Spurs surging behind the massive impact of Kawhi Leonard
Gregg Popovich called Kawhi Leonard “a bad man” on Saturday, which was an apt way of describing his third-year swingman. The Magic were giving the Spurs more than they planned on handling that night in what was a typical March game on the NBA schedule between two teams on different ends of the spectrum. The Orlando contingent was busting its butt while San Antonio was efficiently going through the motions, something the Spurs can get away with because their version of “going through the motions” comes with a higher level of execution than most other teams’ casual approaches.
And then, Kawhi Leonard happened. His knack for taking a low-energy, back-and-forth affair and lighting it on fire has become commonplace in an exhilarating type of way. The steals, the blocks, the rebounds, the one-man fast-breaks — he’s able to take a game and flip it upside-down from defense to offense like no other Spur in recent memory, save for perhaps a prime Manu Ginobili; but he never had this sort of elite-level impact on the defensive end.
Leonard swatted two shots and nabbed two steals during a four-minute stretch late in the fourth quarter on Saturday that eventually secured the game in a 121-112 San Antonio win. He was just everywhere.
Quick note: notice how Kawhi makes all plays with his left hand in the first video. Not sure if it has anything to do with the injury, but both steals and both blocks were made with his weak hand. And both steals fly in the face of what proper technique teaches: when defending off the ball, keep the hand closest to the ball in the passing lane so you can remain closed on your opponent rather than opened up away from him. This way, if you gamble and miss, you’re still in position to defend either a shot or a drive. If you open up and and miss on the steal attempt, your back is to the ball-handler and you’re dead defensively. Fortunately for Leonard, he rarely ever misses.
The momentum changes these types of plays create are significant, and above all else, it’s the chaos Leonard creates that was most missed in his absence. And when he’s doing this sort of stuff — rebounding a Duncan block in the corner and going coast-to-coast for the dunk — it’s all taken to a completely different level:
Much has been made recently of the fact the Spurs are 37-9 when Leonard plays, as opposed to 8-7 when he doesn’t. There’s no question about the value he has on this team — he’s becoming just as valuable as any of the Big Three, if he isn’t already to that point — but I wouldn’t look too much into that stat. ¹It’s likely more of a result of the sum of the Spurs’ parts when fully healthy than it is Leonard’s individual impact.
¹I will absolutely be looking into this more deeply, because there are aspects of the game Leonard singlehandedly impacts at a significant level.
But since his return he’s made the sort of noise we remember from the NBA Finals. He’s putting up 14.8 points, 6.3 boards, 2.8 steals and 1.8 blocks per game over his last six, and he’s shooting 55.4 percent from the floor — 52.6 from the 3-point line — in just 31.2 minutes per night. And what’s more is the impact he’s having from the team standpoint.
The Spurs have been 16.2 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when Leonard has been on the floor over the last six games as opposed to just six points better when he’s been on the bench, and the defense is boasting a 95.3 defensive-efficiency rating when he plays. Furthermore, his impact on the defense-to-offense transition game has been a godsend for the slow-legged Spurs.
San Antonio is scoring 18.4 fast-break points per 48 minutes when Leonard is on the floor over the last six — as opposed to just 12.4 when he’s off — which is good for ninth in the league during that time. It’s also a solid reflection of all the ways he’s capable of pushing the pace, a pace that jumped from 17th in the league during his absence to seventh best since his return, by the way.
And as we look closer, it’s easy to see why Pop loves this guy so much: Leonard takes two of the coach’s principle tenets and controls them with his massive mitts. The Spurs have been incredibly consistent in two defensive facets over the years: defensive rebounding and not fouling. Extra possessions and free points are killers, and San Antonio has been able to significantly limit both with Kawhi on the floor.
During the 14 games he missed, the Spurs slipped across the board. You name the category, the team likely fell hard. But keeping in mind those two previously mentioned defensive aspects, San Antonio has exploded since Leonard’s return. The team is now corralling defensive rebounds at the fifth-best rate in the league with Kawhi back in the lineup, a massive jump from 24th in the NBA when Leonard was down.
And how about the whole fouling thing? From Jan. 23 to Feb. 25, 20 teams surrendered better free-throw-attempt rates (free throws attempted relative to field goals attempted by player or team) to the opposition than San Antonio. Since Leonard’s return to the court, nobody has been better in this capacity than the Spurs.
This is where Leonard has a direct impact, too. The steals and rebounds are tangible stats we can see in a simple box score, but his ability to keep perimeter players out of the paint and to help down on big men can go unnoticed to the untrained eye. He and Danny Green, especially, have developed a wonderful synergy on the court together, and their presence as a tandem on the defensive end has built up a sort of perimeter wall the team has formed to protect Tim Duncan and the interior.
It’s like swimming behind a fat kid in a wave pool: The surges will never hit straight on with full force when you’ve got that kind of blockade in front of you.
At this stage of his career and playing at the low weight he does, Duncan needs Leonard. The young forward is a huge help on the boards, he prevents the rim-protectors from feeling the brunt of the opposition’s offensive attack, and he’s starting to put more and more pressure on opposing defenses as he becomes confident in his own abilities.
A common misconception I’ve noticed at times is that fans tend to think Popovich has a hand in nearly every play, every decision in a direct manner. Really, it’s much more indirect. Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker have been running this system for so long that it’s essentially there’s to work with, and oftentimes that means it’s difficult for Leonard to find his spots. Or at least it has been. Pop even made a joke recently about the fact Leonard can’t get his touches because the Big Three won’t let him. He obviously said it in jest, but I think we look too much into the whole “Are they running plays for Kawhi Leonard yet?” narrative.
But he’s starting to locate the cracks more easily, he’s starting to identify his opportunities more quickly and he’s getting out and running more confidently. As the season heads down its final stretch, we’re finally getting the Kawhi we saw against LeBron James in the Finals — the Swiss Army Knife who cut down the opposing offense, corkscrewed through defenses and pried off the lid of the basket with his size and energy.
I think too often we associate NBA stardom with giant scoring numbers, gaudy all-around statistics and expressive personalities while labeling defenders and rebounders as “role players.” And that’s fine, as the basketball court is an entertainment venue and people pay good money to watch players light up the scoreboard.
Leonard returns to Chicago on Tuesday, the site of his career-high 26-point night a little more than a year ago, where his team will face Joakim Noah and the Bulls. Noah doesn’t score much, but there’s no questioning his star-power, mostly because the cameras can’t stay away from his energy, enthusiasm and sometimes downright insanity on the court. But everything he does for that team without putting up a ton of points is incredible, beyond all the flash and excitement his personality brings to the table.
Kawhi hasn’t reached that sort of star level on the national stage. Far from it, really. But here in San Antonio he’s beginning to break out as the team around him has surged to the top of the NBA standings.
The Spurs already know what they’ve got in Kawhi Leonard; the rest of us are just waiting to find out.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats.