B/R NBA's Max 5 Series: Is Kawhi Leonard Really a Maximum-Contract Player?

Jared Dubin@@JADubin5Featured ColumnistJune 23, 2015

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This is the second installment in a five-part series where we'll be discussing whether or not five of the NBA's biggest free agents are worth maximum-salary contracts. The first installment covered Chicago Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler. Below, we dig into San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard

The San Antonio Spurs and then-reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard did not come to terms on a contract extension prior to the start of the 2014-15 NBA season for a few good reasons.

If the Spurs had signed Leonard to a contract extension that paid him any more than his $7,235,148 cap hold next season, it would have eaten into San Antonio's salary-cap space to chase potential replacements for players like Tim Duncan and/or Manu Ginobili during the summer of 2015.

(The latest buzz is courtesy of Tony Parker, who told the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald, h/t CBS Sports, that he believes both players are "going to play one more year," but the Spurs didn't know that ahead of the October 2014 extension deadline.)

An extra $8-plus million in salary-cap space could prove useful when chasing someone like, say, Marc Gasol or Texas native LaMarcus Aldridge. Because the Spurs would have the right to match any contract Leonard eventually signed in restricted free agency, it would be worth the delay to see if they could squeeze in a major signing before giving Leonard his deal. 

Fast-forward to June 2015, and everything has worked out exactly as planned for both parties. The Spurs won 55 games in the hyper-competitive Western Conference, and Leonard has blossomed into an even bigger star than he was this time last year. 

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In April, Leonard was named Defensive Player of the Year, joining two guys named Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win both a DPOY and Finals MVP award.  

It's no surprise at all that he's pushing for a max contract this summer, or that the Spurs, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, are expected to offer him just that at 12:01 a.m. on July 1. Here's how that max contract with San Antonio would look when compared to an offer sheet from another team.

Potential Kawhi Leonard Contracts
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The question, then, is this: Is he worth it?

The Hope: Why Leonard Is Worth the Max

From the time he returned from his hand injury (which had him on the sideline beginning December 17) on January 16 through the end of the season, Leonard averaged 17.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.5 steals in just 31.6 minutes per game. He shot over 49 percent from the field and 36 percent from three, leading the Spurs to a 31-11 record in the process, far better than the 7-8 record they compiled in his 15-game absence.

If you narrow it down to just March and April, Leonard reached the same per-game numbers—but on 54 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep—and the Spurs finished up the year on a torrid 19-4 run. He was utterly ridiculous down the stretch.

By way of reference, the list of players to average 17-7-2.5-2.5 over the course of an entire season in the last 30 years looks like this: Magic Johnson, Fat Lever, Scottie Pippen, Clyde Drexler, Michael Jordan. That's it. That's the whole list. That's the level Leonard played at when healthy this season, and he did it in less than 32 minutes a night. 

If you extrapolate Leonard's production from those 42 games out to a per-36 minutes basis, it's been matched only one time in the history of professional basketball. 

Considering Pippen is a player to whom Leonard is often favorably compared, that seems perfectly poetic. 

And those numbers don't even begin to capture his defensive acumen, which cannot be adequately described with the words that currently exist in the English language. Take a look at some of these clips from a Kirk Goldsberry piece on Leonard's defense in late March:  

These are plays few other players in the league can make—most players wouldn't even try some of them—and for Leonard, they're routine. He's that far off the defensive spectrum.

His performance on that end of the floor was enough to get him named Defensive Player of the Year at season's end. He led the NBA in individual defensive rating and steals per game, and he finished in a tie for fifth in defensive win shares and eighth in defensive box plus-minus despite playing in only 64 games.

Taking both sides of the ball into consideration, Leonard was, as Zach Lowe put it on Bill Simmons' Bill Don't Lie podcast in April, "without a doubt a top-10 player" in the league once he came back from the injury.

And it's all part of a progression Leonard's been on since his rookie season; he's been consistently adding to his game on both offense and defense. Leonard has taken on a larger offensive responsibility (USG%) with each passing season, while also stepping up his defensive rebounding (DRB%) and playmaking (AST%). Take a look at just a few encouraging trends, via Basketball-Reference.com:

Leonard's game has seen fairly steady increases in his player efficiency rating (PER), win shares (WS) and value over replacement player (VORP), and the Spurs have fared better with Leonard on the floor (on-court net rating) in each successive year. 

If you were to make a blueprint for a supplementary role player blossoming into a superstar from scratch, Leonard's career is almost exactly what it would look like. And he'll turn 24 years old next week. 

When you consider that Leonard would make only $15 to $20 million a year over the next five seasons and that the salary cap is expected to balloon over $100 million in short order thanks to an influx of media rights money, it becomes exceedingly clear that he'd present incredible value, even at the highest rates he could possibly be paid.

The Doubt: Why Leonard Might Not Be Worth the Max

As was true with Butler in the first installment of this series, there is little in the way of a reasonable argument against Leonard as a max player. 

But you can argue Leonard has rarely operated as the No. 1 scoring option on his own team due to the presence of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.

His offensive contributions have never been a prerequisite to the Spurs' success. If he had a few bad games in a row, it would hardly be noticed. The Spurs machine is such that anyone can chip in on any given night. 

We don't know what Leonard would look like outside of that ecosystem, nor what he'd look like on a Spurs team that no longer has Duncan, Parker or Ginobili when they retire. Leonard focuses so much energy and effort into his defense in his career thus far precisely because his offense was viewed as an ancillary bonus.

If more of the offensive burden were shifted to his shoulders, would he maintain over a number of weeks, months and years? We simply don't know. 

But that's the thing, here. There's nothing we know that points to Leonard not being a max-level player. It's strictly projecting him maybe not being able to keep up the same level of play in a new environment. And even if he were to experience a drop-off in efficiency as a No. 1 offensive option, his defense is so over-the-top extraordinary that he'd be worth it. 

The Market Reality

When Leonard becomes a restricted free agent on July 1, every single team with cap space will be interested. He's that good. He's a foundational defensive player, the best wing defender in the NBA and possibly just the best overall defender, period.

He's also shown himself to be an above-average offensive weapon throughout his career, and over the last two years, he has flashed the potential to be so much more than that. Sometimes it's just been for stretches of games, and at others, it's been for entire swaths of the season. 

He is one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now. If you don't believe that, you're either lying to yourself or you're desperately clinging to the antiquated notion that a top-10 player must be the anchor of his offense, as if defense isn't half the game.  

But regardless of who else is interested, Leonard's free agency seems destined to play out one way: The Spurs will offer him a five-year, $91-plus million maximum contract, and he'll accept it. 

Whether he does so before or after the Spurs find him a running mate in free agency seems like the only wild card. The bet here is that Leonard lets the Spurs go shopping (as Wojnarowski reported is the plan) and signs his max deal once that piece is locked in. 

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary-cap info courtesy of ShamSports.

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