Raptors Ex-Files: New year, same otherworldly Kawhi Leonard

Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard (2) drives against San Antonio Spurs' DeMar DeRozan during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, in San Antonio. Los Angeles won 134-109. (Darren Abate/AP)

To examine the state of former Toronto Raptors players as this new year dawns is to be reminded that no NBA career is linear, and that low points are essential arcs in the story.

For every Raptors alumni who found greener pastures or reached new heights in different jerseys, there are instances where better days weren’t found south of the border.

James Johnson, whose Miami Heat will host the Raptors on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sportsnet ONE, is among the best case studies in that post-Toronto strife.

Johnson missed the first month of the 2018–19 season following off-season sports hernia surgery, and this season has been no less rocky. He failed to meet Miami’s conditioning standards — a requirement set in place by Heat president Pat Riley — forcing him to miss 10 days of training camp, the entire pre-season and the first five games of the regular season.

“I’ve been fighting my whole life, my whole career,” Johnson, who is in his 11th NBA season, told reporters after making his belated season debut. “There’s no change. If it don’t break you then it’s going to help make you.”

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A resilient mantra, but so far the defiance hasn’t translated to on-court success.

Johnson has only appeared in six games overall this season — having missed time due to both illness and personal reasons on top of the initial conditioning issues — with the most recent one coming Nov. 27 against the Houston Rockets, during which he played just 8:11 and posted a decidedly underwhelming statline of one rebound, one turnover, no points and no shot attempts.

In part that can be chalked up to Bam Adebayo emerging as one of the NBA’s premier big men, and in turn soaking up minutes and opportunities that could have gone Johnson’s way.

But apart from his season debut — in which he scored 17 points on 58.3 per cent shooting — Johnson has done little to prove he deserves a bigger role on a team that exploded out of the gate to a 24-9 record, good enough for third in the Eastern Conference.

With the sheer volume of Raptors who’ve found other homes, though — and the starry names headlining the list — Johnson’s downward trajectory is an extreme outlier, not the norm for players who’ve taken their talents elsewhere.

Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard; LA Clippers; Toronto Raptors
Kawhi Leonard signed with the LA Clippers in the off-season. (Chris Elise/Getty)

The trouble with discussing Kawhi Leonard is that his performances are so consistent and commanding they elicit the feeling that all the words able to do them justice have already been said.

Any doubts surrounding his improved passing ability and whether it was here to stay or merely a sample-size aberration should be silenced by now. Through 26 games he’s still on pace to average career-high assist numbers, currently sitting at 5.2 per game, and his 27.8 per cent assist rate ranks in the 98th percentile among forwards.

Unsurprisingly, Paul George is one of his most frequent passing targets. But Patrick Beverley tops the list, receiving 7.2 passes per game from the reigning Finals MVP — good for 20.6 per cent of all passes Leonard makes. As the season wears on, if Beverley can convert those passes at a better rate than the 32.7 per cent he’s currently sitting at, Leonard’s assist numbers will skyrocket.

But if one were to distill Leonard’s success in his first season with the Clippers into a single stat, it would be that Los Angeles has outscored their opponents by almost 12 points per 100 possessions with him in the floor. Not only is that a career-best mark for Leonard, it ranks in the 93rd percentile of all forwards in the NBA.

DeMar DeRozan

Former Raptors DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard (who were traded for one another in 2018) share a moment before the Spurs-Clippers game. (Brian Rothmuller/Getty)

There’s a premise in architecture that says that anyone who designs a structure should give some thought as to how that building will look as ruins. One can fairly wonder if such a premise is now weighing on the San Antonio Spurs’ decision-making team.

Trading Kawhi Leonard was a necessity as soon as the relationship became untenable. But trading him for DeMar DeRozan and going all-in on a two-star lineup governed by mid-range shooters looks, in hindsight, like a desperate attempt to avoid ending up in ruins that simultaneously expedited the ruining process.

Most of DeRozan’s shots still come after he’s taken three or more dribbles while he’s being guarded, and only three per cent of his attempts have come from behind the arc, a near league-worst mark — compared with 64 per cent of them coming from mid range.

It’s the shot profile that he’s always had and, at age 30, likely always will. If he were hitting them at a higher clip, perhaps his unwillingness to take threes would be mitigated. But that’s not the case. While he’s averaging 21.1 points per game, the same as last year, he’s only converting on mid-range attempts 46 per cent of the time.

The Spurs are mathematically better on both ends of the court when he isn’t on the court at all — a trend that began during his Toronto days and was exacerbated in San Antonio. This year is particularly glaring, with the Spurs being 14.2 points per 100 possessions worse when DeRozan plays than when he sits.

All of which, when taken in conjunction with his pending free-agent status, begs the question of whether or not the Spurs — who are rarely active at the trade deadline — will seek a suitor for DeRozan and embrace that time is undefeated and even the most well-constructed of buildings eventually wind up as ruins.

Danny Green

Los Angeles Lakers‘ Danny Green (14) celebrates sinking a basket as Dallas Mavericks’ Kristaps Porzingis (6) stands nearby during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Dallas, Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

When the season began, a case could be made that Danny Green was the Lakers’ third-most important player behind Anthony Davis and LeBron James due to an early hot start from long-range that saw him, during one six-game stretch, shooting 50 per cent from three-point range.

Those numbers have predictably simmered. Green now sits at a merely respectable 37.6 per cent from distance on 5.2 attempts per game as opposed to that early, stratospheric mark.

But the Lakers still have a positive point differential with him on the court, outscoring opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions — a far cry from the 17.4 differential the Raptors had with him on the floor last year, but still good enough to put him in the 76th percentile among wing players.

Jonas Valanciunas

Memphis Grizzlies‘ Jonas Valanciunas (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Jonas Valanciunas closed out the 2019 calendar year on pace for his most efficient season to date, posting an effective field goal percentage of 62.2 per cent — his previous high was in 2017-18 with the Raptors when he capped out at 59 per cent.

The majority of the attempts making up that number come from shots near the rim — as one would expect for a seven-foot tall traditional centre — but he’s also connected on 47 per cent of his mid-range attempts, putting him respectably in the 80th percentile of all big men.

Even amid that efficiency, though, there’s room to mine for improvement.

Valanciunas receives more of his passes from Ja Morant than he does from any other player on the team at 9.9 per game and he’s currently scoring on 56.5 per cent of them.

But where Valanciunas has both shone and been under-utilized this year is as the roll man in pick-and-roll situations, where he’s scored an absurd 1.2 points per possession on 63.3 per cent shooting, but is only averaging two such possessions per game.

If the Morant-Valanciunas synergy can grow to encompass the pick-and-roll as well, Valanciunas could end the season with not just career-best efficiency numbers, but scoring as well.

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