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Kawhi Leonard with his back turned, playing defense.
Kawhi Leonard is still the league’s scariest defender.

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The evolution of Kawhi Leonard as a defender

Kawhi Leonard’s vintage defense is the key to the Clippers’ championship hopes.

Five years ago, Kawhi Leonard’s defensive impact was explicit. As the first non-center to win consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards since Sidney Moncrief in 1983 and 1984, Leonard was a human fog machine Gregg Popovich would unleash on whoever the San Antonio Spurs wanted to fluster.

Leonard didn’t just “guard” the best basketball players in the world. He quarantined them. He tattooed his name on the back of their eyelids. He invaded their worst nightmares by condemning them to pockets of loneliness. Leonard isolated opponents with a perfect blend of grace and menace. He hovered and pounced and refused to negotiate.

Few in the history of the sport were more disruptive. It didn’t matter if you were 6’11, JJ Redick, or the best player alive, smack dab in the middle of your physical prime.

In the years that followed, Leonard’s offensive ascension combined with a mercurial quadricep condition to ever-so-slightly suppress what he once was able to do on both ends of the court over the course of an entire season. He didn’t decline on defense so much as see his responsibilities shift; eventually he stopped bodying the opposing team’s best player for 30 minutes every night and began to pick his spots.

But this season there have been extended periods where Leonard’s defensive effort, focus, and impact better resemble his 24-year-old self than what he was last season — a heartening and relevant revelation for a Los Angeles Clippers team that’s all-in trying to win its very first NBA championship.

During All-Star Weekend, I posed questions about the state of Leonard’s defense to as many players and coaches as I could, including the man himself.

“I never even think of stuff like that,” Leonard said when asked if he could describe his own evolution as a defender over the past half decade. Then he thought about it for a moment. “[It’s] being smarter, knowing the offense a lot better, you know, just trying to be a better overall team player, team defensive player.”

When I followed up by asking if he was at the same defensive level now as he used to be, Leonard was blunt. “I mean, no. That was my job back then. I wasn’t getting the ball as often and my hat had to hang on being the best defensive player. Can’t do that now. It’s too much energy on the floor.”

All that is true in the sense that Leonard is the one who said it; barring a pinch of self-modesty, he would know the answer better than anyone else. Leonard led the Spurs in scoring during the 2015-16 season but his usage rate was eight percent lower than it is right now. The Clippers have built their offense around his gravity and precision. Not including Luka Doncic, no forward finishes more possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. The highest assist rate of his career entering this season was 18.9. Today it’s 28.4.

But sometimes two statements that appear to contradict one another can both be correct. Leonard isn’t who he was five years ago. Sure. But his current apex still rivals the best of the best. He’s a roving scourge who uses countless possessions’ worth of backlogged information and incomparable physical dimensions to seep into the offense’s blood stream. Those massive hands that can squeeze 10 grapefruits at the same time are not smaller than when he wore a Spurs jersey. His wingspan did not shrivel, either.

Last season, Leonard had his fair share of brilliant moments with the Toronto Raptors. He picked pockets, single-handedly made open lanes feel congested, and in certain high-profile games embraced the most challenging matchup on the floor.

Leonard cracked an All-Defensive team, though not the first team — Marcus Smart, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Eric Bledsoe all made it over him — and he tied Draymond Green for sixth on the Defensive Player of the Year ballot. But so much of the year was about establishing preservation and balance.

Kawhi finished 249th in defensive real plus-minus and the Raptors had the best defense in the league when he was not on the floor, a trend that carried over into the playoffs when they were never better on that end — by a pretty wide margin — when their best player didn’t play. Leonard’s health and offensive authority took precedent over the gas that’s required to be a true lock-down defender.

On-off numbers aren’t the be-all, end-all, especially in a 223-minute sample size. Most defensive units are only as strong as their weakest link; the Raptors had several all-galaxy defenders on that championship team and haven’t skipped a beat this season. And Leonard was still invaluable for a team that always needed him to reach their goal, most notably when Nick Nurse threw him on Antetokounmpo in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The regular-season MVP and his Milwaukee Bucks struggled to generate quality looks through the 99.8 partial possessions Leonard guarded him.

Leonard, with plenty of help, was superb in those final four games, noticeable limp and all. This season, several numbers combine with conventional wisdom to suggest that he has been more impressive on that end than he ever was while with the Raptors.

“As players get older they naturally get better,” Frank Vogel said. “But he’s always had great defensive instincts and great physical tools.”

Leonard is currently sixth in defensive real plus-minusthe metric’s algorithm has changed since 2015, but Leonard finished sixth and ninth, respectively, during the two seasons he won Defensive Player of the Year — and sixth in defensive RAPTOR (among players who’ve logged at least 1,200 minutes). His defensive box plus-minus was a personal-worst 0.7 in Toronto, but right now it’s at 2.4, his career average.

He’s deflecting 3.6 passes (only five players rank higher) in 32.5 minutes per game. Last year he deflected 3.2 passes in 34 minutes. His steals are the same (1.8) despite the slight drop in playing time. In 20 possessions as an isolation defender, he’s holding opponents to 0.65 points per possession, which ranks in the 89th percentile. (Last year he defended 22 possessions and allowed 0.55 points per possession.)

