PORTLAND – “There are lies, lies, and damn analytics” is a twist on the old saying.
The latest example?
The Toronto Raptors are a better team without Kawhi Leonard in the lineup.
At first glance? Absurd.
Leonard is universally acclaimed as one of the top three or five or 10 players in the NBA and quite possibly the player who combines offensive punch with the ability to win games defensively better than any of the league’s top guns.
Through 30 games Leonard is averaging 26.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals while shooting 48.8 per cent from the floor and 38.1 per cent from three, to go along with 1.9 steals.
Those numbers are all better than the line he put up in 2016-17 when the finished third in MVP voting, a result that many in the league’s analytics community believed was unfair. The top two spots went to Russell Westbrook and James Harden who had flashier offensive totals — Westbrook won the award as he joined Oscar Robertson as the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire season – but don’t hold a candle to Leonard defensively.
Since arriving from San Antonio, Leonard has been as advertised – a franchise-type talent that can carry teams on his broad back.
As Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry puts it: “He’s playing extremely well, you look at the numbers, he’s playing extremely well. There’s no feeling out [anymore]. He’s good. He’s really good.”
But as the Raptors prepared to play the Portland Trail Blazers Friday night and push their road trip to 3-0, Leonard was once again listed as questionable with a bruised right hip. He did participate in shootaround at the Moda Center but he did the same prior to the Raptors game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday before sitting out so there is not too much to be read into that.
If he sits against Portland it will be the ninth game he has missed this season – five due to minor injuries and four to “load management” as the Raptors play back-to-backs.
Normally when a star with Leonard’s impact sits out teams struggle – even with Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant to rely on the Golden State Warriors are 5-6 without Steph Curry this season. The Cleveland Cavaliers made it to four straight Finals with LeBron James on the roster but they had the record of an expansion team in the games he missed over that four-year run.
But to this point the Raptors haven’t just survived without Leonard. By most measures they’ve thrived.
It’s not only their 7-1 record. Dig deeper and the Raptors dominate when their best player doesn’t play.
All eight games without Leonard have been played on the road and they’ve included blowout wins over quality opponents such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz, Clippers and Warriors. The wins over the Jazz and Warriors were on the second night of back-to-backs. In all, five of the Raptors’ wins have come on the second night of back-to-backs.
While the sample includes softies against the Chicago Bulls and the Atlanta Hawks, the Raptors’ average point differential without their best player in the lineup is an astounding 13.9.
How good is that?
When the Warriors won an NBA-record 73 games in 2015-16 their point differential was a modest 10.8.
The Raptors shooting percentage is better when Leonard doesn’t play (49.4 vs. 48.1); they defend roughly the same (opponents’ field-goal percentage is 44.1 compared with 44.4) and they defend the three-point line a lot better, allowing opponents to shoot just 30.4 per cent from deep without the two-time NBA defensive player of the year, compared to 34 per cent when he sits.
The Raptors pass more effectively and are better in transition too.
The question is why?
Danny Green says it’s more to do with sample size than anything else, which could make sense. Eight games played over several weeks against different opponents can generate some outlier numbers, without a doubt.
“It’s a game-to-game thing. Sometimes it’s matchup-to-matchup. Depending on who we are playing and how they are guarding us and how they are guarding him, the ball is going to move a little more,” he said. “Sometimes how they are guarding us and how they are making us play two on two or make him play one on one is a little bit different.”
But that doesn’t mean the Raptors can’t try to discern some meaning from their numbers without Leonard and see if they can incorporate some of what seems to work.
While Leonard has put up some incredible numbers he does have the ball in his hands a lot although not an exorbitant amount for an MVP-type player – his 29.7 per cent usage rate is only 18th in the league.
But when Leonard sat in Raptors wins over the Clippers and the Warriors Lowry’s usage rate jumped up to about 21.5 per cent compared to his season average of 19.2 and coincidentally or not the Raptors have moved the ball more without Leonard – averaging 302 passes per game, which would rank 10th in the league compared to their 275.4 passes per game average on the season, which is 25th. They scored more on the fast-break too. And Lowry seems to better manage the split in his duties between scorer and facilitator with Leonard out as he scores 18.5 points a game without Leonard compared to 12.6 with him playing. On this road trip alone he’s had his first consecutive 20-point scoring games of the season and broken out of a hellish slump.
The goal, it seems, would to somehow keep the Raptors offence moving the way it does without Leonard with the added bonus of being able to rely on him when things break down and an isolation basket would come in handy.
“We have to keep playing and flow and when it breaks down, get the ball to [Kawhi] and still give him his touches,” said Lowry. “I don’t think it’s a situation where he hasn’t [gone with the flow of the offence] but he’s that talented where we’ve let him do a lot more offensively because he can do it. But as a team we have to help him [and] be a little more assertive all around him and make the game easier for him.”
Nick Nurse’s goal as the Raptors’ so-called offensive co-ordinator while an assistant coach and now a head coach has been to wean Toronto away from a predictable offence that is easier to game plan for in the post-season to a more spontaneous attack that has counters for every defence opponents throw at them. Having a team overly reliant on one player – no matter how dominant – isn’t the way he wants to play. In the NBA – especially at playoff time – if you do one thing well, good opponents can figure out how to take it away. Do more than one thing well and they have problems.
“That’s what we’re shooting for,” Nurse said Friday morning. “ … it hasn’t just been this season, it’s been kind of a project that we’re doing. I think the unpredictability of what we’re doing is our goal come the end of the season. That’s what we’re working towards.”
But it’s so tempting when you have a 6-foot-7, 230-pound small forward who can shoot threes and otherwise seems to be two dribbles from a good quality shot no matter how he’s being defended or what the situation. It’s just so easy to give him the ball and watch him go to work.
“For sure. A lot of times we settle,” said Green. “We walk up the court and say ‘OK, we are going to give it to him.’ I think we (should) push it first and then if we don’t have anything then we look for him.
“[But] his job is to make plays and score the ball as well. We are going to need that sometimes, most times,” said Green. “Especially when you are not shooting well or getting good pace or good ball movement you need to have a guy to give the ball to and say ‘Hey, get me a bucket.’ He gives us that. It’s always an advantage. It’s never a bad thing. The game is a lot easier with him.”
But to the Raptors’ credit, they’ve made it look pretty easy without him too. Finding a way to mesh the way they play without Kawhi with the way he can dominate teams by himself when in the lineup might be the key to the Raptors’ championship goals.