Why Leonard is already the greatest playoff performer in Raptors history

Kawhi Leonard was full of praise, post-game, for Kyle Lowry. Leonard explained how Lowry is so focused on using his time off to get better at the game of basketball. Courtesy: NBATV

There’s one quick takeaway you may have had while watching the Toronto Raptors‘ dominant first-round victory over the Orlando Magic: We’ve never seen a player in a Raptors uniform quite like Kawhi Leonard.

And you’d be right.

It’s an easy enough observation, and one many likely had in the minutes and hours following the trade that brought Leonard to Toronto via San Antonio. Leonard’s resume spoke for itself. Finals MVP, Defensive Player of the Year (twice), widely regarded as a top-five calibre player. It’s not a CV shared by any other Toronto player in history.

And — unlike say, Hakeem Olajuwon — on paper the most accomplished player to don a Raptors uniform — Leonard joined the organization in the prime of his career.

So we expected big things from Leonard, regardless of how long he’d remain in Toronto. In the regular season, while managing loads and preparing his body for the grind of the playoffs, we saw plenty of flashes of what the 27-year-old all-star brings to the table on both ends of the floor. His 26.6 points per game were third-highest in any Raptor season, trailing only Vince Carter in 2000-01 (27.6 ppg) and DeMar DeRozan in 2016-17 (27.3 ppg). Overall, his Player Efficiency Rating during the regular season (25.8) is the best of any season in franchise history and, per Basketball-Reference, his win-shares per 48 minutes (.224) also register as best all-time in Toronto.

Through five playoff games, Leonard’s game has risen dramatically, which to be fair, we all expected it would. Among the results:

Through the first round, Leonard is averaging 27.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, three assists and 1.2 steals per game — and he’s been deadly efficient, shooting 55.6 per cent from the floor and 53.8 per cent from deep. And then there are the countless ways he impacts the game that can’t be fully measured in numbers.

So if it felt like you were watching the best playoff performance by a Raptor in any series, ever, it’s because you were.

Leonard’s win shares per 48 minutes from Round 1 (.308) rank as the best all-time in Raptors history. To put that into context, he would lead the NBA during the regular season with that mark — Giannis Antetokounmpo, the MVP favourite, posted a win shares/48 of .292 to lead the league in that category. Interestingly enough, the current playoff leader in win shares per 48 is Round 2 opponent Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, who posted a .368 mark against the Brooklyn Nets — albeit in 73 fewer minutes played than Leonard.

The Raptors’ starters were so dominant in the first round that three of them occupy the top three in win shares/48 in a single post-season for the Raptors. Leonard is first, and second all-time right now is Marc Gasol (.291), followed by Pascal Siakam (.237). Rounding out the top five is Jonas Valanciunas in 2015-16 (.226) and then Serge Ibaka this year (.216, coming off the bench no less). The only other non-current Raptor in the top eight is Vince Carter, who recorded .178 in 2000-01.

Of course, the Raptors beat Orlando thanks to more than just Leonard’s brilliant play. Gasol was monumental in stifling the Magic’s bigs and posted the highest defensive rating in Raptors playoff history in the process (89). Lowry shook off his Game 1 dud to make a massive impact on both ends, Siakam’s continued rise put the East on notice and an engaged, swarming team defence were other key factors.

But it’s the play of Leonard that has set the tone for the Raptors so far in the playoffs, and has the team rolling into Round 2 playing the best basketball this team’s fan base has ever seen.

How much do those stellar numbers have to do with the Raptors’ opponent, a defensive-oriented, playmaker-deficient Magic team? Probably a fair deal, but watching Leonard and his teammates go to work over the past four games hardly suggests a real regression is in store for Round 2. Needless to say, it will be much harder to slow the Sixers — who boast four all-star calibre players in their starting five — than the Magic.

Regardless of what happens from here on out, the Raptors find themselves in the situation we all talked about, yet still feels hard to believe for those who have been following the franchise since Day 1: Toronto will enter the series with the best player on the floor.

So they have that going for them, which is nice.

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