by Ayotunde Onabolu

Was Kawhi Leonard the reason the Raptors won the 2019 NBA title? Let us use numbers to put things in perspective.

Basic statistics suggest Kawhi was the MAN, but we can all agree that traditional stats hardly tell the true story. So, we will use a few advanced metrics to attempt to tell the story of the Raptors’ run to history. Why advanced metrics? Although they are not perfect in themselves, some of them still do a great job in attempting to paint an accurate picture of what we are trying to figure out. 

For the sake of this discourse, I will be considering players who averaged at least 20 minutes per game. 

First off are the four factors of basketball success: shooting, turnovers, offensive rebounding and free throw rate. 

In the regular season, Danny Green was the most effective shooter with an effective field goal shooting percentage of 62.2%, followed by Pascal Siakam with 59.1%, followed by Serge Ibaka with 55.7% and then Leonard with 54.6%. It should be noted that effective field goal percentage measures two-point field goals, three-point field goals and free throws. 

On to turnover percentage we head. Unlike mere turnover numbers, turnover percentage accounts for activity (in this case, field goals and free throws) in turnovers. For the Raptors, Leonard led with 8.4%, followed by Green with 10.4%, then Ibaka with 10.7% and then Fred VanVleet with 11.2%. 

Next factor is offensive rebounding percentage which is a measure of the amount of offensive rebounds a player grabbed out of the total amount of offensive rebounds available to his team. Ibaka led this category with 8.6%, followed by Siakam with 5.4%, followed by OG Anunoby with 4.8 and then Leonard with 4.2%.

Finally, among the four factors, we look at free throw rate which measures how often a player gets to the free throw line and how much of his attempts he makes. Leonard led this metric with 0.377, followed by Siakam with 0.320, then Gasol with 0.278 and then Lowry with 0.263.

Leaving the four factors, we will next examine the per 100 possessions statistics - individual offensive and defensive ratings. By quick definition, individual offensive rating is the number of points produced by a player per one hundred total individual possessions, while individual defensive rating is the amount of points a player allows per one hundred possessions. 

For the 2019 Raptors, among qualified players (players who averaged at least 20 minutes per contest), Siakam led in offensive rating with 120, followed by Green and Leonard with 119 and then Gasol with 116. For defensive rating, Gasol led the team with 104, followed by Ibaka and Leonard with 105, and then Siakam with 107. 

Let us now look at a few other very important advanced metrics before we sum everything up. We will examine Win Shares (WS), Box Plus/Minus (BPM) and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)

Win shares is a statistic that pretty much says a team’s success is a sum total of the individual players’ successes. In other words, the total number of wins a team records is a sum total of individual wins every player on the team’s roster contributed. So, when you add up the total win shares of the players of a team, it will be approximately equal to the total number of wins the team recorded.

For the 2019 Raptors, Leonard led with a WS of 9.5, followed by Siakam with 9.3, then Lowry with 6.6 and Ibaka with 6.1. In layman terms, it means Leonard was responsible for 9.5 wins of the Raptors 58 total wins and so on and so forth. 

By way of information, it should be noted that Leonard led the Raptors in offensive win shares with 6.1 ahead of Siakam (5.7), while Siakam led the team in defensive win shares (3.6) ahead of Leonard (3.4).

Box Plus/Minus (BPM) is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player’s contribution to the team when that player is on the court. To put this metric into proper perspective, check this out:

+10.0 is an all-time season (think peak Michael Jordan or LeBron James)

+8.0 is an MVP season (think peak Dirk Nowitzki or peak Shaquille O’Neal)

+6.0 is an all-NBA season

+4.0 is in all-star consideration

+2.0 is a good starter

+0.0 is a decent starter or solid 6th man

-2.0 is a bench player (this is also defined as `replacement level.` This concept will be explained shortly)

Below -2.0 are many end-of-bench players

With this in mind, let us now look at who did what for the 2019 Raptors. Leonard led in BPM with 7.2 (very nearly an MVP-type season from the Claw). Up next is Gasol with 2.9, then Siakam with 2.4 and Lowry with 2.3. We see, according to BPM that Leonard had a terrific season that could have seen him in the MVP conversation if he played more games perhaps, while Gasol, Siakam and Lowry were solid starters at best. 

