Not even a minute into his first game back from a month-long absence, a backpedaling Kawhi Leonard noticed Portland Trail Blazers guard Wes Matthews’ balance start to falter as he brought the ball up near the top of the key. Falling to the floor, Matthews flipped the ball towards teammate Nicolas Batum.
In the blink of an eye, Leonard extended a long arm into the passing lane, his reach beating everyone else to the ball to ignite a fast break and an ailing San Antonio Spurs team to a 110-96 victory; scoring 20 points while getting his gigantic hands on four rebounds and three steals while dishing out five assists.
“A team feeds off of each other and (Kawhi) has been an obvious important part of how we do things,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everything fits better together, everybody communicates better, everyone understands what to do in various situations much better.”
Missing Leonard for much of December, the Spurs slogged through only the third losing month of Tim Duncan’s career. Since his returning, they’ve gone 6-2. Popovich’s proclamation that Leonard would become the face of the franchise has come to pass. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP is one of the league’s biggest difference-makers, the Spurs best player, and currently their leading scorer. And yet, should it continue over the second half of the season, that last part might be a problem.[newsbox style=”nb1″ display=”category” cat=”537″ title=”More Team Breakdowns” number_of_posts=”2″ show_more=”no” nb_excerpt=”0″]
“We’ll never play better than we did the last three games of the Finals.”
Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker cheering Leonard on as he held the Finals MVP trophy was a crossroads in which past, present, and future converged into one perfect moment. Admitting that this iteration of the Spurs peaked in June isn’t a concession to decline so much as it is a challenge to continue to evolve. The Spurs are still capable of winning another championship, but they’ll have to find new avenues in which to do so.
The most obvious answer has been to turn Leonard loose, whose usage has spiked from 18.3% a year ago to 22.5% this season. When on the court Leonard has been more assertive, pushing the ball in transition at every opportunity, calling his number in the post, and letting loose a pull-up jumper off the dribble. With a slight uptick in minutes, he’s pushing past his career averages across the board, and as mentioned, his 15.3 points per game lead the team.
It’s in the Spurs best interests to foster such growth, and although Leonard’s efficiency has taken some hits as he’s carried more of the burden, it’s encouraging to see him stretch his wings. That being said, if he – and not Parker – remains the team’s leading scorer over the second half of the season, the Spurs could find their title defense in serious trouble.
“Move or die,” implored Popovich during last year’s championship run. Those Spurs built a clear identity around an elite defense anchored by Leonard and Duncan and an offense predicated around pace and movement. However, although the elite defense remains this season, the cost of Leonard’s increased usage has been the pace and motion that had been the lifeblood of their offense:
|Year||Pace||Off Rtg||Kawhi Usage|
|2013-2014||95.0 (10th)||110.5 (7th)||18.3%|
|2014-2015||93.3 (19th)||106.5 (12th)||22.5%|
The Spurs have not been in the bottom half of the league in pace since 2010, back when they still ran the ball through Duncan in the post, grinding out possession after possession. That formula worked because of Duncan’s individual brilliance, with the Spurs finishing in the top 10 in Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions) in their 2003, 2005 and 2007 championship seasons despite the less aesthetically pleasing, more deliberate style.
Popovich has often remarked that the team needs to play with pace and movement because it lacks the type of elite one-on-one scorer so many championship teams have been built around. Yet the Spurs philosophy is driven more by personnel than some idealistic “right way to play.” If the team had such a scorer, they’d leverage it, and to some extent that’s what they’re trying to develop in Leonard.
In terms of self-generated offense, Kawhi Leonard likes to operate from many of the same spots that Duncan once did in the mid and low posts. A good-not-great athlete, Leonard has yet to develop a truly dynamic dribble-drive game, with many of his off-the bounce isolation and pick-and-roll plays ending in pull-up jumpers. He’s at his best catching the ball closer to the basket, where he can use his size and length to shoot over the defense with only one or two dribbles. At this stage in his career, with this team around him, Leonard’s greatest individual offensive strengths are disconnected from the team.
This isn’t a knock on Leonard, even if we should acknowledge his game isn’t fully prepared to lead in this way just yet. It’s a matter of spacing and style. The Spurs preferred starting lineup prioritizes defense, starting Duncan and Tiago Splitter for optimal rim protection. But posting or isolating Leonard changes the spacing dynamics alongside two big men with limited range. It works to a certain extent because all three are solid-to-great interior passers, but limits driving lanes with Danny Green the only player pulling his defender out of the lane.
Here’s a simple quick-hitting post play that the Spurs run for Leonard, here against the Chicago Bulls, running him off a Duncan screen to establish good position, using Duncan as an entry passer.
Duncan makes the entry pass and cuts through to set a screen for Splitter, theoretically taking Pau Gasol with him. Although Parker is shooting a career-high percentage from three, defenses realize it’s on a low volume of attempts and are willing to cede the shot if they need to get into their defensive rotations.
