I thought I'd tackle the beginning of a new Spurs week with a few scattered thoughts here and there about various topics within the team, and chief among them is what's going on with Kawhi Leonard. Chatting with J.R. Wilco recently, he expressed to me that it was too bad that Leonard hasn't "broken out" into full-fledged stardom this season and that a couple of facets to his game actually seem to be regressing, most notably the three-point shooting. While most of you probably know where I stand on this issue (reader's digest version: It's going to be hard for Leonard to be a consistent scorer as long as Tony Parker remains the ball-dominant star of the team) I, Mr. Doom & Gloom, took it upon myself to talk down the usually sunnily dispositioned Mr. Wilco.
Let's start with this: the 22-year-old Leonard, in his third full year -- and he still hasn't had a season yet that wasn't delayed by a lockout or interrupted by an injury -- has already achieved 100 percent of what we were hoping he'd turn into as a finished product in terms of both individual and team defense and in rebounding. He is fourth in the league in both defensive rating (in a top-ten list dominated by Pacers and Spurs), defensive win shares and eighth in steals. LeBron James and Paul George have the name recognition to ensure that they'll finish first and second in some order on the All-Defense teams, but surely Leonard is the next small forward on the list.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the floor Leonard is still shooting a couple of ticks above 50 percent from the field despite his gnarly .238 figure from deep. I'm still not too worried about that because he's had cold months before. His three-point shooting is only a concern if you make the mistake of viewing him in the context of a Danny Green or a Marco Belinelli. The three-ball isn't Leonard's specialty and I don't particularly want it to be. I think the strength of his game should be closer to the basket, posting guys up, getting second chance points and just generally operating around the paint. It's the same reason I'd rather have him on the business end of the pick-and-roll than the decision-making end far from the bucket.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I've been following the Spurs closely since 1989. Leonard is without a doubt the best small-forward they've had in those 25 years. To me, it's not even close. Even if he doesn't improve .001 percent from today to the rest of his career, I'd still prefer him to Sean Elliott or Bruce Bowen in their respective primes and I wouldn't think twice about it. He's more of a defensive play-maker than either of his predecessors ever were and a far superior rebounder on both ends of the floor. People who don't appreciate him or are down on him right now because he's in a shooting slump are insane. The only thing I dislike about Leonard is that he doesn't have a twin brother.
* * *
Sadly, it doesn't appear that Gregg Popovich shares my view of Leonard, at least as far as Saturday's loss to the Rockets is concerned. I thought Pop made a number of poor decisions down the stretch and the game represented his biggest brain-cramp since Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.
Look, I know Leonard is struggling with his shot. And I know he committed a huge no-no by just standing there with his arm extended on his follow through and not hustling back on defense. That lapse in judgment cost the team three points, because of Terrence Jones' and-1, but it was still just a 94-92 ballgame with 4:22 to go. Even if he needs to be chewed him out for that, sub him out for a quick second, scream at him, and then send him back out there. The bottom line is I thought we were done with this foolish offense > defense mentality after the 2011 season. I thought the foundation and bedrock of this team was supposed to be the defense. In that light, I simply can't fathom how or why Pop would want to remove both Leonard and Danny Green down the stretch against a team with James Harden and Chandler Parsons on the floor. It's downright foolish. It was a one possession game. Even if you want to do the hack-a-Howard, Leonard at least should've checked back in at the two-minute mark and possibly Green too. There were plenty of opportunities to substitute defense for offense and vice versa.
This won't be a popular opinion given how well he shot, and I know it sounds low to pick on the leading three-point shooter in the league, but am I crazy or wasn't Marco Belinelli as responsible as anyone for the Rockets getting out to a 23-point lead? It was a four-point game when he checked into the game midway through the first quarter and a 21-point game when he exited late in the second. The Spurs halved the deficit by half, with the simple act of putting in Ginobili for Belinelli on defense (and Parker going Teen Wolf on offense, but still). Parsons was absolutely annihilating Belinelli, who kept leaving him open in the second quarter, and it didn't get any better for Marco against Harden. When Leonard was on Harden, The Beard hardly did anything and usually didn't even look to shoot. But Harden went after Belinelli every time he was singled up on him, including the game-tying three. I'm not sure Harden even gets that shot off against Leonard.
