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How does Toronto solve the Kawhi Leonard Conundrum?

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The Raptors finally have a legit MVP candidate. So (ka)why are they playing better without him?

Five thoughts recap: Milwaukee Bucks 104, Toronto Raptors 99, Kawhi Leonard John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard is the best player to ever suit up for the Toronto Raptors.

That that statement, about a man who’s only played 22 times for a team that employed peak Vince Carter, and near-peak Chris Bosh, isn’t considered ridiculous is a testament to how good Kawhi Leonard has been in Toronto.

The Toronto Raptors are currently playing better without Kawhi Leonard.

That that statement is even possibly true is one of the great early mysteries of the Raptors’ season.

But consider this:

To date the Raptors are 7-1 without Leonard in the lineup and 16-6 with him in it.

In games Leonard has played, the Raps have a positive margin of 6.4 points. When Kawhi has not played their winning by an average of 14.4 points a game.

“OK, wait,” you say. “First, this is a small sample size and second, you’re an idiot. They’ve played an easy schedule sans Leonard — of course they murdered teams like Chicago and Atlanta without Kawhi.”

True on the small sample size. But, consider this:

The Raps have played four of their five second nights of back-to-backs without Leonard on the floor. All eight games have been on the road. As for that cream-puff schedule? The winning percentage of teams in Kawhi games is: .490.

The winning percentage of opponents in Kawhi’s absence?: .486.

“But check the on/off court splits,” you say. “They show the Raps outscore their opponents by 9.3 points per 100 possessions when Kawhi is on and only 6.5 when he’s off. They shoot better, and take care of the ball better. Hey dummy! Good teams do those things.”

It’s true the Raps are a good team with Kawhi in the line-up. A very good team. They’ve got the pace of a 60-win team, and a point-differential that matches up with the best in the West. They are definitely a very good team with Kawhi in the lineup.

But those numbers you just threw at me? In a weird way they underscore the point I’m trying to make. The rest of the Raptors play much better on days Kawhi never even touches the floor. When he’s on, they on aggregate become noticeably worse.

So how can the Raps fix this and make sure they’re at their best with Leonard, as opposed to a hobbled version that their star has to carry for far too long?

Kyle Lowry Has to Engage KLOE Mode

It makes sense that Lowry has taken a back seat to Kawhi for chunks of the season: Leonard is the best player he’s ever played with. Kyle recognizes that a Leonard who feels ownership over the team is more likely to stay long term (thereby maximizing Kyle’s own championship window), and, well, Kyle is an emotional dude who may very well still be working through his feelings over the trade of his best friend.

You get the feeling that Lowry is almost playing a character right now, the: “I’m a pass-first point guard.” We’re nowhere near Rajon Rondo-levels of making the assist a selfish stat, but Lowry’s recent comments about GM Masai Ujiri and his bouts of weirdly passive play are indicative that something ain’t quite right with the Raps engine.

When Kawhi isn’t playing, Lowry plays faster, rebounds better, shoots more (and more accurately), varies his shot selection more, and passes less. His offensive rating declines slightly, but his defense soars (echoing a team-wide trend).

In short, he resembles KLOE.

Now whether this is because Kawhi can be a bit of a black hole, or because Kyle is trying to give him space to shine, or because Lowry has some weird mental “they wanted to replace my guy with a better player so I’ll go over the top in showing I think Kawhi’s a better player too by being so damn passive” thing going on is a matter of debate. It could also be some combination of all three (my bet). The answer is simple though: Kyle has to go be Kyle, and Kawhi has to fit in around him.

The great thing is that pretty much every moment of Leonard’s career under former coach Gregg Popovich has groomed him for this.

Nick Nurse Relies Too Much on Leonard (and His One Significant Flaw)

If we’ve learned one thing about Nick Nurse’s tenure as head coach it’s this: late in games, coaches like to give the ball to their best player.

