Kawhi Leonard and the chaos that went missing
Kawhi Leonard’s absence created a plethora of tangible, negative effects on the way San Antonio operated — an impact, or lack thereof, that could be measured analytically. The other ‘stuff’ he brings to the table may not be, however. Not since Kawhi was in high school have the Spurs had a chaos engine to help swing games all on its own, and that version of Manu Ginobili isn’t the one we’re watching today.
But he doesn’t need to be, not that his legs would allow it. Leonard’s been solid in his return — he’s averaging 13.5 points, seven rebounds, 2.5 steals and two blocks in those two games — but it’s the havoc he wreaks that’s been a crucial element of San Antonio’s new defensive identity over the last two seasons.
For a team that’s not known at all for gambling and forcing turnovers, Leonard manufactures them on his own. For a coach who doesn’t really care for offensive rebounding over getting back on defense, Kawhi finds ways to freelance and stir up extra possessions without being out of position. He’s one of the few perimeter players in the league capable of defending the passing lanes while still managing to stay directly in front of his man, and it didn’t take long for him to remind us of the impact he has on a game.
San Antonio has consistently been on the low end of the league during the Popovich era in terms of forcing turnovers; but last season the Spurs created the sixth most steals per game in the NBA, and Leonard was instrumental in that change. For a team that’s typically conservative in its approach — San Antonio doesn’t regularly jump passing lanes or crash the offensive glass, and they opt to box out on the defensive boards rather than leak out for fast-break opportunities — Kawhi is the wild card.
The Spurs have snagged just 7.3 steals per game this season, good for 19th in the league and down from their 8.5 average last year. And in the 14 games Leonard recently missed with that broken metacarpal in his right hand, that number dipped to 6.6 thefts a night, which would be third to last in the league if extrapolated over the course of the entire season. It’s going to be interesting to see whether the Spurs can recreate that turnover magic they conjured last season, and a now fully healthy lineup — Popovich said Parker would return Sunday against the Mavericks “at the latest” — will only help.
The steal is a peculiar statistic in general. It’s not necessarily an indicator of good defense, nor is it a definite predictor or contributor to postseason success. During the Spurs’ previous three championship seasons, they ranked 17th, 17th and 15th in steals per game during each respective year (2002-03, 2004-05, 2006-07). And while their theft numbers jumped in two of those following postseasons (2002-03 and 2006-07), it was by a mere .1 steal per contest.
Steals are nice, but they’re not necessary, at least to a certain extent. You probably don’t want to be hanging around the bottom of the league, but if you can maintain position somewhere in the middle, history tells us you can survive.
Though the numbers overall are down from last season, the top three thieves on the roster have actually combined to force more turnovers this year. Leonard, Ginobili and Danny Green are accounting for 4.2 steals per game this season, up from 3.7 a year ago, which is promising considering you’d expect their playing time to spike once the postseason rolls around, when extra possessions make such a massive difference.
It’s what Manu used to give this team during the mid-2000s title runs, when he’d singlehandedly flip games around by stringing together chaotic defensive possessions, attacking dribble-drives and pull-up threes in transition. He created havoc that would win games on its own, and Leonard is beginning to have the same type of impact.
Kawhi isn’t at Manu’s level with the ball in his hands, but he’s already beyond what Ginobili ever was defensively. Manu often had to gamble to make his impact, and the tension between he and Popovich because of it was palpable and well-documented. But Leonard rarely has to get out of position, as the length of his arms almost allows him to be in two places at once.
One second he’s in front of you, the next he’s extending into the fringes of passing lanes, knocking balls away and vacuuming them up with his suction-cup hands. There are no 50-50 balls when Leonard is around the action; it feels like that number jumps to about 80-20.
We see the rebounding, the defense and the budding jump shot, but it’s the momentary sequences of chaos in which Leonard’s impact is most significantly felt. San Antonio needs that. It puts less pressure on the legs of the veterans and gives the younger players a chance to get out and move in the open floor. This is where Kawhi’s greatest value lies at this point.
The system is still run by the Big Three, and when the game sticks in halfcourt situations Leonard is often at the mercy of the flow of the offense. But he’s one of the few players on the team that can turn a turnover or rebound into instant offense on the other end, and San Antonio needs that badly in order to keep up with the youth and athleticism they’ll face come playoff time.
Leonard’s stat line is consistently solid, but it’s those quick changes in momentum that make such a world of difference. There isn’t a metric that measures chaos, but the results it creates are as tangible as the Spurs’ current place in the standings.