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Kawhi Leonard Keeps the Spurs Looking Scary

A dominant outing against the Warriors showcased his exponential growth and the reliability of LaMarcus Aldridge

Getty Images
Getty Images

How LeBron James reacts when he sees Kawhi Leonard sprint onto the floor says all you need to know about Leonard’s defensive ability.

Leonard is the NBA’s back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, and a three-peat is within the realm of possibility. Reports of the Spurs’ demise have proved to be exaggerated over and over again, and their resilience over the years has been largely due to Leonard’s rise. But for the first time, that hearsay actually has some substance to it: Tim Duncan is gone; Tony Parker is 34; Manu Ginobili turns 40 next summer. (Anyone else feeling old?) Things are changing fast in San Antonio. “To have had to replace them both at the same time would have been even more impactful than when each one decides to leave as individuals,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said of Ginobili’s decision to return on a one-year, $14 million deal. “I don’t know how you judge that or gauge that other than that we know there is a transition approaching for our organization and it will be better if it’s a more managed transition than if it all happens at the same time.”

Despite the loss of Duncan, the Spurs have retained enough talent and continuity to maintain an elite defense. It was on full display on Tuesday night in their 129–100 win over the Warriors. The Spurs played excellent positional defense, strategically switching screens, holding the Warriors to a pedestrian 99.1 offensive rating for the game, and allowing only four second-chance points by vacuuming the defensive glass.

Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge were the keys offensively, as they will be for the foreseeable future. The league’s truly great players­ — or the greats in any field, for that matter­ — never stop improving. Leonard turned his broken jumper into one of the best shots in the league, and he’s continuously made strides as a ball handler and decision-maker. As Duncan’s offensive role diminished, Leonard’s increased accordingly, and it appears he’s taken his game to another level again this year.

Information via Basketball-Reference
Information via Basketball-Reference

Since Gregg Popovich took over as Spurs head coach during the 1996–97 season, the Spurs have had 21 instances of qualifying players finishing a season with a usage rate over 27, but only one over 30 (usage is an estimate of possessions used by an offensive player). David Robinson did it once; Ginobili, twice; Parker, six times; Duncan, 12 times. Leonard’s usage hit 25.8 percent last season, which placed him in the second-tier star range, near guys like Gordon Hayward and Kyle Lowry.

You can bet the house that Leonard will join that over-27 club this season. How he’ll handle the load will determine whether the Spurs reach familiar heights in the post-Duncan era. Of the 52 players with a usage rate over 25 last season, Leonard ranked fourth in effective field goal percentage (behind Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson — go figure). He’s developed into a featured scorer over the years, and now the Spurs are utilizing him like one. “Kawhi understanding how important he is will be important to us, and I think he knows that,” Popovich said on media day. “He deferred, like most other people did, to Timmy, for good reason. Now, it’s more his team in that sense because he’s such a big part of it.”

Leonard scored 35 points on 21 shots with a 36.2 usage rate in the Spurs’ win on Tuesday night. The stat line is impressive, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. It was the pace Leonard played at, the ability to read a defense and attack at the perfect moment, the accuracy of his passes, the aggression of his drives to draw fouls — all the subtle-yet-vital traits found in perennial MVP candidates.

The Spurs ran a load of pick-and-rolls against the Warriors last night, which forced switches and mismatches that San Antonio attacked at will. In the clip above, David West gets matched up against Leonard and, instead of forcing the issue, Leonard pulls back and drains a pull-up jumper. All five Warriors are watching Leonard at one point during that possession — the type of attention a superstar deservingly receives.

Leonard said during the preseason that he’d focused on improving all aspects of his game this summer, but one of the keys was “making sure I know what’s going on on the floor in every position.” Those words help explain his precise timing on this pocket pass to Aldridge, who’s able to snatch the ball in stride and power straight into the dunk.

Leonard finished only 13.7 percent of his possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler last season, per Synergy, but his chances increased significantly in this preseason. The Spurs will adjust game to game, but with an increased usage rate he’ll get more pick-and-roll opportunities like that one above. The NBA’s best forwards, like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Paul George, all create excellent opportunities from one of the most common plays in basketball, and Leonard could be on his way to entering that class.

The Spurs are focusing more on the 3-pointer this season, and they made five more 3s than the Warriors last night on nine fewer attempts. But San Antonio wasn’t shy about attacking the post with Aldridge. The team ran more post-ups than any in the league outside of the Knicks last season. They fed Aldridge down on the block like he was starving.

Draymond Green plays tremendous defense here by getting low and preventing Aldridge from backing him down, then crowding his airspace as Aldridge enters his shooting motion. But the rainbow shot splashes the net, which you’ll have to live with at times against players like Aldridge. The post-up has disappeared from game plans around the league, unless you’re like the Spurs, who have a reliable presence that can be trusted down low when they need a bucket at the end of the clock.

Aldridge also brutalized the Warriors on the boards; he was within 3.5 feet of a possible offensive rebound on 10 different occasions during the game and corralled eight of them. The Spurs had 21 offensive rebounds on only 51 missed shots. The Warriors just didn’t have enough beef up front to stay on the boards. There’s a lot of conversation about how teams need to adjust to the Warriors’ small-ball lineups, but without Andrew Bogut they lack an interior presence, other than Green, who can both defend and rebound at an elite level. Aldridge’s night was a case study in how a team can take one of its greatest strengths to attack an opponent’s greatest weakness.

Leonard and Aldridge were the centerpieces, but they also received contributions from their stars of the past, and possibly those of the future. Ginobili and Parker showed flashes of their former selves, and Patty Mills was a spark off the bench. Pau Gasol played a small role in his debut, logging only 18 minutes. It was Jonathon Simmons who stole the show, scoring 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting off the bench.

Simmons has a penchant for playing hard-nosed defense …

… and he put JaVale McGee on a poster.

The play just about summed up the night for the Warriors. Simmons is already 27, but this is only his second NBA season. With a 3-and-D style, he has a chance to carve out a consistent role, since Danny Green is sidelined for about three weeks with a quad injury. Green struggled mightily last year, scoring 7.2 points per game and shooting only 33.2 percent from 3. Though Green denied that an eye issue was the cause of his dip in production, he underwent Lasik surgery this summer. That could correct any potential issues, but if he doesn’t bounce back, Simmons can quickly become a more appealing long-term option for the Spurs, with Green set to hit free agency in 2018 (or 2019, since he has a $10 million player option). He’ll be 31 that summer; Simmons is still rising.

In a postgame interview, Leonard mentioned his desire for the Spurs to “keep having a winning culture,” much like they did during the Duncan era. They’re entering a transition phase, but if last night was any indication, their landing will be cushioned. With Leonard, they have their leader-by-example on the floor. They have Aldridge, their dominant low-post scorer. They have developmental pieces like Simmons, Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, and Davis Bertans. Duncan may be gone, but the Spurs still look like a team geared to compete for a title.