All those who moaned about how Dwane Casey’s “give the ball to DeMar DeRozan and clear out” play calls, have seen Nurse do the same thing, but with Kawhi.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this inherently. Teams want to employ players who can break down opponents one-on-one — to create scoring opportunities. It’s why, generally in the NBA, the team who has the guy best at this, wins.

But Nurse has been as guilty as Casey was at lacking imagination at how he disguises those intentions. And while Kawhi is a better iso player than DeRozan was, he isn’t quite as dynamic a dribbler. He doesn’t blow by defenders in the half-court, forcing rotations and opening passing lanes. Nor is he as willing a passer as DeRozan has become.

The net result is that Kawhi is using a higher percentage of Clutch situations (five minutes or less, closer than five points) than DeRozan did last year: 43.5 to 41.5%, with an assist percentage that is barely a third of DeMar’s — 13.3% to 32.4 percent.

This has lead to the Raps posting a 2-5 record in games decided in OT or by five or less.

In effect, the case can be made that Nurse is relying too much on Kawhi all game long.

Leonard’s playing the most minutes per-game of his career. His usage rate is right at career high levels. Compared to DeRozan’s last season, Kawhi is playing more and using a fraction more of the Raps’ possessions. Again, inherently this isn’t a problem, except for the fact that Leonard’s Assist Rate is two-thirds of DeRozan’s.

It’s long been reported that the final piece of Leonard’s game to develop is his ability as a play-maker. I’d argue that’s contributed to the bench’s struggles. They’re on the court less (Lowry’s minutes are up too), and when they are on with Kawhi they all see the ball less.

If Nurse can use the same playbook he and Casey devised to turn DeRozan into an exceptional passer on Leonard, it might yield dividends for players like Delon Wright who thrive with more of the ball. In turn that could allow Nurse to rest his Big Two a little more, freeing up more minutes for the bench to get in rhythm — creating a virtuous cycle.

The Defense is Better

The most striking thing to me about the Raptors’ recent games against the Clippers and Warriors was how active Toronto was on both ends of the court.

Their energy was incredible. They simply outworked two very good teams. Add to that the fact the Raps are very talented, even without Leonard (and a bad Warriors’ shooting night), and the two twenty-point thumpings make sense.

It was as if Toronto thought: “Our best guy is out. We better bring our A game.” That “do more” mentality is most noticeable on the defensive side of the court.

According to CleaningtheGlass.com, with Kawhi on the floor the Raps give up 4.4 more points per 100 possessions, their opponents grab 3.3 percent more offensive rebounds, and post an effective FG% of 2.1% higher than when Kawhi is off.

To put that in context it means that Kawhi’s effect on the Raps defense is the equivalent to what the worst 20-percent of defenders in the league do.

Some of this may be the fact that Kawhi is still finding his groove on the defensive end — maybe his mobility is slightly encumbered. Some of it may be the fact that Kawhi is still new to the Raps, and makes defensive decisions they don’t expect, or vice-versa.

Still, the fact remains that when Kawhi is on the floor the Raps are a Top-8 defense. When he’s off it? They’re better than the number one defense in the league.

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So there you have it: the Raptors look more cohesive in games Leonard sits, because they look more like last year’s team. Lowry sets the tone, the ball stops less, their defense is dialled in, and everyone is eating that much more — both in terms of on-ball opportunity and minutes.

The good news is this is all fixable.

The immediate takeaway would be to empower Lowry to stay on the ball more and use Leonard as a main option, but not always the main option. Especially late in games.

On the defensive side, the Raps need to figure out if this is an effort issue, with players relaxing because of Leonard’s ability, or if Leonard’s defense may be the last thing to return. Either way it could call for Nurse to make some schematic tweaks.

And finally, the Raps need to give Leonard the DeRozan Protocol and find a way to make Leonard a more canny and willing passer so that his isolation opportunities become more varied — and therefore harder to stop.

All that together should solve the Kawhi Conundrum, help ease Raptors’ fears of close game collapses, and give this excellent NBA team their best chance to win it all.