In the aftermath of Pelicans romp, Leonard and Duncan are finding their footing
We’re getting to the point where I’m not quite sure what to analyze with this team right now, so what do you guys want to talk about? And I promise that’s not meant to sound pompous. In an NBA where there was quite a bit of turnover in the offseason and a talented but youthful and unproven young-star movement, the Spurs are winning games in their sleep because they know each other all too well.
San Antonio beat the New Orleans Pelicans 112-93 for its eleventh consecutive win on Monday, tying the franchise mark for best record to start a season at 13-1 and counting. What’s most impressive is the way they’re doing it. The Spurs are winning games by a margin of 13.9 points per 100 possessions, several points better than the second best mark in the league. And they’re doing so without playing a single player more than 30 minutes per game.
Tony Parker leads San Antonio at 29.9 minutes per game, and the team has eight players averaging at least 20 minutes a night. For comparison’s sake, take a look at the Indiana Pacers, who are also 13-1 this year. They’ve got five players averaging 30 minutes or more on a nightly basis, and just six total averaging 20 minutes or more (CJ Watson is the lone Pacer playing between 20 and 30 minutes a night at 21 mpg. Everyone else is either over 30 or under 20 mpg).
Over the last two games (both blowouts), the Spurs’ starting lineup of Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter has spent a grand total of 11 minutes on the court together. Basketball games are 48 minutes long, and 48 multiplied by two is … *pulls out abacus* … 96 minutes. What is supposed to be the team’s best lineup is barely playing together right now, and it has mattered very little.
Then again, maybe you can point out that this might be a good thing, as this lineup is really struggling to score at the moment. The starters are producing just 93.5 points per 100 possessions. Which is pretty incredible considering the team as a whole is currently operating at an offensive efficiency of 106.1, currently sixth best in the league. And the reasons for a lot of that are the struggles of Duncan and Leonard while they’re on the floor.
In the 258 minutes these two have spent together on the floor, the Spurs are putting up a 51.6 true-shooting percentage (a number that adjusts for the value of free throws and 3-point field goals) and are scoring at a crappy rate of 94.1 points per 100 possessions. And the individual numbers are even wonkier.
When Leonard is on the floor without Duncan, the Spurs are scoring at a clip of 107.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s a difference in scoring of 13.7 points. Oh, but it gets better. In the 69 minutes Timmy has spent on the floor without Kawhi, San Antonio is putting up an eye-popping 142.6 offensive rating (!!!). Holy hell, this town ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em.
The struggles between the two are not only reflected by the numbers, but they’ve been visible to the eye as well. Both have struggled with their perimeter shots—Leonard from the 3-point line, Duncan from mid-range—and as the Spurs have moved Leonard into a more¹ prominent offensive role, things have looked clunky at times.
¹And this is where the confluence of analytics and “eye-testing” can put us at a crossroads: While statistics can certainly contextualize the process of a player’s evolution, it’s risky to extrapolate these numbers to predict future trends. Leonard is still a project, so while it’s perfectly fine to analyze the issues at hand, we still must allow breathing room for a 22-year-old small forward that hadn’t previously been the recipient of a play call throughout his professional career. This won’t happen overnight.
One of the reasons Ginobili has become such an icon as a sixth man is because the Spurs’ two-man unit of Duncan and Parker has created such a beautifully working organism within the starting unit. It’s a living thing that has thrived off the two-man pick-and-roll and complementary pieces for so long, and bringing in a more highly involved piece has caused a stir that goes beyond just missed jumpers. It’s a problem they previously solved by bringing a future Hall-of-Famer off the bench.
The Spurs have plenty of time. There are 68 games remaining in the regular season for San Antonio, and the team is cruising despite the issues they’ve faced. The problems they’re having now will be well worth it once the final product manifests itself come playoff time in April.
This version of Leonard has been introduced into what had been a wonderfully functioning ecosystem in the hopes that it will not only increase their title hopes, but prepare this franchise for a future without Duncan and Ginobili. And while it’s been complicated early in the season, results are starting to show.
It’s like trying to squeeze too many clothes into a suitcase before traveling for Thanksgiving: You might have to push and pull and adjust accordingly for a while, but you know eventually it’s all going to fit into a nice, tight bundle. (And, for some reason, it always fits more easily when you’re packing for the return trip, but I’m not sure that fits in this analogy.)
And don’t look now, but the spinning tires on the Duncan-Leonard bandwagon are starting to gain traction. It’s a small sample size, mind you, but this two-man group is beginning to operate well since the team’s five-day layoff last week. Over the last three games (Grizzlies, Cavaliers and Pelicans), the Spurs’ offense is running at an elite level with these two on the floor together, and the 75.2 DRtg during that span has been ridiculous. (I’m not counting the Celtics game because of the predictably rust-filled first-half performance after the long break. Though even if I did, the numbers aren’t skewed much at all, despite Duncan’s bad game.) It needs to be said, however, that this spike has come with a decreased usage rate for Leonard. He’s still being used as the primary initiator of offense more often than he was last year, and in fewer minutes per game, but the team has scaled back in that capacity when he shares the floor with Duncan.
This thing works. We’ve seen it function to the point that it should have won an NBA title last season. Just be patient and let the kinks that form as a result of adjustment iron themselves out.
We tend to overanalyze things at times in this business, and the influence of statistics and analytics has contributed to a sort of supersaturation of information available to people who are spending way too much time thinking about it (*walks to mirror, looks in it*). Don’t get me wrong, these numbers are important, as they give us access to data not always identifiable to the naked eye that helps us give at least somewhat intelligent insight as to what is happening. But still, Gregg Popovich has said it in numerous post-game scrums when asked about what the team did differently to play better than it previously had: Basketball is pretty simple; sometimes it’s just about hitting shots.
Duncan has picked it up over the last week and is beginning to look comfortable with his shot and in the flow of the offense for the first time all year; Leonard has been a little less forceful in asserting himself in a system that doesn’t necessarily need him to do anything extra at this point; and both players are just being smarter about the attempts they’re taking. If the 3 isn’t there for Kawhi, he’s moving the ball along or going on the attack. When Duncan doesn’t feel like he’s in rhythm, he’s setting a teammate up for a better opportunity. The thing about it is, while these two have struggled, the rest of the team has not. In fact, the rest of the team is destroying any semblance of humanity that exists on the court.
So just let it happen. Let these things work themselves out. Despite these “issues,” San Antonio’s offense is now sixth best in the NBA, and it’s been the best in the league since that five-day break. The offense is going to be fine. Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard are going to be fine. The Spurs might be the best team in the NBA right now—sit back and enjoy it. All new things take time to develop an identity, regardless of how “new” that thing is, relatively speaking.
The schedule is about to get quite difficult, so the cakewalk is over. Now come the real tests against the teams that Las Vegas favored to be better than San Antonio at the end of the season. Now the fun starts.
Oh, and by the way: the Spurs are currently playing defense at a higher level than they did during their title run of a decade ago (I stress the word “currently”).
Let’s talk about that next time.
Hat tip to Aaron McGuire of Gothic Ginobili for several talking points in this column.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com