in his 1,722 minutes on the floor to minus-2.3 in his 1,279 minutes off. Kawhi’s presence has not had the same effect: Their net rating barely budges whether he is on or off, going from plus-6.0 in 1,555 minutes with him to plus-4.1 in 1,446 minutes without him. The Raptors have been resting Leonard in back-to-backs all season, and have gone 13-4 in the games that he has missed. Even an elite scorer is replaceable if his team can redistribute his possessions and make up the difference by moving the ball more often.

The concern for Toronto is it acquired Kawhi precisely because it didn’t want to depend on Lowry and DeRozan to be the focal points of its offense in the playoffs. There’s a ceiling to how good a team can be when it is running everything through an undersized point guard (6-foot-1 and 196 pounds) against the best teams in the league. There are a lot of long and athletic defenders who can give Lowry trouble in one-on-one matchups, but there is no way to slow down Kawhi without sending multiple defenders at him. The best-case scenario for the Raptors at the end of playoff games is for the ball to go through Kawhi first and then wind up in Lowry’s hands after the defense starts to rotate. That puts more pressure on the defense than Lowry passing to Kawhi.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Raptors can’t give Kawhi the keys to their offense until he becomes a more consistent passer. The good news for them is that passing is a skill that can be developed. Kawhi doesn’t need to be as instinctive a passer as Lowry. He attracts so much defensive attention that he only has to execute basic passes to create open shots for his teammates, while Toronto puts enough 3-point shooting around him (it is ninth in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game this season) to keep the defense honest. Kawhi doesn’t have to navigate through swarms of defenders to find the open man, and his positive assist-to-turnover ratio this season (1.6:1) shows that he can be a good decision-maker. The biggest thing is working on his mind-set, and trusting that the ball will come back to him for an even better shot after he gives it up the first time.

The Raptors are clearly making an effort to turn Kawhi into more of a passer. His assist averages have risen every month since bottoming out in December at 2.6 per game. He averaged 3.9 in January and 4.2 in February. The really encouraging part is that his turnover numbers have remained constant in that time, at either 2.0 or 2.1 per game. There’s no point in Kawhi passing the ball more if he’s spraying the ball around the court. The goal should be to streamline the offense by turning him into a point forward who creates either a high-percentage 2 for himself or an open 3 for one of his teammates every time he touches the ball.

The Spurs didn’t need Kawhi to be as much of a playmaker. He came into the league as a 3-and-D wing, and gradually expanded his offensive game to become a primary scorer. They surrounded him with so many high-level playmakers that he could focus on playing defense and scoring, and trust everyone else to keep the ball moving and stay involved in the flow of the offense. San Antonio was no. 1 in assists when it won the championship in 2013-14, and he was the Finals MVP while averaging only two assists per game in the series. Kawhi has progressed a lot as a player over the past five seasons. His problem is that the league has progressed even more.

The Raptors may have to go through the Bucks and the Warriors to win a championship, which means Kawhi would have to outduel Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant in consecutive series. Not only are those guys longer and faster than him, they are better passers, too. Giannis (5.9 per game) and Durant (5.8) are both averaging career highs in assists this season. Kawhi, for as great as he is, will be the underdog in a matchup against a 7-foot point center. It won’t be enough for him to be the best possible version of himself. His only chance to win is to make his teammates the best versions of themselves.