The Los Angeles Clippers landed Kawhi Leonard this past summer in one of the biggest free agency moves the league has ever seen. It was the first time in NBA history that an NBA Finals MVP left the team he won a championship with. The Toronto Raptors were good beforehand, but Leonard helped take them to the next level and delivered the first title in the Raptors’ 25-year history.
Like Leonard, Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy was also with the Raptors for the 2018-19 season before joining the LA-based team. Handy won his second NBA championship in his fifth straight NBA Finals appearance while coaching and seeing firsthand what Leonard was like.
The 2016 and 2019 NBA champion joined ClutchPoints’ Battle for LA Podcast with Tomer Azarly and Ryan Ward to talk coaching Kawhi Leonard, the two-time Finals MVP’s approach to the game, and much more.
“That was one of the easiest transitions that I’ve ever made with a player,” admitted Phil Handy. “Kawhi is … Man, that dude is just all about the love of the game. He just loves the game and he’s a quiet dude that just wants to play basketball. All the fluff, all the whistles, all the social media and all the other stuff, he doesn’t need it. He just wants to hoop.”
Handy initially joined the Toronto Raptors following LeBron James’ departure from Cleveland to LA. He was hoping to help DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry get to the next level and win a championship, especially with James out of the Eastern Conference. Just days after joining the team, however, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors executed one of the most shocking trades in recent history.
Toronto sent away its franchise superstar in DeRozan, along with young center Jakob Poeltl, to San Antonio in exchange for Leonard and Danny Green.
“Our process was easy,” Handy added. “After the trade went through, and a couple of weeks went by and kinda some of the dust settled, I reached out to Kawhi via text and said, ‘Look, we’re both new to Toronto. I’m looking forward to getting in the gym and putting some work in with you.’
“And his text back to me was, ‘When are you coming to San Diego?’ That’s how we started. It was an easy process.”
Coming off the right quad injury, Leonard was on a strict load management program during his time in Toronto. The most significant part of the plan was to sit at least one half of a back-to-back set to keep fresh for the postseason.
Boy, did that plan work.
Leonard averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 steals on 50 percent shooting from the field in 60 regular-season games.
He then went berserk in the postseason, averaging 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, and 1.7 steals on 49 percent shooting across 24 games. That included a 45-point, 11-rebound game on 70 percent shooting, a 39-point, 14-rebound game on 65 percent shooting, and a 37-point game on 68.2 percent shooting.
Kawhi Leonard has developed into a legitimate 3-point shooter throughout his career, but he has also prioritized mastering the mid-range like few stars do in today’s game
Looking back at the Raptors’ championship run, Leonard did the bulk of his damage in the paint and from the mid-range:
Here’s a look at Leonard’s 2-point shooting percentage by distance from the postseason compared to the rest of the league:
5-9 feet — 23-of-49 FG (46.9 percent, above average)
10-14 feet — 29-of-81 FG (35.8 percent, average)
15-19 feet — 34-of-64 FG (53.1 percent, above average)
20-24 feet — 7-of-13 FG (53.8 percent, above average)
“You tell me a team ever in the history of the NBA that’s won an NBA championship shooting 3s and layups only,” Phil Handy said when asked about the mid-range. “Tell me one. You can’t. Kawhi, MJ, Kobe, even if you take the Warriors, they shoot a ton of 3s but they also shoot a ton of mid-range shots. We are talking about taking the best shot available, right? Where do most game-winners come from? Take a look at MJ’s game-winners. Go back and look at Kobe’s game-winners. If you take a look at history of game-winners, you probably find that somewhere between 85-90 percent of those shots are in the mid-range. Some guys might hit a 3 or you might hit a layup, but most game-winners come in the mid-range area. And that is probably one of the most important, most underrated shots in the game.”
When asked about why the mid-range is such a big part of his game, Kawhi Leonard pointed to playoff basketball and getting crunch-time buckets when not wanting to settle for a 3-pointer with the defense packing the paint on drives.
“It’s hard to guard guys that shoot 2s,” Leonard told ClutchPoints after a Clippers win back in November. “Once you get to the playoffs, it becomes a half-court game and teams pretty much don’t want you taking wide-open shots or 3s.”
On the Battle for LA podcast, Phil Handy addressed Kawhi Leonard’s mid-range game and why he’s so dominant in that area.
“We worked on it daily,” Handy continued. “It’s an area where people just forget about. It’s always one of those things where you talk about let’s just take good shots, period. You can take bad 3s, bad layups, and mid-range shots. So we always want to work with the best that we can get and Kawhi really valued that. He values being efficient at the 3, in the mid-range, and at the rim. And I think those are the players that excel and give themselves the best chance at being championship-caliber players.”
The ever-so-quiet Kawhi Leonard was able to take his game to another level because of the hard work he put in behind the scenes away from cameras and social media.
“Kawhi’s a gym rat,” explained Handy. “He’s disciplined, like one of those guys in the same vein as Kobe and LeBron. He’s very serious about his work, he’s a very smart basketball player, he takes care of his body, and he just wants to be great. That was a great time for me. Again, I didn’t know Kawhi at all, so building a relationship with him from scratch was to this day, we’re still very close.”
You can listen to the full podcast with Phil Handy on:
Apple: Battle for LA Podcast
Spotify: Battle for LA Podcast