Predictably, Gasol ignores Duncan and sticks with Leonard. With Duncan and Splitter standing right next to each other, Nikola Mirotic can defend all interior passes by himself, and Aaron Brooks collapses off Parker in the corner for good measure.
As Leonard turns middle, then, there are four defenders in his vicinity with only one outlet: Parker in the corner. For an offense designed with endless numbers of options, counters, and continuations, the Spurs have gone all-in on Leonard creating something.
To be fair, this play obviously isn’t indicative of every Leonard play, but it does showcase some of the issues featuring him in the Spurs’ preferred lineups. There have been other clearouts, like the following against Hedo Turkoglu in the Spurs recent loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
That play ended in a pull-up jumper, against one of the worst defenders in the NBA, taking up over half the shot clock to setup. For the Clippers, there are few decisions to be made in how to defend this action, even if Leonard does hold the advantage. Looking at the wall of red behind Turkoglu ready to pounce, the spacing and standing around here seem at odds with the beautiful game the Spurs displayed a year ago.
Some of the offense’s struggles have been willing growing pains, taking a step back to develop new wrinkles. But the Spurs have also been forced to explore new avenues of shot creation due to Parker’s struggles.
An ailing hamstring has hampered Parker all season long, driving him to his worst season since his rookie year at 14.2 points per game, with a below average Player Efficiency Rating of 14.88. Quite a few advanced statistics point to the Spurs actually being better in the time Parker has been off the floor.
But even should Parker continue to struggle, the solution isn’t as simple as diluting his minutes and touches to redistribute them across the roster. The Spurs don’t need him to be in the elite point guard discussion any longer, and he hasn’t been. But they do need him to be the catalyst that sets everything else in motion offensively. It’s not necessarily a matter of greatest ability, but style.
The pick-and-roll is the greatest vehicle in which to drive a balanced attack. Its most basic function is to force defenses to make a decision with multiple defenders in ways that degrade their schemes over the course of several rotations.
It’s why although Jeff Teague may not be the Atlanta Hawks best player, he leads their balanced attack in scoring simply because his dribble penetration is the best avenue through which to initially break down a defense.
Take a look at Leonard in a more familiar role this year, getting a dunk by operating on the fringes of a defense keyed on stopping the Spurs’ pick-and-roll action elsewhere:
Ginobili and Duncan are set to run a high pick-and-roll, which the Milwaukee Bucks decide to blow up by trapping the ball handler and forcing a retreat. Recognizing the coverage, Duncan slips the screen and will stop his roll short near the free throw line as one of two release valves (along with Boris Diaw on the wing) for the next defender to choose between. The pass goes to Diaw, which means Giannis Antetokounmpo has to leave Leonard in the corner to prevent a quick-hitting pass to Duncan, which leaves the skip pass cross court to the corner.
The pass isn’t perfect and is bobbled by Leonard, allowing Antetokounmpo time to closeout. But by shifting the the defense side-to-side, the Spurs have created a slight advantage. Duncan, diving down the middle of the floor as the defense recovers, establishes deep position on the block. John Henson, already beat if Duncan catches the ball, does all he can to fight to front the post.
Recognizing this, Boris Diaw immediately runs to the top of the key for a possible high-low pass as Duncan seals his man while Ginobili drifts back towards the opposite wing, clearing lanes.
In fighting for position, Henson has turned his back to the ball while Antetokounmpo shades Leonard slightly towards the baseline, where help would normally be. At this point, there’s no communication between defenders and Leonard has a clear driving lane to the rim.
As the defense collapses, a bevy of options open. Duncan shifts from fighting for post position to sealing off two defenders to clear the baseline. Leonard beats the rotating defender coming from the opposite corner for a dunk, but even if he hadn’t, two simple kick out options present themselves in the corner and on the wing, with Diaw staying up top for a three or to complete the high-low to Duncan.
This is Spurs basketball at its best. Moving the defense around enough to create a slight advantage, each forced defensive rotation creating a number of options with each pass, until, over the course of a game, the percentages simply overwhelm their opponent.
The Spurs have two pick-and-roll creators in Parker and Ginobili, and they’ve needed both in relatively good health come playoff time to make deep runs. At his age, Ginobili can no longer serve as an offensive hub for extended periods of time. It’s fair to ask whether Parker is reaching that point too.
But if the Spurs are going to defend their championship, they’ll need Parker operating near All-Star status. And if they have that Parker, running their offense through him gives the Spurs their highest possible ceiling. So although the Spurs rarely care for individual numbers, Parker’s scoring average should stand as a good barometer for where this team is over the second half of the year and what style the team takes.
Kawhi Leonard may be the Spurs best player, but the best possible version of the Spurs offense – the one that will be needed to defend their championship – is one that doesn’t feature him prominently just yet.