Normally when an NBA superstar falls from public grace, it’s due to something out of his control. His play slips as he ages, or his body breaks down after thousands of wild forays to the basket.
Or a younger player at his position reinvents what we accept as possible and said superstar loses relevancy. (Hello Stephen Curry, snatching the Point Gawd’s throne with countless 30-foot bombs.)
Working within that context, the public fall of Kawhi Leonard has been an interesting case study.
Leonard isn’t an aging player; he turns 28 in June, hopefully following a trip to the NBA Finals. He hasn’t suffered the robbed-too-soon fate of guys like Grant Hill, though his quadriceps injury has been worrisome.
But that’s what makes this odd: Leonard’s reputation has taken a hit due to how he’s handled his injury more than the injury itself.
He quickly fell out of favor last season as a member of the San Antonio Spurs where his not-until-I’m-ready rehab approached rubbed Spurs faithful the wrong way. Gregg Popovich seemed to take shots; Tony Parker didn’t leave it up for interpretation.
Leonard was eventually traded to the Toronto Raptors last summer. He has been objectively great, averaging career highs in points (26.6) and rebounds (7.3) while posting the third-highest True Shooting percentage (60.6) of his career during the regular season.
But the doubts haven’t been completely quieted. He appeared in only 60 games, with many of those being dubbed as “load management”—a mysterious (not really) new term seemingly coined specifically for Leonard (it wasn’t). Leonard’s talents were never in question, but it was fair to wonder just how much of a load he could carry.
If the Raptors’ first-round series has been any indication, it’s safe to say he will be just fine.
scoring from everywhere
The Orlando Magic made the playoffs on the strength of their defense. Well, the bottom of the Eastern Conference was also awful, but the Magic deserve credit.
They ranked eighth in defensive rating (107.5) for the season, and that number dropped half a point after the All-Star Break. With rangy frontcourt defenders like Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon, along with guys like Michael Carter-Williams (yeah, that one!) making contributions, the Magic were able to make cramp the floor and making opposing star wings work.
Let’s just say that hasn’t been the case against Leonard.
Through four games, he’s averaging 28 points with a 53/43/86 shooting split. Via NBA.com’s tracking data, he is converting 62 percent of his shots at the rim and 50 percent of his looks from floater range.
Leonard’s deadly mid-range game is on full display right now. His unique blend of brute strength, yo-yo handling and shooting touch is throwing Magic defenders for a loop. (Not to mention an almost Kobe-like fadeaway that keeps getting better.)
With Orlando’s Gordon getting the primary assignment, Leonard is running him through a bevy of picks that test his maneuverability. It hasn’t been pretty, as Gordon is struggling to track Leonard over screens. The Magic most employed “Drop” coverage in pick-and-roll, hoping to bait the Raptors into pull-up middies.
Unfortunately, that’s right in Leonard’s wheelhouse:
Leonard’s deliberate pace and array of fakes makes life incredibly tough for someone like Gordon: He moves well for his size but doesn’t react quickly enough to deal with Leonard.
Few ever do.
The Magic are playing Leonard a little more aggressively now, hoping to take away airspace. That is only opening up driving opportunities for him. Even when defenders stick, he overpowers them and converts tough shots at the hoop.
Leonard’s unpredictability makes him—and, by proxy, the Raptors—virtually unstoppable. The team is scoring 126.4 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the court in this series, via NBA.com. That drops to 75.3 with him on the bench.
Leonard isn’t the on-ball hound he was in 2015, but he’s still darn good. He makes opposing ball-handlers think twice about trying their moves.
If there’s one trend that seems consistent from his Peak San Antonio days, it’s that guys don’t try to go one-on-one with him unless they absolutely have to. Via Synergy, Leonard has only defended one isolation possession all series!
One area Leonard still shines? Off-ball defense.
While the Raptors drop their centers, they do switch across the other four spots. That allows them to keep the action in front, forcing the Magic to make a dollar out of 15 cents. Orlando doesn’t have the creators to do that, leading to a bunch of desperation possessions.
And you can’t have those with Leonard lurking around:
The Raptors’ version of “Drop” coverage is basically a dare to the Magic: “Beat us on pull-up jumpers or above-the-break threes.”
Toronto is winning that bet: The Magic are shooting 37.8 percent on pull-up jumpers and only 28.3 percent on above-the-break threes, trailing only the Utah Jazz (27.9) and Oklahoma City Thunder (26.2).
Leonard is playing a large role in that calculus. Per PBP Stats, the Magic are playing roughly five possessions slower and taking a larger share of mid-range jumpers with him on the floor.
It may not be fair to give the “Best Player in the East” moniker to Leonard just yet. (Giannis Antetokounmpo is probably winning MVP this season and is handling his business against the Detroit Pistons.)
At bare minimum, however, Leonard is making it a conversation again. He’s been a dominant force on both ends of the floor just like he used to be.
All stats are accurate through games played on April 21
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.