Toronto Raptors

What if last season was a sign of what's to come for Toronto Raptors All-Star Kawhi Leonard?

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Kawhi Leonard (NBA Getty Images)

We know how dominant the Toronto Raptors could be this season if Kawhi Leonard returns to full strength, but what if he is more like the player we saw last season as opposed to the one who was a perennial MVP candidate?

While Kawhi had a mostly clean bill of health before he landed on Zaza Pachulia's foot in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals, he's only played a total of nine games in the 16 months since. As Raptors president Masai Ujiri explained to the media following the trade, the uncertainly surrounding his latest injury (right quadriceps tendinopathy) is the only reason Kawhi is no longer in San Antonio.

"All I'll say is without all this medical drama, we have no chance of talking to a player like that," Ujiri said this offseason. "Zero. You have no chance. He would be in San Antonio, and we wouldn't have a chance to get him. This is why we have a chance and this is the risk that we are taking."

It's not as though Kawhi wasn't a productive player last season. He was on a minutes restriction in the nine games he played and still averaged 25.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists per 36 minutes, numbers that were almost identical to what he recorded in 2015-16 and 2016-17.

The problem was Kawhi didn't score quite as efficiency as he has in years past, particularly from 3-point range. According to NBA.com, he made just 31.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts from deep, down from 43.0 percent in 2016-17 and 46.2 percent in 2015-16.

It contributed to him posting the second-worst True Shooting Percentage of his NBA career.

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Sure Not Now
Kawhi Leonard's shooting efficiency
Season FG% 3PT% TS%
2011-12 49.3 37.6 57.3
2012-13 49.4 37.4 59.2
2013-14 52.2 37.9 60.2
2014-15 47.9 34.9 56.7
2015-16 50.6 44.3 61.6
2016-17 48.5 38.0 61.0
2017-18 46.8 31.4 57.2
Career Average 49.5 38.6 59.7

He hasn't always been known for his shooting, but Kawhi has developed into one of the league's most reliable threats from long range. If he can establish himself as an elite 3-point shooter again - a safe bet considering how successful he's been from 3-point range in his career - it will give the Raptors an element they were sorely missing in the DeMar DeRozan era because, at his best, teams have to treat Kawhi as a Klay Thompson-like threat when he doesn't have the ball in his hands.

Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas would benefit the most from playing with that version of Kawhi, as his ability to play off-ball would allow Nick Nurse to run a more democratic offense, with those two getting equal opportunities to run the offense.

If Kawhi can't establish himself as an elite 3-point shooter again? Toronto's offense might not look much different to what it was last season.

The similarities between DeRozan and a non-3-point shooting Kawhi begin with neither of them being known for their passing and extend to them both being high usage players who are at their best from midrange, where they can use their size and length to score over smaller defenders.

That wouldn't prevent the Raptors from ranking near the top of the league in offensive efficiency again - Kawhi should be able to replace DeRozan's scoring with or without a 3-point shot - but it would put a cap on their ceiling in the postseason because opponents would likely live with Toronto relying on Kawhi making contested midrange pull-ups in volume over the course of a seven game series.

Teams would also be able to gum up spacing for others by helping way off of Kawhi off-ball, much like they did with DeRozan.

The Raptors wouldn't be the exact same team in that scenario, though. Whereas DeRozan has been liability on defense for most of his career, Kawhi is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year who can match up with just about any player in the league. He even made an impact in the nine games he played last season, with San Antonio's defensive efficiency improving by 7.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.

Kawhi made his presence known in the passing lanes and at the rim in those limited minutes, recording 3.1 steals and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes.

The Raptors were already one of the best defensive teams in the league without Kawhi, but they should be far more versatile with him, to the point where they could become the best defensive team in the league.

With Kawhi on-board, Toronto now has the luxury of going big with Ibaka and Valanciunas in the frontcourt against more traditional lineups and small with some combination of Kawhi, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam in the frontcourt against more modern lineups. The latter will become important when playing against the Boston Celtics and Golden State Warriors, teams the Raptors will likely have to go through in the playoffs to win a title this season.

It's why the Raptors are taking a calculated risk in trading for someone who played in only nine games last season. They're obviously hoping Kawhi returns to the two-way monster he once was - it would give them a top-5 player in the league if he does - but they should have a better shot of competing with the Bostons and Golden States of the NBA even if he's more like the player he was last season.

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