Getting offensive: Of Kawhi Leonard and efficiency

Much has been made of the Spurs’ metamorphosis in recent years.

Their surprising transition was completed last season, during which they led the league in offensive production (110.9 points scored per 100 possessions) just six years after suiting up the No. 1 defense (99.6 points allowed per 100 possessions).

Lots of factors went into the shift: The inability to find a suitable replacement for Bruce Bowen, the decline of Tim Duncan, the emergence of Tony Parker, the addition of multiple cheap yet effective offensive role players, rules changes emphasizing perimeter play, etc.

More interesting than rehashing those details is exploring what makes the Spurs so effective on offense, and how their individual players contribute. The results might surprise you.

yesterday, using a formula concocted by At The Hive, that credited rookie small forward Kawhi Leonard as being San Antonio’s second-most productive offensive player last season – behind Manu Ginobili, but ahead of MVP candidate Tony Parker.

I was a bit skeptical of those findings until today in which Leonard edged not only Parker but Ginobili using their preferred metric, offensive wins produced. That jibes with a previous piece in the NBA last season.

Despite two different sites using two different formulas to reach similar conclusions, it seems hard to imagine that a player who averaged only 7.9 points and 1.1 assists per game could be that important.

So why does Leonard rate so highly?


The importance of efficiency in sports has become increasingly apparent ever since Bill James, the father of advanced statistics, began using scientific analysis to examine baseball in the early 1970s during his stint as a night watchman.

It took a while, but the movement finally caught on in the NBA, allowing us to better grasp why players like Leonard and Matt Bonner, despite their limited box-score output (points, rebounds, assists, etc.), are such effective players.

Enter the various studies that have been linked here.

In Leonard’s case, he’s a player who shoots above the league average in all three facets while rarely turning the ball over – qualities that are easily glossed over by his modest production, but rank among the four most important factors in offensive success. (Offensive rebound rate and free throws to field goal attempt ratio being the others.)

As always, caution is suggested with the use of advanced hoop stats. The lack of even a few preferred measures often leads to wildly conflicting results. For example, the Spurs were actually outscored when Leonard was on the floor according to . There’s also the matter of efficiency being naturally inflated by limited minutes and/or roles.

But by keeping things simple and focusing on the four core factors to offensive success, Leonard’s value is obvious.

Indeed, shooting and ball protection are also among the main reasons why the Spurs have been able to reinvent themselves as championship contenders.

They ranked only 12th in 3-point shooting (35.3 percent) and 14th overall (45.2 percent) last season. But adjust for the extra point given on 3-point shots, and the Spurs boasted a league-leading 52.8 effective field goal percentage.

Combined with their third-place finish in turnover percentage at 12.8, and you’ve got a highly efficient team – there’s that word again – that performed far better than the sum of its parts would suggest.

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