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Stopping: Kawhi Leonard

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Prior to each Sixers’ playoff series, we will dive into their opponent’s key offensive player, and how the Sixers can stop them. Next up, Toronto Raptors superstar and former Finals MVP - Kawhi Leonard.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard is a 27 year old with a Hall of Fame resume, he forced his way out of the NBA’s model franchise, and outside of Kevin Durant no player’s free agency decision this summer will have bigger ramifications around the league than Leonard’s. Yet, somehow Leonard seems to fly under the radar. Prior to his First Round match-up against the Orlando Magic, Kawhi Leonard’s last postseason game ended in controversy as Zaza Pachulia ended Kawhi’s playoffs early in the second half of Game One of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The injury sparked debate, causing the league to change rules about giving shooters landing space, and eventually played a role in Leonard’s messy exit from San Antonio last summer. The ensuing drama that stemmed from that injury can make it easy to forget that when Leonard got hurt the Spurs led the Warriors 78-55 at Oracle, with Kawhi contributing 26 points. Without their star, San Antonio wilted at the Warriors talent, giving up a 26 point lead and eventually getting swept.

After a lost 2017-18 season and a stop and go 60 games 2018-19, Kawhi is starting to round back in the form last seen from him in that Game One against Golden State, a terrifying prospect for the 76ers. In the Raptors five games against Orlando, Leonard averaged 27.8 PPG, while shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 53.8 percent from beyond the arc. With Leonard on the court against Orlando, Toronto had a Offensive Rating of 122 and a Defensive Rating of 97 — pretty damn good!

For better or worse, stopping Leonard is not going to be a solo effort — Toronto would never allow it. Like the Sixers, Toronto is a walking mismatch, they move both on and off the ball, setting screens and forcing defensive switches. Against Orlando, Leonard was a pick and roll ball handler on 6.2 possession per game, often running screen action with Marc Gasol or Kyle Lowry.

When Orlando switched his action with Gasol, Leonard found himself matched up in isolation against a helpless Nikola Vucevic. Leonard averaged 1.05 points per possession in isolation during the regular season, for all their defensive improvement during the regular season, Orlando had no answers for a lead-footed big matched up in space with an isolation scorer as dangerous as Leonard. To answer this, Orlando turned to trapping Gasol/Leonard action…

… That didn’t end well either.

How Philadelphia chooses to defend these Leonard, Gasol actions will be telling. Against Brooklyn, Joel Embiid dropped hard into the paint against the pick and roll, baiting the Nets into a barrage of mid-range jumpers and off balance floaters, often disrupted by the secondary pursuit of Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons assisted by the quick stunting help of the off ball wing defenders. Although they were often burned by Caris Levert, Philadelphia was likely happy with their defensive execution, highlighted by their performance in the first quarter in Game 5. To handle Toronto’s action with Gasol and Leonard, the Sixers are going have to execute stunts and switches precisely, while matching the Raptors level of physicality.

The Raptors also like to put Leonard in a little two-man game with All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, often searching out mismatches on smaller players for Kawhi. Look for the Sixers to counter this by putting splitting Butler and Simmons on Lowry and Leonard, biting the bullet of leaving Tobias Harris on the long and athletic Pascal Siakam. Leonard and Lowry have developed a great understanding of each other’s games in their lone season together, against Orlando, Lowry was often able to anticipate the switch and slipping the screen into flare screen from a big, resulting in a wide open three.

Leonard is almost Jordan-esque in his ability to get to his spots on the court. He is patient and deliberate, rarely seeming flustered or out of control when the ball is in his hands. He uses the whole court and has multiple counter moves if his initial plan is cut off by the defense, and has grown as a passer since his early days in San Antonio.

The above chart from Ryan Davis’ website NBAShotCharts.com breaks down Leonard’s points per shot by floor zone from the regular season, while almost breaking down frequency, while the below breaks down his PPS and frequency from his five game series against Orlando.

Against Orlando, Leonard’s efficiency in the midrange increased, while he also increased his shot output at the rim. Philadelphia’s drop and recover pick and roll strategy will look to cut off the rim with Joel Embiid and to cut down on his PPS in the middle with those secondary contests by Simmons and Butler.

To defend Kawhi Leonard one and one you need size, speed, strength, things possessed by Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler, but you also need patience, timing, and self control — in the regular season Kawhi drew fouls on 14.4 percent of his shot attempts (86th percentile for forwards). Philadelphia’s wing rotation was a weakness all season and with Mike Scott in a walking boot, Philadelphia simply can’t afford to have Simmons and Butler riding the pine with foul trouble. Luckily for Philadelphia, Butler and Simmons have elite track records of defending without fouling, only committing fouls on 1.9 and 2.7 percent on team defensive plays respectively.

While Butler and Simmons will likely draw the bulk of the assignment against Leonard, even Joel Embiid will find himself switched onto Leonard at times. Against Brookyln, Embiid looked slow on perimeter defense, getting turned around on crossovers by both Levert and Dinwiddie on a few occasions, likely caused by the pain he’s been experiencing in his left knee since the All-Star break. Prior to Game One, Embiid is off the injury report, hopefully meaning that shaky knee has started to feel better. He’ll need to be able to stick with Leonard and others on switches for Philadelphia’s defense to hold up.

In the regular season, Leonard and the Raptors feasted in transition, with The Klaw gaining an additional 5.5 points per game in fast break situations. Part of Ben Simmons role in stopping Kawhi Leonard is going to not allowing him to get out on the run for these easy points, Liberty Baller’s Matthew Del Rio brokedown Simmons’ offensive role against the two-time DPOY earlier this week. A crucial part of stopping a player of Leonard’s quality is not allowing him to hurt you for easy buckets.

Prior to the Sixers’ matchup with Brooklyn, I broke down how Philadelphia could take a similar approach to Nets’ southpaw D’Angelo Russell that Milwaukee used against MVP candidate James Harden. In a much more subdued manner than the Bucks against Harden, Ben Simmons often shaded D-Lo to his right, cutting off his preferred side of the court. While Leonard doesn’t have any problems going to either side, one has to wonder if Philadelphia will use a strategy seen against the other leading MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. In two hard fought late season matchups with the Bucks, Brett Brown opted to guard Giannis one on one, refusing to send hard help, and instead opted to let Giannis get what he wanted while draping the Bucks shooters and blocking off cutting lanes. Giannis got his (52 and 45 in the two games) but the Sixers were able to take a game from the Bucks on the road while narrowly missing out on another win in South Philly.

The Sixers succeeded in taking out Nets’ All-Star D’Angelo Russell in their opening round matchup, but to take out the Raps they’ll need to find a way to limit an All-NBA performer in Leonard. The Sixers performance against Kawhi might not decide this series but if they can’t find a way to contain him, they might not have a chance to escape the Six with a win.