Look, to be clear, Kawhi Leonard has been awesome to start the year. He’s a dominant scorer, hitting shots at a blistering efficiency despite a high volume. He’s a lockdown defender, both on the perimeter and the interior; he owns the passing lanes and has opposing players terrified to put up shots when he’s defending them down low. He’s putting up career best rebounding numbers, to go along with assist numbers approaching his best seasons in San Antonio. The narrative around the league is that Leonard has come out of the gates looking like an MVP candidate, and from a production standpoint he absolutely has.
To this point, however, his impact hasn’t matched his production. Leonard has the lowest on-court offensive rating and highest on-court defensive rating of any Raptors’ starter. He’s missed 6 games and the team has a 5-1 record when he sits out. The Raptors’ net rating improves by 4 points with Leonard on the court, but the fact that the team has been better with him on court seems to have more to do with the futility of the Raptors’ bench lineups than it does with the performance of the Raptors’ starters with OG Anunoby or Fred VanVleet in Leonard’s place.
Leonard is perfectly contrasted in this respect by Danny Green, despite Green often being described as a throw-in in the trade that brought Leonard to Toronto. Green’s entire career has been characterized by the disparity between his relatively pedestrian production numbers and his excellent impact numbers. And yet, despite his history as an elite glue guy on an excellent run of Spurs teams, his impact in San Antonio was never as extreme as its been this year. With Green on the court the Raptors are decimating teams, outscoring them by nearly 18 points per 100 possessions. With him off the court, the tables are turned, and the Raptors’ are outscored by 6.6 points per 100 possessions. To this point in the year, no player in the league has had an impact this enormous on their team’s performance.
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This play perfectly distills why Danny Green has been so exceptionally valuable to the Raptors this year. For anyone who didn’t notice Green on their first time through the clip, he’s in the strong side corner, guarded by Hawks’ rookie Kevin Huerter. Jonas Valanciunas is only able to score in this clip because Huerter can’t afford to leave Green open, by sticking to Green he fails to provide help by tagging the roll man. This lack of help means Valanciunas gets all the way to the basket before Miles Plumlee can recover to contest his shot; with his combination of size and touch it’s a rarity for Valanciunas to miss from this spot.
Green has been a knockdown shooter on the year, hitting 43 percent of his triples, but it’s often said that the value of three-point shooting stems less from the actual points scored and more from the space it creates on the floor. No player epitomizes this concept like Danny Green. It’s far from hyperbolic to say that Green could have a significant positive impact without scoring a single point. You could retroactively wipe out every single point he’s scored on the season and he’d still have a plus/minus of +38. His value comes from his ability to enable those around him. Any scoring really is icing on the cake.
Green is a paramount piece regardless of how the Raptors are choosing to run their offense, whether it’s a Kyle Lowry-run pick-and-roll, a Leonard isolation, or a Pascal Siakam post-up. Still, the Raptors’ offense has been at its best when Lowry gets to run the pick-and-roll as often as possible. No one else on the roster operates in the pick-and-roll with the same mindset as Lowry, who prioritizes diming up his roll man over seeking out any shots for himself. This has consistently paid out huge dividends for the Raptors, with both Serge Ibaka and Valanciunas scoring at ludicrous rates to begin the year.
The importance of Lowry, Ibaka and Valanciunas to this play is obvious. They are all directly involved with it, without Lowry and one of Ibaka or Valanciunas on the floor the Raptors’ pick-and-roll isn’t nearly as good. To this point though, Green has been nearly as important as the people directly involved in the play. With a different Raptors’ wing, such as OG Anunoby, in the corner the defense becomes much more willing to help, either significantly impacting the quality of the roll man’s shot, or forcing the Raptors to swing the ball to the corner. Once the ball is in the corner the offense is relying on shooters who, to this point in the year, have been far less accurate than Green. The play is hurt on multiple axises, the average shot taken by the roll man is worse, because the opposing wing helps more often, and the corner threes generated when the wing over-helps are worse, because a worse shooter is taking them.
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Replacing Green with a worse shooter completely shifts the challenge faced by the defenders. With Green on the court they have to pick their poison, they either lose to the ruthlessly efficient roll man or lose to the deadly three-point marksman. When there is a worse shooter in his place there is a clear best choice: force the ball out of the roll man’s hands and into the corner. With Green it’s a borderline unstoppable set, with a different wing it’s a simple matter of properly executing your pick-and-roll coverage.
The Raptors have other three-point threats with similar cache to Green when it comes to spacing the floor, guys like Fred VanVleet and Leonard himself. Both are regarded as excellent catch-and-shoot threats who teams are loath to leave open. Despite their relatively poor percentages on the season both are still shooting excellently from distance when they share the court with Lowry, owing to the increased volume of catch-and-shoot opportunities they get with Lowry passing to them.
And yet, despite Leonard and VanVleet being able to duplicate Green’s floor spacing, when the trio of Lowry, Leonard and VanVleet share the floor, the Raptors have just a 105 offensive rating so far this year. Often when good offensive lineups struggle to score it can be attributed to a bout of poor three-point shooting, but the Raptors have shot 40% from distance with this three man lineup on the court. It’s not just a matter of missing shots. The offensive process of the units including Lowry, VanVleet and Leonard has been poor.
That the three-man lineup has a relatively low assist rate of 52.7 percent may help indicate why. Leonard and VanVleet are taking the ball out of Lowry’s hands in these lineups and, as both of them are far less willing passers than Lowry, the Raptors’ assist rate plummets. Neither Leonard’s isolations nor VanVleet’s pick-and-rolls have been as successful at generating offense as a Lowry run pick-and-roll to this point. When these three share the court without Green the Raptors are running less of their most effective play, and they don’t have their best floor spacer to help things along.
Replace Leonard with Green in this three-man lineup and the Raptors’ assist rate jumps over 10 points to 62.8 percent, with a corresponding leap in offensive rating to approximately 118. Lineups with Green and Lowry benefit enormously from Green’s deferential nature, he’s willing to slip into the background while Lowry heads the offense, meaning the Raptors run their more effective plays more frequently. By doing less Green is helping the Raptors do more.
If Green’s impact stems from his willingness to do less, does that mean that Leonard needs to embrace that same mentality to catch up with Green impact-wise? If the Raptors are to reach their ceiling, I’d actually say that nearly the opposite is true. I mentioned throughout this piece that, to this point in the year, Kyle Lowry-run pick-and-rolls have been the Raptors’ best source of half-court offense. Rather than deferring more to his co-star, I’d imagine that the Raptors are banking on Leonard simply surpassing Lowry as the season goes on, with his isolations and pick-and-rolls eventually becoming the Raptors’ go-to in both volume and effectiveness. As good as Leonard has been to this point in the year, we know he can be better. In his final year in San Antonio, Leonard was better than he currently is in nearly every single facet of the game. He was a better passer, finisher, three-point shooter and defender. Thursday’s game against the Warriors showcased what a locked-in Leonard could do for these Raptors, as he exploded for a hyper-efficient 37 points, scoring from all three levels while effectively involving his teammates.
Leonard just needs to make his threes, finish better within 10 feet, and leverage his ability to draw multiple defenders by finding open teammates. If he does those things then he should genuinely be deserving of his position as the Raptors’ offensive centerpiece. That’s when this team becomes truly dangerous.