Rumors surrounding Paul George, LeBron James, and Kawhi Leonard possibly joining the Sixers aren’t anything new, these conversations have been going on since midseason. Predictably, they’ve picked up in the weeks following the teams elimination and will surely intensify as free agency approaches.
While opinions vary, the prevailing consensus seems to be, “Why trade for a player like Kawhi Leonard (and give up most of our assets) when we can just sign a player of comparable value in Paul George?”
As a fan of Sam Hinkle, I appreciate the shrewd dedication to preserving assets that clearly underscores that sentiment, though, I’m not sure I agree with the conclusion. On the surface, it’s hard to argue that either player has substantially more value than the other, as both players are bona fide superstars. However, an in-depth look reveals that not only is Kawhi slightly better than George in most facets of the game, but his game more closely fits to the role that the Sixers are looking to add.
Here’s my argument:
George has earned All-NBA 1st Team Defense once in his career (‘14) and is oft-considered one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league. But his accolades and numbers pale in comparison to Leonard’s, who has three (’15,’16,’17) All-NBA 1st Team Defense nods to go along with his two Defensive Player of the Year awards (2015 & 2016).
Kawhi Leonard is the best wing defender in the NBA and has been for some time now. He’s aggressive in denying his man the ball, and when they do get a touch he’s more efficient in forcing that player to give it up than anyone in the league. On top of that, his dedication to film and high basketball IQ allows him to defend with the anticipation of someone who knows exactly what move is coming.
Over the course of the regular season his impact may not be all that different from the impact that Paul George would have, but it’s during the playoffs and against elite scorers where that difference would be felt.
I shouldn’t have to remind basketball fans of Leonard’s MVP performance in the 2014 NBA Finals. While he was stellar offensively, he earned that award with his play on the other end of the floor where he was tasked with slowing down LeBron James—which, to some degree, he did. In that series James averaged just 4 assists and was forced into a whopping 4 turnovers per game (well worse than his averages—Finals, playoffs, or regular season). In particular, LeBron averaged just 1 assist when guarded by Kawhi despite being matched up on him primarily (65% freq.).
While James’ shooting numbers in that Finals are stellar, they don’t account for the fact that when guarded by Leonard, LeBron was forced to give up the ball more often than usual; 13% of his possessions ended in a shot (either by him or the immediate teammate whom he passed to) which is far worse than the 22% he averaged against the rest of the Spurs team, and the rate he typically averages. Translation: He forced LeBron to work harder to “get his” than most defenders.
For comparison sake, LeBron faced the Paul George-lead Pacers in the previous round in 2014 and nobody ever accused George of being the “King slayer” that Kawhi was dubbed that summer. To be fair, PG13 was impressive, but he didn’t have to shoulder the same individual responsibility that Leonard did.
In no way am I knocking George’s defense; he’s arguably a top-10 defender in the league. But the fact of the matter is, pairing Joel Embiid (2018 2nd Team All-Defense) and Robert Covington (2018 1st Team All-Defense) with a two-time Defensive Player of the Year creates what could potentially become the best defensive frontcourt of all time.
Regardless of which wing the Sixers try to add, we know that they will be asked to do a lot of spot up shooting around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Let’s take a look at the frequency with which the Sixers auxiliary players took spot-up threes last season. These are the six players who will most likely see their minutes taken by George or Leonard.
*Freq. — the proportion of players shots that come from “spot up” situations
|Games||Poss. per game||Freq.||Pts. per Poss.|
To put these numbers in perspective; the first five players on this list rank in the top 50 in the NBA for “frequency of spot up looks” out of all players who appeared in at least 35 games and averaged at least 2 “spot up” possessions per game. I repeat: that’s five players in the top 50. The only other team to have that many players in the top 50 is, predictably, the Houston Rockets—who set an NBA record with an average 42.3 three-point attempts per game this season. Only a few other teams had three such players in the top 50, and the vast majority of teams have just one or two.
While superstars such as Leonard and George tend to create more for themselves, they will without a doubt be asked to fill much more of a spot up role in Brett Brown’s offense, and will most likely set a career-high in frequency of those looks. Here are their respective numbers in those situations:
|2015/16||Poss. per game||Freq.||Pts. per Poss.|
Kawhi Leonard → 1.25 Pts. per Poss. on 4.3 poss. per game (21.1% freq.)
Paul George → 1.16 Pts. per Poss. on 3.0 poss. per game (13.0% freq.)
