The impeccably-named Aaron McGuire over at GothicGinobili.com, one of my ten favorite websites with "Ginobili" in the title, had a great column up Tuesday morning. It mostly dealt with various NBA trades, but what I found particularly interesting was his analysis of Kawhi Leonard's under-the-radar struggles within the team's halfcourt-offense, where -- spoiler alert -- he's kind of been offensive poison.
Let's get right to the good stuff from McGuire...
#1: KAWHI LEONARD ISN'T HELPING SAN ANTONIO'S OFFENSE
After last year's finals, just about everyone -- me included -- felt that Kawhi Leonard was due to take the proverbial "next step" this year. The theories on how exactly that would come to pass ranged heavily, but most people agreed that he was due to take a large leap offensively. With more responsibility in the offense, he'd start to learn how to facilitate and search for his own shot through careful examination of defensive seams. He'd couple this with his always improving defensive brilliance and become a quasi-star. Perhaps even an all-star, although everyone admits that's less likely given the West's glut of amazing wings and forwards. Right?
Not so much. At least to date. With Kawhi Leonard on the floor, the Spurs are averaging a pedestrian 1.00 points per possession. With Kawhi off the floor, the Spurs are averaging a blistering 1.18 points per possession. To put that in layman's terms: the Spurs are scoring at a rate roughly equivalent to a bottom-five offensive team when Kawhi's in the game. When he's not, the Spurs are scoring at a rate roughly equivalent to NBA Jam with all sliders maxed out. The main difference? The Spurs aren't making many jumpers when their young star's in the game (0.86 points per shot) -- but they're canning them like sardines when he isn't on the floor, scoring 1.08 points per jumper when Kawhi is stuck to the pine. It's a tricky result for a core player that essentially everyone believes to be San Antonio's future.
The eye test tends to agree with the stats on this one, too -- it doesn't really feel like an anomaly. Although the Spurs are missing a lot of open shots with Kawhi on the floor, it seems like every few shots Kawhi controls ends up in a laughably botched pass or a complete prayer of a jumper. The offense has a bad habit of stalling, leaving half the players on the floor watching helplessly as Kawhi abuses his own screens or dribbles himself into positions where San Antonio's open players are completely inaccessible and multiple defenders have a chance at altering the shot. While the offense is still functioning effectively when Kawhi successfully dishes to a driver or runs a play action, more often than not, that action never really initiates -- the offensive set just ends in a desperation heave or a random step-back jumpshot. And as we all know, the degree of difficulty on a random fadeaway jump shot is way, way higher than the stand-still set shots San Antonio generates when the system has the reins and takes an effort to whip the ball around off screens and motion. Hence the gap in jump shot efficiency.
To put it simply, the Spurs offense is a LOT more clunky than it is when Duncan, Parker, or Ginobili takes the reins. Perhaps that's to be expected, but the vast gap in how smart the plays are is somewhat jarring. Screens lie abandoned, simple easy-to-thwart actions are thwarted, and the off ball movement seems to stall. It's just a very strange look for the Spurs offense, as necessary as it may be to develop it.
The strangest part about it all? Kawhi's personal offensive numbers aren't particularly bad, even as the overall team offense looks bad when he's at the helm. His three point shot is consistently missing the mark by a few inches (and his 27% three point percentage shows it), but Kawhi is shooting 60% from inside the three point line. Most would see that and assume he isn't taking any long two pointers, but that's simply not true -- he's taking a hell of a lot of long two point shots, he's just being polite enough to actually make them. He's shooting 14-of-27 from 16-24 feet, a percentage that would usually lead the league from that range. His turnover rate is up a tad and he's drawing free throws a bit less than he was last year, but his rebounding rate is through the roof and his assist rate is holding steady. It all stands to reason that Kawhi's personal offensive numbers really aren't that bad, making the team's dismal offense with him on the floor all-the-more confusing.
Now, I tackled this subject before the season began, and concluded that it probably wasn't wise to have grandiose expectations of Leonard overtaking Tim Duncan or Tony Parker on the team's hierarchy either practically or statistically for the 2013-14 season. To the chagrin of the national pundits who are so bored/tired with "The Big Three," that they're desperately clinging to the hope (i.e. hype) of Leonard being "The Guy" on the team so they'll have something different to talk about with the Spurs, he just isn't ready yet. Right now, a bigger offensive role with the club doesn't seem around the corner, partly due to the fact that his progress was pretty much retarded in his second season by a knee injury that caused him to miss 24 games and greatly limited him in many more.
