Kawhi Leonard’s Looming Free Agency Decision: Comparing the Lakers, Knicks, Nets, Clippers

Toronto’s Competition

On July 18th, 2018, Kawhi Leonard was finally granted his wish to be traded from the San Antonio Spurs. He got shipped off to the Toronto Raptors, one of the few teams who willingly accepted the risks that came with Kawhi due to his upcoming free agency during the 2019 offseason. With Kawhi being the superstar player that he is, there will certainly be many suitors trying to win him over when free agency starts on June 30th. Other than the Raptors obviously trying to convince him to stay, there are four clear alternatives that are all ready to line up for him: the Knicks, Nets, Clippers, and Lakers.

According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, “Knicks have 2 max slots. Nets have 2 max slots. Clippers have a path to get 2 max slots. Lakers have a max slot plus the No. 4 pick & assets to make a major move. Get ready.” After this season was set up to just be a gap year in Leonard’s career before bolting Toronto in free agency, would leaving the Raptors mean abandoning his best chance at future NBA championships?

Offensive, Defensive, and Net Ratings

In order to make a fair comparison between these 4 teams and the Toronto Raptors, it is important to only consider the Raptor numbers in which Kawhi wasn’t on the floor. Fortunately, through NBA.com’s “On/Off Court Compare” feature, we are able to do just that, and since Kawhi missed 22 games this past season, there is plenty of data to work with.

By looking at the 2018-2019 regular season offensive and defensive ratings of all 5 of the main candidates for Kawhi’s next franchise, we can evaluate which team scores the most points per 100 possessions, while also seeing the squad that allows the fewest on a similar scale. From the bar plots above, we can see that without Leonard on the floor, Toronto drops from an offensive rating of 115.0 (3rd best in the NBA) all the way down to 106.8 (would be 26th). This decline puts them behind the Clippers (112.4), Nets (109.6), and Lakers (107.8) in the race for Leonard.

The defensive ratings, however, tell a different story. Without Kawhi Leonard on the court, the Raptors boast a defensive rating of 103.6 (would be 1st in the NBA). This rating is even surprisingly better than the one they have with Kawhi on the floor (107.2, 5th in the NBA). With that being the case, the Kawhi-Less Raptors certainly have a distinct edge over the rest of its competition, with the next best defense coming from the Lakers (109.5, 12th in the NBA).

The difference between the offensive and defensive ratings give us the net ratings of each team’s performance. Here we can see that despite the significant drop off Toronto undergoes when Leonard isn’t there to help on offense, the team certainly makes up for it on the defensive end as they clearly display the best net rating among the rest of the competition. However, if he decides to leave, it appears that the Clippers would be his best option, since they have the second highest net rating of the bunch.

Kawhi’s Impact on Total Wins

While the above ratings help give us an idea of how each team performs, there is another stat that is the main decider of basketball success: wins. The Raptors had 58 total wins during the 2018-2019 regular season, 10 wins more than next highest total across its competitors with the Clippers achieving 48. However, a large part of Toronto’s success was due to Kawhi Leonard, a luxury that the other 4 teams obviously lacked. With all of that being said, we can look at Kawhi Leonard’s “Win Shares”, or an estimation of the number of wins contributed solely by Kawhi, and add that number to each of the 4 competing teams win total in order to get a glance of what Kawhi’s impact would be on each team’s record.

According to Basketball-Reference.com, Kawhi Leonard had contributed approximately 9.5 wins to the Raptors overall total of 58. After adding that 9.5 win-share to the other 4 teams in this study, we can see a much smaller difference between Toronto and its competition. This is especially true when it comes to the Clippers, who see their total increase to 57.5 wins, putting them just behind the Raptors. However, despite the margins becoming much closer, the Raptors maintain the edge when it comes to the team that can generate the greatest number of wins with Kawhi on its roster.

Does the NBA Finals Impact Kawhi’s Decision?

Flash forward almost 11 months after Kawhi Leonard was sent to Toronto, and now he and the Raptors are on the brink of winning their first title in franchise history. They currently have a 3-2 lead over the Golden State Warriors and have not just a city but a whole country at their backs. If they seal the deal, while Kawhi has not given any signs of emotional connection towards Toronto, he could feel like he has become of something really special and therefore shouldn’t leave. At the same time however, by winning a championship he would avoid scrutiny from Raptors fans if he departs, because at the end of the day what else could he have given them?

If the Raptors blow it, other questions come to rise. Does Kawhi feel like he has some unfinished business and thus gives Toronto another season? If it’s because Leonard’s teammates fail to step up, does it give him the perfect reason to bolt for a team where he can have more confidence in his own squad? All of that being said, the result of the NBA Finals will certainly change the narrative of Kawhi’s impending decision, but only Kawhi knows which path he is willing to take.

Sizing Up Toronto vs Potential FA Destinations

toronto raptorsAfter a dominant Game 4 performance in which Kawhi became just the second player in NBA Finals history (Michael Jordan being the other) to post at least 35 points while not committing a single turnover on the road, ESPN’s Doris Burke asked him moments after the buzzer sounded, “How do you somehow maintain your patience and still be productive?” Kawhi’s response gave us a peek at his basketball mindset as he said, “I don’t play hero basketball. I’m not playing for fans. I’m just playing to win. I’m not out here trying to break records… as long as I try to help my team win, I’m satisfied with it.”

These circumstances don’t mean that things can’t change this offseason. As previously noted, the franchises presumed to be chasing Kawhi either currently possess, or have the potential to create not just 1, but 2 max slots. Leonard may be enticed by the idea of joining forces with another superstar free agent on one of these teams, or maybe all he really cares about is going back towards his home in California. But given the data analyzed above, it’s clear that if winning is at the top of Kawhi’s priorities, then staying put in Toronto offers him the best chance of doing just that.

I’m a dedicated sports fanatic who loves to utilize data science and analysis in order to provide a deeper understanding of what’s really happening within the game. Born and raised in West Palm Beach, Florida and am now pursuing a Computer Science degree at Wake Forest University. Constantly have Ray Allen’s Game 6 three-pointer replaying in my head.

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