Are Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green elite players? By the antiquated measure of judging players exclusively on box score stats, it would seem no.
Leonard’s 21/7/3 line isn’t too shabby. Draymond Green is nearly averaging a 14 and 10 double-double while also handing out over seven assists per game.
But those aren’t “elite” numbers in the sense that we’re used to seeing them. With the new NBA where players’ minutes are reduced and ball sharing means more than in the past, is it time to change our conventional understanding of who the league’s elite players are?
We’re accustomed to the notion that the “best player” on the team is the one who has the ball in his hands a lot, and accordingly, we look at the player with the most points and assists as “the guy.” And while those guys are still the elite players, they’re not the only elite players. Guys like Leonard and Green are showing that without being 30 percent usage guys, they can have just as much impact on the game.
But do they really belong among names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Paul George and James Harden?
First, let’s look at a cross comparison by the traditional stats:
Now, based on this, it looks like Green and Leonard don’t belong in the conversation with the others. But rather than call this a failing of the players, let’s evaluate them based on some advanced stats and see how their impact isn’t entirely represented by their box score numbers. Let’s start with Player Efficiency Rating (PER):
Leonard certainly establishes a place in the conversation. His PER is better than Harden and George, and it’s not far shy of Paul’s either. So why is it that his PER can be comparable while his other numbers are so short? A lot of it has to do with how well he uses the possessions he does use.
First, look at how the players compare in true shooting percentage:
Leonard is only behind Curry and Durant in true shooting percentage. Green is ahead of Westbrook and George and effectively tied with James. While they may not score as much, they score as efficiently as the elite players.
Now, some of that has to do with shot creating, which is a skill they don’t have on the same level. And if you’re just asking if they’re elite point creators, then it’s fair to say they’re not. But they’re dependable scorers, and there’s more to playing than scoring.
Another aspect is taking care of the ball. Let’s look at turnover percentage. Leonard has an amazing ability to rarely turn over the ball:
As we gear towards an NBA where possessions are the most important thing, a player who maximizes the ones he uses while minimizing those he loses must be considered elite. Leonard averages 14.7 points for every turnover he commits. That’s the best of any player in the league averaging 20 points. And among our elite players who average 20 points, it’s not even close:
Now you can say that’s because he’s playing off the ball more, but he does have a usage rate over 25 percent — and part of the reason that’s not higher is because his turnover percentage is so low. It also overlooks that 44.7 of his field goals are unassisted.
It also speaks to how well he comes off screens and works to get himself open looks. He’s creating shots, but he’s just doing it without the ball. The point is he’s dominating in a non-traditional way. You can’t counter that with “Well sure he is, but he’s not doing it in the traditional way!”
So that’s Leonard, but this hasn’t spoken that well for Green. What about him?
Green dominates the ball on offense with his passing ability, albeit in a different manner than Westbrook or Paul. While they dribble about, drawing defenders away, Green spies open shooters and cutters almost immediately upon catching the ball, dishing to them for easy buckets. Using the tracking data at NBA.com we can determine how often each player actually has the ball in his hands. From there we can derive how many assists per minute of possession they average.
Look how Green dwarfs the field:
As a result of his lightning-quick decision-making, he’s also the most efficient passer in basketball, based on assist points created per potential assists (minimum 500 assist opportunities):
Again, this isn’t a typical form of evaluating player dominance, but that’s because again, it’s a player dominating in an atypical way. You might say that Green is just getting those numbers because the team around him is so great, but he’s part of the reason they’re great. He’s not the exclusive reason, but who among the other elite players doesn’t have an elite teammate? Paul George is the only one.
The point is, Green is a huge aspect of what makes the quick-passing, ninja-strike offense in Golden State work so well. He’s dominating the game with his facilitating; he’s just doing it without having to put the ball on the floor.
Finally, none of these things have taken into account defense, and Green and Leonard are arguably the two best defenders in the league. Based on Defensive Real Plus-Minus, they’re both stopping a pretty significant number of points from being scored by their opponents:
That’s why when you look at the league leaders in Win Shares or Box Plus/Minus — numbers which reflect both offensive and defensive sides of the ball — you’ll see Green and Leonard right there with the other elite players in the league:
It’s not the old NBA anymore. With team ball, efficiency and defense being more of a priority, there’s more than one way to be a dominant player, and Leonard and Green are proving that.
Stats based on games played through Sunday, March 13