Let us look at Value Over Replacement Player (VORP).  VORP is defined by Basketball Reference as a measure to estimate each player’s overall contribution to the team, measured versus what a theoretical “replacement player” would provide, where the “replacement player” is defined as a player on minimum salary or not a normal member of a team’s rotation.

Leonard led the 2019 Raptors in VORP with 4.7, followed by Siakam with 2.8, followed by Lowry with 2.4 and then Green with 2.2. 

It should be noted again that only players who logged at least 20 minutes per game were considered for this discourse. The eight players who made the cut in alphabetical order of last names are OG Anunoby, Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet.

The following table is a summary of all the metrics for the qualified players.

Next thing to do would be to measure the used metrics against one another to determine the importance of one metric against the others. For this discussion, I will rank Win Shares (WS) first since it shares a team’s total wins among its players. Next in rank will be Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), then Box Plus/Minus (BPM), then individual Net Rating which is the difference between Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating, and then the Four Factors. 

After comparing the players based on each metric, here is what the rankings look like:

It is pretty clear that Leonard topped the team in every metric category used.

Next step is to design a weighting system that apportions weights to each metric based on an order of importance. For the sake of this conversation, Win Shares gets the highest weight, followed by Value Over Replacement Player, then Box Plus Minus, then Net Rating and then Four Factors.

After assigning the weights, this is how the players rank overall:

As far as the regular season went, Kawhi Leonard turned out the be the most important player for the Raptors with his MVP-type production. He came under some scrutiny with the concept of load management hanging over his head, causing him to play only 60 of the team’s 82 regular season games.

Now, the Raptors did not win the 2019 title because of their performances in the regular season alone. They most certainly had to navigate the rigors of the playoffs.

The same concept used for ranking the players in the regular season will be applied for the postseason. Here is a summary of the metrics for the qualified players:

A glance at Leonard’s BPM of 10.1 shows he had an all-time performance in the playoffs very much comparable to Michael Jordan and LeBron James during their championship years in Chicago (Jordan) and Miami and Cleveland (James).

After comparing the players based on each metric, here is what the rankings look like:

And just as was done for the regular season, the next step is to design a weighting system that apportions weights to each metric based on an order of importance. For the sake of this conversation, Win Shares gets the highest weight, followed by Value Over Replacement Player, then Box Plus Minus, then Net Rating and then Four Factors.

After assigning the weights, this is how the players rank overall:

Whilst basketball is never a one-man sport but a team sport, it is very clear that the impact Leonard had on Toronto’s unprecedented run to the title was phenomenal to say the least.

He played at MVP level in the regular season despite missing 22 games but turned it up so much in the playoffs that advanced metrics clearly show that he played as great as Jordan played when he won six titles with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, or as great as James when he led the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers to the title.

As a matter of fact, since the turn of the century in the 1999/2000 season, only Tim Duncan (2003) and James (2012, 2013 and 2016) have had comparable playoff runs to Leonard’s 2019 performance. That was how great Leonard was.

But the question is, “Would the Raptors have won the title without Kawhi in 2019 and can they win it without him this year?”

Well, there is an argument that if the Golden State Warriors had a very healthy roster in last year’s finals, maybe the Raptors would not even have won. There is every reason to believe that school of thought because the Warriors, with their core of Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond made the rest of the league look like they were playing at half speed for most of the three years the team played together. Leonard’s incredible run last year may or may not have been enough to lead the Raptors past a healthy Warriors team.

We will never know the answer to that question. But one thing is clear from the statistical analysis made in this article—Toronto is not winning the 2019 NBA title without Kawhi Leonard. He was that much of a factor, leading the team in every major advanced statistical metric. 

The Raptors are playing so well this year and they have shown themselves to be one of the more difficult teams to beat as the playoffs draw near. But when the situation gets really intense and very close and you need one man to step up and drag the team across the finish line, who is that one player that will step up and carry the Raptors on his back like Leonard did in 2019?

Well, time will tell.


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