Friday's notebook: Kawhi Leonard struggling to finish at basket

Clippers star in midst of worst shooting season as we dig into 5 noteworthy stats

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann NBA.com

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Dec 6, 2019 12:11 PM ET

Kawhi Leonard is taking (and making) less shots in the paint this season.

Happy Friday! We are more than one fourth of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. Here are some things of note as we head into the Week 7 weekend.

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Limited layups for Leonard

Kawhi Leonard is shooting just 49% in the paint so far this season.

The LA Clippers have the league's sixth-ranked offense. Just imagine how good they'll be when Kawhi Leonard isn't having the worst shooting season of his career.

Through 16 games, Leonard has effective field goal percentage of just 47.9%, a mark that ranks 84th among 99 players with at least 200 field goal attempts and is the lowest mark in his nine seasons in the league. (One of those seasons doesn't really count, but still.) Leonard has shot a little worse from the perimeter. His effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint of 46.5% is down from 50.6% last season. But most of the drop has come in the paint.

Last season, Leonard shot 60% in the paint, a number in line with his first seven seasons. This season, he has shot just 49% in the paint. And the drop-off has been about the distance from which he's shooting as it is makes vs. misses.

Last season, Leonard took 496 shots in the paint, and 309 (62%) of those 496 shots came in the restricted area. This season, Leonard has taken 156 shots in the paint, and only 55 (35%) of those shots have come in the restricted area.

Leonard has seen drops in both his shooting in the restricted area (from 68% to 60%) and on other paint shots (from 47% to 44%). But his drop in overall paint field goal percentage is bigger because his ratio of restricted-area shots to non-restricted area shots has basically flipped upside down.

Kawhi Leonard shooting in the paint
 Restricted AreaOther paint shots 
Season(s)FGMFGAFG%FGMFGAFG%%RA
First 7 seasons8481,25467.6%35273847.7%63%
2018-1920930967.6%8718746.5%62%
2019-20335560.0%4410143.6%35%
Through Dec. 5, 2019

The percentage of Leonard's total shots that have come in the restricted area (17%) ranks 84th among the 99 players with at least 200 total field goal attempts. The percentage of his shots that have come from the restricted area or 3-point range (42%) ranks 97th among the 99.

Leonard's mid-range game is a big reason why the Toronto Raptors won their first NBA championship six months ago. He's one of the few players who should have license to shoot mid-range jumpers whenever he pleases. But even for those guys, layups are much better than those mid-range and non-restricted-area paint shots. And with the drop in restricted-area shots, Leonard has also seen a drop in free throw rate, from 38 attempts per 100 shots from the field last season to 31 this season.

Leonard had a fast start to the season, averaging 27.0 ppg on an effective field goal percentage of 56% through his first four games as a Clipper. He's been pretty inconsistent since then, but the Clippers have been fine because they have so much talent around him.

LA's game on Friday should be a great test, though. The Clippers begin a six-game trip in Milwaukee on Friday (8:30 ET, League Pass), with the Bucks having won the first meeting (in which the Clippers had neither Leonard nor Paul George). The Bucks' defense ranks second in oppponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (54.2%) and leads the league in the (lowest) percentage of opponent shots that have come from the restricted area (26%).

 

West still rules ... right?

 
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are 3-1 vs. the West's top 6 teams.

That Clippers-Bucks game is a potential Finals preview and a measure of East-West supremacy.

The Western Conference has had the better record in interconference games in 19 of the last 20 years, with 2008-09 being the lone exception. It was assumed that trend would continue this season, and through the first quarter of the season, the East only has six good teams.

But the West only has six good teams, too. The Oklahoma City Thunder are 8-12 and just a game out of eighth place. Through Thursday, the East and West are even (57-57) in interconference games.

Through November, the West was 53-46. But the East won 11 of the 13 interconference games played over the first four days of December before the West rebounded with wins in New York and Toronto on Thursday.

Entering the weekend, they're even, with the East's top six teams having played more games against the West (48) than the West's top six have played against the East (44). In 21 games played between the top six teams from each conference, the West is 12-9, though the East has a positive point differential (plus-15). The Bucks are 3-1 and teams 2-6 in the East are 6-11 after Toronto's loss to Houston on Thursday.

With five interconference games this weekend -- three on Friday and two on Sunday -- the tie will be broken by your next East-West update (coming Monday in the Power Rankings). Clippers-Bucks isn't the only matchup between the top six in the East and the top six in the West on Friday. Denver visits Boston (8 ET, ESPN) on the second half of a back-to-back.

 

On-off leaders

No one this season has a bigger on-off differential on offense than Trae Young.

Here are your on-off-court leaders through Thursday ...

Biggest on-off-court NetRtg differential
PlayerMin.On CourtOff CourtDiff.
Patty Mills5056.6-14.521.1
Jayson Tatum69113.0-6.419.4
Paul Millsap49515.2-4.119.3
Will Barton55413.5-5.418.9
Pascal Siakam77411.1-7.518.6
CJ McCollum8023.5-14.017.5
James Harden7899.6-6.616.2
Devonte' Graham773-2.6-18.115.5
Kenrich Williams4953.6-11.615.2
Ben McLemore45214.2-0.714.9
NetRtg = Team's point diff. per 100 possessions w/ player on or off the floor
Minimum 300 minutes on the floor (246 players)
Through Dec. 5, 2019

Don't look too deep into these numbers. In some cases, they're telling a story of what has happened over the last 6 1/2 weeks more than they're telling a coach how to manage his rotation going forward.

