Who means more: The Big Three or Kawhi?

It’s not often the reigning NBA champion Spurs make headlines for anything other than winning. Especially not for something said by Head Coach Gregg Popovich. Yet it happened. Popovich was quoted this past week talking about his young forward Kawhi Leonard and it was some high praise. According to cbssports.com, Popovich told Leonard, “To heck with those guys. The Big Three, they’re older than dirt. To hell with them. You’re the Big One. You’ve got to go do your deal.”

All this praise for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP begs an obvious question: is Pop right? Does Leonard really mean more than Manu Ginobli, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker? Popovich has been calling this kid the new face of the franchise since drafting him in 2012.

I decided to break it down a little bit. I wanted to see if there was a way I could find a way to place a value on Leonard, even if just in comparison to his teammates. So let’s take a look at everything we can find.

The basic stats won’t cut it, but they are helpful so we will start there. Leonard is second on the Spurs in points per game (14.9) this season behind Parker (16.2) and ahead of Duncan (14.0). He also ranks second in rebounding nightly (8.0) behind Duncan (10.4) and Leonard leads the team in steals per game (1.88). Leonard is also second among starters in terms of player efficiency rating with an 18.7 behind Duncan, who has a 21.4. Clearly, Leonard can pull his own weight as he is contributing across the board. He is also a solid shooter, hitting 45.6% of his shots and is third on the team in 3-point shots made, behind Danny Green and Ginobli. Looking at it this way, Leonard seems more to me as a part of a Big 4 potentially, rather than a Big One just yet. Nevertheless, we need to search a little deeper.

Some adjusted statistics tell the story a little better especially when you look at the Big 3’s and Leonard’s averages per 36 minutes of play. Leonard is scoring at the same rate as Duncan (16.7) and behind both Ginobli (18.0) and Parker (18.7). The rebounding gap between Duncan and Leonard also widens a bit with them averaging 12.3 and 9.0 respectively. Once again, this seems like Leonard is just a part of the Big 4.

The advanced statistics are fun to examine as well as they show Leonard be an important cog in the team, but not the important one. Leonard has snagged 14% of possible rebounds while he has been on the floor this season. That is a solid mark but that only ranks 4th on the team (among players of have played at least 100 minutes) Duncan is 19.3% of the rebounds when he is on the floor. He does come up with a steal on 3% of all opponents possessions, which ranks ninth in the league. Leonard additionally has the lowest usage percentage out of the Big 4 (I am just calling them that now).

Leonard is tied for the team lead of Win Shares with Green and Duncan. The third year pro also has the second highest wins over replacement value behind Green but ahead of the rest of the Big 4. The gap though is only a meager 0.2 between him and Tim Duncan (3.5 and 3.3). For a reference point, Stephen Curry leads the league this season with a value of 8.0. That is not enough to give Leonard an edge for the title of “The Big 1.”

This does not mean by any stretch that I doubt that the former San Diego State product can’t eventually become the best player on a very talented Spurs team but for now, I am sticking with Leonard being a part of the Big 4. Kawhi Leonard is a very good player, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think he is as good as his coach wants him to think he is quite yet. Only time can tell. Let me know what you think.

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