Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we pose a question to a rotating panel of ESPN fantasy basketball experts to gauge their thoughts on a hot topic. Today's contributors are ESPN Fantasy's Joe Kaiser and Kyle Soppe, and ESPN NBA Insider Kevin Pelton.
Annoyingly, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is more concerned with winning games and NBA titles than he is with maximizing his players' fantasy upside. Despite that, Kawhi Leonard still ranks seventh on the ESPN Player Rater (averages). What do you think Leonard's ultimate fantasy ceiling is under Pop's direction? And just for fun, what do you think his fantasy ceiling would be if he were turned loose like Russell Westbrook or James Harden?
Kyle Soppe: Let's get the easy part out of the way first: If Pop built a fantasy/usage machine around a single star like what they have in Houston/Oklahoma City, The Klaw would be my top-ranked overall player. Sure, the assist numbers would never catch up to those of Harden/Westbrook, but his scoring efficiency and defensive numbers would more than make up the difference. Let's not forget that Leonard is two years younger than Harden, so it is possible that he has yet to reach his physical prime ... yeah, scary thought.
Unfortunately, this scenario is about as likely as an extended Popovich interview, but I'm not ruling out Leonard leading our Player Rater once in the next few years. Consider this: Leonard's minutes per game are on pace to increase for a third consecutive season and the "Pop rests his stars" narrative is a bit overrated. Yes, they get the occasional day off, but Tim Duncan averaged more than 33.7 minutes (Leonard's current 2016 average) per game 10 times during this dynastic run, so why not pencil Leonard in for even more minutes and usage moving forward?
Due to circumstance, he's not catching the elite number chasers, but if we are drafting today for next season, I'd have no issue in taking him third overall. And with the point guard position as loaded as it is, I'm not laughing at you if you want to spend the first overall selection on him.
Kevin Pelton: I don't know that I want to put a ceiling on Leonard, given that within those restraints, he's still increased his scoring by nearly 10 points per game (from 16.5 in 2014-15 to 26.0 this season) over the last two seasons while simultaneously improving his efficiency. The next step for Leonard will surely be adding the ability to make plays for others, and he's already added nearly an assist per game to his total this season.
Patty Mills continuing to take more of Tony Parker's minutes at point guard should help, since according to NBA.com/Stats, Leonard averages 4.4 assists per 36 minutes playing with Mills as compared to 3.3 with Parker. I think it's realistic that Leonard could get as high as about five assists per game next season, enhancing his all-around value.
I'm not sure Leonard's per-minute production would look much different in another setting, though he'd surely play more than his current 33.7 minutes per game; just two of this season's All-Stars not playing for the Golden State Warriors average fewer minutes, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Joe Kaiser: While Leonard has been given the occasional night off to rest this season, it's important to note that he's still played in 66 of San Antonio's 73 games. He's also averaged 33.7 minutes a game, which isn't too far behind Westbrook (34.7) and only a few minutes behind Harden (36.5). On top of that, his 17.9 shots per game are only one behind Harden (18.9), and his amount of free throws (7.5 per game) are respectable as well, even when compared to Harden (10.9) and Westbrook (10.6), who get to the line more than anybody in the game.
Ultimately, I think this season is the most you can expect out of Leonard under coach Pop. I don't think you'll ever see Pop run a guy into the ground, let alone his star player. And in the future, there's a good chance the Spurs will add another key scorer who is more of a presence than what they have this year in complementary pieces LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. Adding such a scorer would hurt Leonard's point production.
Where Westbrook and Harden separate themselves from Leonard this season is usage. While Leonard's 29.6 usage rate is a career high, it probably will never get much higher than that, especially if they add another scorer as mentioned above. Compare that to Westbrook, who is at 42.4, or Harden, at 35.2, and it's nearly impossible for Leonard to keep up in terms of fantasy production. That's why Leonard's absolute peak is right around fifth or sixth in terms of overall fantasy ranking, because you have not only Westbrook and Harden, who log more minutes, but you also have young stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns, who fall into the same category and should see heightened usage in the years ahead.