Just how good will the Toronto Raptors be with Kawhi Leonard? That question is loaded with uncertainty given Leonard’s still unknown health status and motivation level in Toronto. He reportedly has a desire to play in Los Angeles, and the Boston Celtics will be a powerful force in the Eastern Conference next season.
But make no mistake: If Leonard is locked in and returns to his 2016-17 form, the Raptors should project as favorites to make the Finals and be a legitimate threat to challenge the Golden State Warriors.
Let’s look at the best-case scenario for this team.
Swapping out DeRozan for Leonard
The Raptors brought in Leonard in exchange for a package that included leading scorer and franchise player DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan has been chosen to the All-NBA team in each of the past two seasons, including a second-team nod last year that corresponded with his eighth-place finish in MVP voting. However, there are reasons to believe that DeRozan’s accolades actually outpace his on-court impact.
While DeRozan has been Toronto’s leading scorer in each of the past five seasons, the Raptors have actually outscored their opponents by a larger margin with him on the bench.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Raptors are better without DeRozan, but it does suggest that he isn’t the one driving team success the way his accolades suggest. If we look closer at the performance of the Raptors’ offense and defense with and without DeRozan over the past three years, we get a clearer view of his impact:
While Toronto’s offense performed slightly better with DeRozan on the court, the defense has been significantly more effective with DeRozan on the bench over that span. And there’s reason to believe that difference is more attributable to DeRozan’s defensive abilities than just the strength of the Raptors’ bench and quality of lineups faced.
ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) — which estimates on-court impact by adjusting for the quality of teammates and opponents — shows that Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry has actually been noticeably more impactful over the past three years, while DeRozan largely gives up his positive offensive contributions on the defensive end.
DeRozan improved last season on both ends of the court but was still far behind Lowry in terms of on-court impact. So while the Raptors’ offense could miss some of DeRozan’s contributions, their defense should be significantly better without him, especially with Lowry still on the team.
The Kawhi boost
Leonard was named All-NBA first team in 2015-16 and 2016-17 while finishing top-3 in MVP voting in both seasons. He also won NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
RPM backs up those accolades:
Leonard has consistently produced strong offensive and defensive impact — among the very best in the league. If Leonard returns to form with his unparalleled defense and mostly efficient offensive attack, he and Lowry could give the Raptors two players ranking in the top 10 in RPM league-wide. Over the past three seasons, only the Warriors (Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, twice), Houston Rockets (James Harden and Chris Paul in 2017-18) and Oklahoma City Thunder (Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in 2015-16) have had teammates rank among the top 10 in RPM in the same season.
How will that look on the court? We know Leonard can shut down opponents. A lineup featuring Lowry, Danny Green, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and a healthy Leonard is probably the favorite for the most terrifying defensive unit in the NBA. So let’s compare DeRozan and Leonard offensively.
On average, Leonard in 2016-17 and DeRozan in 2017-18 took the same number of shots per game (17.7) with almost the same number of free throw attempts (7.0 for DeRozan, 7.2 for Leonard) in similar minutes (33.9 MPG for DeRozan, 33.4 MPG for Leonard). Leonard scored more efficiently from every distance, making 52.9 percent of his 2s (vs. DeRozan’s 49.3 percent), 38 percent of his 3s (vs. DeRozan’s 31.2 percent) and 88.0 percent of his free throws (vs. DeRozan’s 82.5 percent).
Leonard has more reliable shooting range, and his physicality also makes him more of a threat at the rim. He draws more defensive attention than DeRozan even without the ball in his hands, which should allow Lowry and the other Raptors creators more space and opportunity to produce.
The Raptors were 59-23 with a scoring margin of plus-7.8 points last season, both marks right behind the Rockets and ahead of the Warriors at the top of the NBA. If all goes well following this trade, they should significantly upgrade their on-court production on both ends of the floor. With Leonard, their best player is now proven in the playoffs and a legitimate MVP-level performer, which should help the Raptors avoid their typical postseason malaise.
The Warriors are still the front-runners. The Celtics are essentially adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a team that was one win away from the Finals. The Rockets remain loaded — we just saw Houston put Golden State on the ropes with strong defense and efficient, methodical offense.
But if the Raptors get the full Kawhi experience, they are absolutely contenders to do the same and challenge all of those teams for the title.
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