While it should be noted that there’s a strong case to be made for George’s 2017-18 numbers with OKC being more indicative of how he’ll perform with Philly (because he played off-ball more so than ever), the numbers clearly show that Kawhi is not only more accustom to spot up situations, but is also more productive in these situations.
Actually, such a role isn’t totally foreign to Kawhi, who spent the early part of his career as nothing more than a spot-up corner shooter providing spacing for Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili in San Antonio’s system—a system that is very similar to the Sixers. If you recall back to Kawhi’s 2014 NBA Finals MVP performance, he connected on a staggering 58% of his three-point looks; if you watch the tape, every single one of the looks came in spot up situations, and mostly from one of the corners.
Not only is Kawhi Leonard more proven than PG13 as a spot-up shooter, but he has done it at a championship level. Out of all the on-court areas where these two players should be compared, this is by far the clearest gap.
In the age of “big threes” and “super teams” the Sixers aren’t unique in their current state of needing to add that final ‘piece’ or superstar. But the one caveat that is unique to their situation is that this player needs to be an effective isolation scorer.
Until Ben Simmons develops a reliable jump shot, he won’t be counted on at the end of possessions to get a bucket. We saw those limitations exasperated in the playoffs. This left Joel Embiid to be the Sixers lone option as an isolation scorer. While he borders on unstoppable in most 1-on-1 matchups, he’s prone to forcing up ill-advised shots, and has to rely on the rest of the offense to get the ball to him on the block—something that the team wasn’t always able to do when they needed to.
Bottom line: the Sixers need to add someone whom they can rely on in end of clock situations, or as Brett Brown calls it, “butta” (butter). And, it would be nice to have someone outside of Joel Embiid who can get a bucket or two when the offense isn’t flowing.
Much like the defensive side of the ball, we’re talking about two of the best isolation players in the game in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. But, a closer look reveals that Kawhi is slightly more productive in these situations.
Regular Season ISOLATION STATS
*2015—2018 (Obviously, Kawhi 2017-18 stats don’t qualify)
|2015/16||Freq.||Pts per Poss.|
Paul George → .873 Pts per Poss. from 2015—2018
Kawhi Leonard → .965 Pts per Poss. from 2015—2018
Another area where this “final piece” will be asked to perform is in the pick-and-roll. While Simmons will always lead the roster in these touches, it’s another area where his lack of a jump shot has been limiting. While we have a few players who can distribute well out of the pick-and-roll, none of them are daunting threats to score themselves, which obviously limits their top-end potential to distribute. A 3-5 pick-and-roll/pop will immediately become one of Brett Brown’s favorite play calls in the event that we sign either player.
Here are those numbers:
Regular Season PICK & ROLL (BALLHANDLER) STATS
|2015/16||Freq.||Pts per Poss.|
Paul George → .917 Pts per Poss. from 2015—2018
Kawhi Leonard → 1.02 Pts per Poss. from 2015—2018
There isn’t a perception around Kawhi as being a dominant scorer partly because he spent the first few seasons of his career as a role player on offense, and, to be honest, there isn’t really precedent in league history of another player growing as much as Kawhi has on offense. When we think of the league’s premier scorers, they’re typically guys who came in with clear potential, if not an already developed arsenal of moves. Kawhi was about as raw an offensive prospect as you could imagine coming out of college—him developing into a league-average three point shooter, let alone scorer, was a long shot.
On top of being a great 3-and-D player, the final piece we bring on board needs to be polished as an isolation scorer and polished in scoring off the pick and roll. Kawhi is slightly better than George in both situations.
I’ve alluded to this final point all throughout this piece, so I won’t spend much time hammering it home. The one accolade that Paul George severely lacks in comparison to Leonard is that winning pedigree. Defense, spot-up shooting, and iso-scoring are the three areas where we should judge this “final piece,” but another area that warrants some serious consideration is what that player brings to table intangibly.
Kawhi Leonard is a two-time veteran of the NBA Finals, playing a total of 12 such games throughout his career. On top of that, he’s already won a Finals MVP award. Is there any single piece of evidence that reflects a players’ championship mettle more so than winning the Finals and taking home the MVP hardware, all while defeating one of the best players in NBA history? I don’t think so. And if there is, it probably doesn’t apply to Paul George—whose self-given nickname “Playoff P” is used more for mocking his poor playoff performance, rather than a boast of his playoff success (and no, losing to the Miami Heat in 6 games in the ECF doesn’t count as success).
If the mounds of logic and statistics provided above isn’t enough to convince you, then the fact that Kawhi Leonard is a proven winner in every sense of the word should be enough to push you over the top.