Those isolation numbers are indicative of how much a deterrent Leonard is, and who he regularly guards (i.e. players who aren’t about to take Leonard one-on-one). “If he [switched on me],” Memphis Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke laughed. “I’d probably pass it quickly.”

Even more important than the shots that are abolished by his presence and reputation are the ones he actually has to contest. Leonard is holding forwards to 39.6 percent shooting and guards to 36.4 percent. Last season forwards shot 45.6 percent with Leonard on them while guards were at 43.9 percent. He’s as immovable as ever.

Among all active players, Leonard owns the NBA’s second-lowest defensive rating. This year he ranks 11th in that category, and the Clippers allow 103.7 points per 100 possessions when Leonard is on the floor without George. When George is on the floor without Leonard that number shoots up to 108 points per 100 possessions, which is the difference between the second-best defense and 10th-best defense in the league. (A quick contrast: Last year the Raptors allowed 5.4 more points per 100 possessions when Leonard was on the floor without Pascal Siakam.)

Over the weekend, I asked Nurse if he believed Leonard’s defense was at the Defensive Player of the Year standard he set during his early 20s.

“I think he is. I don’t know, we’ve played them twice earlier in the year. I haven’t seen him play all that much lately. I did watch a bit of the game the other night [against the Boston Celtics]. Listen, he’s as good as there is defensively. He can guard size, he can guard the perimeter, he’s got an incredible knack for getting a key steal or just taking it from somebody, going up and ripping it away and heading the other way. Great rebounder that can go in and grab the big rebound then head the other way as well. So, I don’t know what much more there is to say other than he’s as good as it is on the other end, when he starts playing.”

When you watch the Clippers, those sustained stretches where Leonard “starts playing” are hard to miss. He completely takes over the game by terrorizing everyone who’s wearing a different colored jersey. Take these recent sequences against his former team as an example.

A couple minutes later, he picked DeMar DeRozan up 90 feet from the basket, then late switched onto LaMarcus Aldridge to deny a pass back on the pick-and-pop. This is art.

The NBA is not what it was five years ago, pre-Steph Curry’s tide-changing three pointers. The average three-point rate during the 2014-15 season was 26.8. Right now it’s 38.0. Possessions have shorter lifespans, too, with teams opting to race up and down instead of hunkering down to wage war in the halfcourt. Translation: there’s more ground to cover and less time to do it. Defense is more complex and exhausting than ever before.

It’s unreasonable to expect any human being to sustain the type of activity he showed on this crunch-time excerpt against the Warriors, but 99.9 percent of all the players who pass through the NBA will never rattle an entire team like Leonard does here:

While most defenders chase the ball, Leonard communicates with it directly. The two have a bond that transcends film study or the memorization of an opponent’s tendencies. He doesn’t think through the action or even react to what’s happening. Instead, Leonard makes the play’s result feel like fate by staying one step ahead of everybody else. “He knows where the ball’s gonna be,” Ben Simmons said.

Watch this clip against the Dallas Mavericks. How many players can reach in for a steal at the elbow, then race out to block a shot in the corner in essentially the same motion? As he covers a surreal space in no time at all, not a single watt of energy is wasted.

While in Chicago, I spoke to several players about what it’s like to have Leonard on them, compared to any other defender in the league. The consensus, particularly from those who just entered the league, is filled with wonder.

Aaron Gordon: “He’s got very strong hands.”

Josh Okogie: “When he’s guarding you, you’ve gotta know what you’re doing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, he’s definitely gonna take the ball from you.”

Nickeil Alexander-Walker: “I’ve seen him pickpocket people and I’m like, I don’t even know how he was able to come up with that.”

Eric Paschall: “I don’t know how he does it.”

Jaren Jackson Jr.: “He’s not gonna change his defense for your offense. He’ll play you the way he wants. He’ll have his hand right in the passing lane or in your dribbling area the whole time.”

Leonard will not win his third Defensive Player of the Year award in 2020 for a variety of reasons, the most important being his disdain for the regular season. His effort is up, but he still refuses to pummel each play with the same desperate intensity Antetokounmpo inflicts night after night. Also, the Clippers do not treat Leonard as their defensive spine, like the Los Angeles Lakers or Utah Jazz do with Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert. It’s still incredibly difficult to impact the game as a perimeter defender, even one who can switch onto bigs and hold his own.

With the regular season’s home stretch bearing down and Moe Harkless — the wing LA regularly stuck on opposing first options earlier this season — traded to New York, Leonard’s defensive impact is set to become an increasingly important variable.

The stakes are clear. If the 28-year-old can simultaneously channel the defender he once was — handcuffing himself to the opponent’s best player until they consider sawing off their own hand, making set plays flow through bumper-to-bumper traffic, etc. — and the offensive force he’s become, through multiple playoff series, the Clippers will boast the best player alive, at the absolute peak of his powers. And with that, they just might be unbeatable, too.


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