Before the start of the season, LA Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue compared Kawhi Leonard to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan.
OK, not quite.
Lue mentioned Leonard in the same sentence as Bryant and Jordan, but he wasn't comparing their accomplishments or their standing within the league. Instead, Lue told the media that he had implemented a couple of new sets into the team's offence to put Leonard in some of the same positions Bryant and Jordan found success operating out of.
Specifically, Lue wants to give Leonard more opportunities to play out of the pinch-post, otherwise known as the high post, where the post and elbow meet.
"We have put in two or three sets of the triangle and let Kawhi play in those spaces where Kobe and Jordan played in those spots as well," Lue said. "He loves those two players and he really respects and looks up to those guys. So, we just try to put him in position."
Lue is well-versed in the triangle. Not only did he play for Phil Jackson, who has become synonymous with the triangle, he played with both Bryant and Jordan. (In Washington, in case you were wondering). He's on a short-list of individuals who have been teammates with both legends.
"I was able to play with both those guys and I also played in the triangle, so just trying to teach him that as well … teach our team as well."
Much like Bryant and Jordan, giving Leonard the ball at the pinch-post plays to his strengths as a midrange assassin. According to NBA.com, only three players - DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Devin Booker - attempted more shots from midrange than Leonard last season, and he made 42.9 percent of those opportunities. He was even more accurate the season prior, converting 45.9 percent of his midrange looks on an almost identical volume.
Over those two seasons, more than a quarter (29.0 percent) of Leonard's field goal attempts came from midrange. That's a lot in today's perimeter-oriented NBA.
There are still some players who make more shots from midrange and those who are more accurate - I made the case recently that Chris Paul was the league's best midrange scorer last season - but there is a nothing-you-can-do-about-that element to Leonard's midrange game that few share.
For one, he has the size to rise up over smaller defenders, standing at 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan.
Two, he's built like a brick house. Switching smaller defenders onto him is a death sentence, as he can punish them with his size by backing them down.
Three, he's developed some of the best footwork in the league. Take his first option away, and he'll simply transition to the next.
Four, he can go to his trusty fadeaway when all else fails.
Does the last one remind you of anyone? It should.
The combination is key, because it leaves few defenders who can actually match up with Leonard on an island when he gets the ball in the pinch-post. It forces defences to make the tough decision between letting him go to work by playing him straight up or risk one of his teammates getting open by sending help.
In the past, throwing multiple bodies at Leonard would've been the answer, but he's made tremendous strides as a passer the last couple of seasons, turning his only real weakness into a legitimate strength. In the first eight seasons of his career, Leonard combined to average 2.4 assists per game. Since joining the Clippers, that number has doubled to 5.1 assists per game.
It's gotten to the point where Leonard will find the open man more often than not if he's doubled. It helps that the Clippers have surrounded him with shooters at every position, with Ivica Zubac being the only player in their rotation who isn't capable of spacing the floor out to the 3-point line. It simplifies his options knowing that him seeing a second defender means someone is almost certainly open on the perimeter.
Leonard's improved playmaking was on full display in the Clippers' loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 5, a game in which he tied his career-high with 10 assists. Of those 10 assists, four came out of the pinch-post.
This pass in particular was a thing of beauty, with Leonard driving away from Rudy Gay's double and rifling a cross-court pass to an open Patrick Patterson:
Some of this isn't new - Leonard has long been torching teams from midrange in a variety of ways, including out of the post - but he has seen his touches in the pinch-post spike to start this season.
According to NBA.com, Leonard is currently averaging 6.8 post touches per game and 2.1 elbow touches per game. Prior to this season, the most post and elbow touches Leonard has ever combined to average is 5.7, done in his first season with the Clippers. He averaged a similar amount in his lone season with the Toronto Raptors (5.1) and his last three healthy seasons with the Spurs (5.2).
In other words, Leonard is getting the ball in the post and at the elbow almost twice as much as he ever has before.
|Season||Post Touches Per Game||Elbow Touches Per Game||Combined|
There's no way of knowing how that compares to Bryant and Jordan - the NBA's tracking data only goes back to 2013-14, by which point Jordan had long retired and Bryant was at the tail end of his career - but it puts Leonard near the top of the league in both categories this season, with him currently averaging the ninth-most post touches and the 52nd-most elbow touches.
Now, we're working with some small sample sizes here, so that number could decrease or increase in the weeks to come, but it might not decrease much seeing as getting him the ball more frequently in those positions has been a point of emphasis by Lue. It also seems to be something that Leonard wants.
Besides, the early returns have been encouraging. Leonard might not be Bryant or Jordan, but operating out of the pinch-post sure looks good on him, much like it did for them.
It's yet another example of Leonard continuing to add to his ever-evolving game.
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