Upon further review: Kawhi’s got to pick it up, too
Yesterday I wrote about how Tim Duncan’s struggles from mid-range have given the Spurs issues on the offensive end, particularly within the starting lineup. But another thing that’s contributed to poor percentages has been Kawhi Leonard’s 3-point shooting, another critical aspect San Antonio’s floor spacing.
He’s converting just 26 percent of his 2.7 shots per game from beyond the arc, and in an offensive system that necessitates 3-point shooting from its wing players, this is obviously going to cause some problems. But on the flip side of things, Leonard is absolutely killing it from everywhere else on the floor — a great sign of things to come, especially considering how he’s being used. Still, his improvements in the post and off the bounce can’t come at the expense of perimeter shooting.
In the spirit of Christmas, here’s Kawhi’s shot chart, courtesy of NBA.com.
For comparison’s sake, below is his chart from last season. Kawhi loves the corners, especially the one along the right baseline, where he hits the highest percentage of his shots.
Leonard’s usage percentage has gone up several points since last season, but the number of 3-point attempts he’s taking per game has gone down in the process, albeit slightly. Whether that’s the result of poor shooting early in the season is something only Kawhi knows, but it’s human nature to steer clear of obstacles when they present themselves, especially when the alternative — he’s shooting 53 percent from mid-range and 52 percent overall — is coming so easily. Though you can be sure Gregg Popovich is staying in his ear, pushing him to keep shooting from deep.
Again, the Spurs need him to keep launching, just like they need Timmy to do the same. About 26 percent of Leonard’s shots are coming from beyond the arc, which is down from about 33 percent last season. Considering he took 526 shots last year, that would be the difference of about 38 attempts from the 3-point line on the season if we’re using the same sample size.
That’s not a huge number, obviously. But when a team is struggling with spacing and shooting, that statistic is magnified. But, in this version of small-sample-size theater, we can at least identify a few of the areas the Spurs can improve.
Here are Leonard’s shot-distribution charts from the last two seasons (this season on the left).
I want to make it clear: these are not overreaction pieces. We’re only 11 games into the season, and the Spurs are doing just fine despite an offense that’s been rough at times. But Duncan’s brick-fest from the mid-range area and Leonard’s cold streak from 3-point range are stressing the importance of space for NBA offenses.
When you don’t have room to operate, things get mucked up, as they did here:
If Duncan hangs back closer to the elbow, Leonard has more room to cut and Timmy can set a back screen for Danny Green on a flare to the wing if he needs it. Green does end up with the shot from the right wing here anyway, but it’s contested, as Avery Bradley has no one in between him and the man he’s defending (Green). Giving the ball to Tiago Splitter on the block isn’t ideal anyway, but when there’s clutter in the paint it’s even less likely you’ll get the desired result.
Splitter was taken out of the game 12 seconds after this screen shot occurred and replaced by Matt Bonner. Nothing says “We need more floor spacing!” like taking out Tiago and putting in Matty. Nothing.
Duncan and Leonard spend a ton of time on the court together, which makes their struggles from long range even more problematic. It’s tough enough when one guy out of five is struggling, but when two can’t find the distance it makes running an elite offense basically impossible. But, again, they have to keep shooting.
If both players start shying away from these shots, you’re going to end up clogging the paint and killing the flow of the offense. And while Kawhi is scoring incredibly well from inside the 3-point line, he needs to make sure not to overcompensate by forcing the issue inside. When Duncan, Leonard and Splitter are on the floor together, they must maintain they’re roles: Tiago as the pick-and-roll big, Timmy as the pick-and-pop forward and Kawhi as shooter/slasher from the perimeter.
The Spurs were so great offensively last season because these three players owned these areas of the floor and did such a wonderful job of maintaining that spacing. Obviously, basketball is not a game of static positioning, and you must be able to adapt to the ebbs and flows along the way. But you start from a certain template or structure that has given you proven results for years.
For the hundredth time, it’s very early, and San Antonio is in great shape. It’s not like Pop and the Spurs don’t know what they need to do, it’s just that the shots aren’t falling. Expect a major spike in offensive performance once Duncan and Leonard start finding the net from mid- and long-range, respectively.