Some coaches take them to heart more than others. Near the opposite end of the list is Tyler Johnson. The Suns have been 16.8 points per 100 possessions better with him off the floor (plus-7.9) than they've been with him on it (minus-8.9). After having a spot in the Suns' rotation through the first 18 games, Johnson has been DNP'd in the last three.

But Patty Mills is at the top of the list, because the Spurs' starters have been bad. Coach Gregg Popovich has made some changes to the lineup over the last few weeks, but three Spurs -- Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge -- have started every game they've played and have played 184 more minutes (446) than any other three-man combination on the team. The Spurs have been outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions, with some pretty horrific defensive numbers, in those 446 minutes.

Mills' on-off differential is mostly about defense, with the Spurs having allowed 14.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (104.4) than they've allowed with him off the floor (118.7). That's the biggest on-off DefRtg differential among the 246 players who have played at least 300 minutes. Part of its is that he's playing against the opponents' second units, but that's clearly not the whole story.

The biggest on-off differential on offense belongs to Trae Young, with the Hawks having scored 20.4 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (110.0) than they have with him off the floor (an incredibly anemic 89.6). Alas, Young also has the second worst on-off DefRtg differential among those 246 players, with Atlanta having allowed 16.9 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (118.0) than they have with him off the floor (101.1).

 

Nuggets' bench off to slow start

Denver's reserves have yet to truly impact the team's success this season.

Two pairs of teammates are in the top 10 above. And prior to Thursday's games, the two Nuggets starters -- Paul Millap and Will Barton -- were at the top of the on-off differential list. As much scrutiny as Nikola Jokic has been under this season (and he certainly could be playing better), the Nuggets' starting lineup has been very good, outscoring its opponents by 14.0 points per 100 possessions in 366 minutes (111 more minutes than any other lineup has played). And that number was plus-14.0 per 100 even before Denver's 37-point win in New York on Thursday, when a lot of the damage was done by the bench.

But prior to Thursday's visit to Madison Square Garden, the Denver bench hadn't been holding onto leads as well as it did last season. The Nuggets brought back the top 10 guys in their rotation, added both Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr., and have been almost perfectly healthy through the first quarter of the season. But their depth hasn't been a strength. Even with all five guys in their second unit registering a plus-26 or better on Thursday, the Nuggets rank 17th in aggregate (estimated) NetRtg (minus-2.3 per 100 possessions), down from 10th (plus-1.3) last season.

As noted in this week's Power Rankings, four Denver reserves -- Grant, Malik Beasley, Torrey Craig and Monte Morris -- have each seen big drops from last season in how well they've shot. Collectively, they have an effective field goal percentage of 49%, down from 56.4% last season (counting Grant's shots with Oklahoma City).

But for Denver coach Michael Malone, it goes beyond shooting.

 
The Nuggets' bench played a key role in a blowout win in New York.

"Our defense has been really good this year, and we're not getting the payoff as much as I think we should be," Malone said on Thursday. "We're only getting 12 1/2 fast break points per game. And when you defend and rebound at the level that we have, you would hope there would be more opportunities to get out and run. And that second unit, particularly, is really at their best when they can defend, rebound, and run and attack and play downhill."

The Nuggets have registered 10.6 fast break points per 100 possessions with Morris and Beasley on the floor together, down from 12.4 last season.

"Overall, I think we're figuring it out, game by game," Morris said. "Now that we got expectations, everything is magnified. But we just got to keep doing what we're doing, keep getting better, and the rest will take care of itself."

The Nuggets remain in second place in the West entering the weekend. Thursday was, by far, the second unit's best game of the season. That comes with the context that they were playing the Knicks, but maybe that was the spark they needed.

As noted above, Denver plays in Boston on Friday. They then finish their four-game trip Sunday in Brooklyn (3 ET, League Pass) and Tuesday in Philadelphia (8 ET, TNT).

 

Tucker in the corner

The corner 3-pointer has been very kind to P.J. Tucker this season.

P.J. Tucker is on his way to a third straight Corner 3 Championship. Through Thursday, the Rockets forward leads the league with 36 made 3-pointers from the corners.

Tucker has actually attempted fewer corner 3-pointers per game (3.2) than he did last season (3.4). But he has shot much better on those attempts (52% vs. 39%).

Most of Tucker's corner 3-point attempts are generated via the playmaking of Russell Westbrook (who has assisted on 17 of Tucker's corner 3-pointers) and James Harden (seven). And the Rockets do not run a lot of scripted plays.

But at the start of a quarter, the Rockets will often run a play for Tucker in the corner. It's called "point single weak" and it's kind of brilliant in its simplicity.

With Tucker in the right corner and a wing on the right wing, the Rockets will run a quick dribble-handoff on the left side of the floor. While that's happening the player on the right wing will meander toward Tucker's defender and set a screen, allowing the guard who took the dribble-handoff to zip a pass to the league's most prolific corner 3-point shooter.

The video below starts with two examples of the original play, followed by a couple of variations. In none of the four examples does Tucker need to move from his spot.

 
The Rockets consistently find P.J. Tucker for 3-pointers in the corner with this play.

The Rockets rank 29th in player movement (10.6 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession). When they run pick-and-roll for Harden, the other three guys are relatively stationary, waiting for the ball should the defense leave them open.

So it's kind of appropriate that they actually run a play for a guy who doesn't move at all.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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