But the main reason I don't see Leonard's numbers jumping dramatically has far less to do with him and much more to do with the simple fact that Parker and Duncan are safe bets to still be really, really, good at basketball. And since they share most of Leonard's minutes on the floor, the ball goes through them the majority of the time, especially in Parker's case.
My argument has always been that there's a reason Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have played with guys like John Paxson, Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher, Boobie Gibson and Mario Chalmers as opposed to fellows like Parker, Chris Paul, or Kyrie Irving. Your stud wings are the point guards on their teams, by and large. Some short guy might technically bring the ball up the floor, but once they've crossed half-court, their job is to hand it off to the star and then find someplace far away from the basket to set up for open shots. If that reminds me you of pretty much every backup "point guard" that's played with Manu over the years, great. It should.
McGuire presented Leonard's numbers, and how they've impacted the team overall. But let's look at him individually, courtesy of basketball-reference.com.
Per 36 Minutes:
I'm pleasantly surprised by a few things here. While Leonard's traditional per-game stats appear relatively static, you'll notice how they're dramatically different once you plug in the Per-36 numbers. That's because he's averaging four fewer minutes this season, thanks to all the blowouts San Antonio's had. He's putting up three more two-point shots per 36 minutes than last year and converting them at a better rate too, particularly around the basket where he's shooting a sweet 60 percent. Pop has indeed followed through on his pledge to call more plays for Leonard and he's run pick-and-rolls a handful of times a game to boost his usage rate almost to 20 percent, which is nearly a star level. I'm also very happy with the huge spikes in rebounding and steals, both of which contribute to those usage and two-point shot totals thanks to the breakaway dunks and coast-to-coast efforts.
But there are areas for concern as well. The three-point shooting has been abysmal, although that figures to come around. The bigger problem -- and a team-wide one at that -- is that Leonard's free-throw rate is nearly down 33 percent, he's fouling way more, and worst of all, his somewhat increased role on offense hasn't led to much development or progress as a passer. He's turning it over more, but still pretty much the only thing he's good at when initiating the pick-and-roll is shooting it, either off the high screen or not bothering to use the screen altogether.
The bottom line is that while I don't begrudge Pop using the early part of the season (particularly with the endless slate of crummy teams) to experiment with and expand Leonard's role, it's tough to argue with McGuire's conclusion that these experiments have so far proven to be a failure. Of course Leonard is still a net positive for the Spurs thanks to his All-NBA First-Team level defense and his rebounding, but all those three point clanks and long two swishes aren't doing the guys on the court with him any favors, and neither is his inability to pass them the ball in good spots.
My one criticism for Pop regarding Leonard thus far is that I would've liked to have seen Kawhi used more in the business end of the pick-and-roll rather than as the initiator. For now, I think finishing as the dive man suits his talents more than trying to dribble in traffic, and I'm not at all wild about his passing on the move. Hopefully this is something we'll see more of as the year goes on.
One thing I am happy about is that Pop hasn't tried to fix what isn't broken (except for one game) by switching Leonard and Marco Belinelli in the lineup in the hopes that Leonard will have more time on the ball playing with Ginobili while Parker and Duncan sit. The way the bench is destroying people right now, you don't want to disturb that at all. The foreign legion of Diaw-Ginobili-Belinelli-Mills has been lethal, with a net 22.7 rating in 56 minutes together, the most time any quartet of Spurs not involving Duncan have logged. Those four dudes need to play more together, not less.
What Leonard has to do, besides hit threes, is go to the basket and get to the line more. Refine those areas of his game first before trying to be the next LeBron.
* * *
Odds and ends
The Spurs had another blowout win on Monday, this time over New Orleans*, a squad who thought it was a good idea to acquire Tyreke Evans even though they've stated numerous times that they want to make the playoffs. Also, their best player models his facial hair after Bert from "Sesame Street," so I can only take him so seriously. (Okay. Anthony Davis is playing like a beast this year, but Tiago Splitter still had his way with him so take that for what its worth.)
I don't like much about the team. I don't like Evans. I don't like Eric Gordon, an overrated, injury-prone knucklehead. I don't like Austin Rivers, who should've definitely stayed in college for like eight more years to work on his game. I don't like their colors. I don't like their stupid nickname. I won't even link to a picture of their mascot because I have too much dignity and it's too late at night as I type this for me to be messing with nightmare fuel.
As some of you may remember, I used to call this franchise the NOOCH for New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. So now, since I'm so negative about them, I'll simply be referring to them as the NOPE (or possibly the NOPEs) in the future.