We haven't even gotten into Pop's decision to sub Bonner into the game yet. When is it ever gonna sink in that this guy is intelligent off the floor but remedial when it comes to basketball I.Q.? He was brought in specifically to foul Howard on purpose, Pop is SCREAMING at him to foul Howard and Bonner gives a "Who me? I thought you wanted Green to foul him," while Harden cans an open 17-footer in the confusion. Then, two possessions later, Bonner is camping out by his lonesome inside the paint, thinking of his next sandwich, while Howard is chilling around the half-court line. Pop is going apoplectic and yelling for Bonner to rush over to foul Howard, but by the time Matt gets there, Harden gets up a three to get three free throws. Yes, the refs screwed up the call, but only Bonner's inattentiveness gave him the opportunity. Bonner may be a smart, affable, likable fellow when he's not playing, but on the court he plays like a soft, weak, choke-artist. His decisions often make it look like he's dumber than a box of hammers. I bet Aron Baynes wouldn't have any problem following through with the instruction to FOUL DWIGHT HOWARD.
(Of course the whole point of fouling Howard in a one-possession game with three minutes to go is madness. Just play Leonard and Green and trust your defense.)
* * *
My reference to the infamous Game 6 is pointed, because the small-ball Rockets gave us yet another installment of Tiago Splitter: backup center. This guy has been the key to our defensive dominance all season long, and again Pop doesn't trust him against a team playing a stretch four. It's one thing when Boris Diaw is the viable alternative and quite another when it's Bonner. Give me Splitter over Bonner, regardless of which five guys are on the court for the opponent - all day, every day. I wish Pop would at least give Duncan and Splitter a chance against a small ball team before assuming it won't work. Why not dictate to them instead of the other way around? On offense Jones would have to guard either Splitter or Duncan down low and either way that's a mismatch. If the Rockets want to beat the Spurs with Terrence Freakin' Jones shooting threes, more power to them. At least it gets the ball out of the hands of Harden and Parsons. And if they want to bring in Omri Casspi to counter, the Spurs' offensive advantage should be all the greater. I find it incredibly irksome that Pop would trust Bonner more than Splitter, and doubly so that he wouldn't play Leonard down the stretch against a smallball team.
If I didn't know better I'd suggest that Pop wanted to lose the game on purpose because he figured it'd be more constructive in the long run for the team to realize they can't play like crap for a half, than it would be to win a game like that and use it as an excuse to be lazy again in the future.
* * *
Speaking of the Rockets, my goodness, what a team of jackalopes they're shaping up to be. Howard we know about. One of the all-time divas in the league and a guy who never, ever thinks any foul on him is warranted. Parsons has that cocky grin I'm growing to dislike. Kevin McHale had the totally bush-league move with Timmy on the sideline right before half, and if he does it again I hope that Duncan drills him in the ear. The worst of them all though is Harden, who, pardon the pun, is rocketing up the charts on my Most Despised Player list.
Is this guy shameless with the flops. He smashes his face into a stationary defender's chest and acts like he got punched in the nose. He runs into people and flails his arms on every shot. Hell, on his game-tying three he was trying to draw a foul. I hate Harden. He is the Neymar of the NBA. If he's gonna get to the line 15 times anyway, I hope they foul him a lot harder next time.
Don't even get me started on the Rockets announcing crew, whom I was subjected to on League Pass. These guys, bar none, are the worst and most biased broadcasters in the league. There's not even a close second. And the venom they have for the Spurs is comical. Every foul on Harden was a good call according to them but Howard's elbow to Bonner's chest was a flop. Pop's a whiny baby who tries to bully the refs and run the league. The way they act you'd think the Spurs singlehandedly denied these guys a bunch of titles when the fact is that they're the only western conference team we've never faced in the playoffs during the Duncan Era. Oh, and hey, look at Timmy admit for the first time in career that he fouled somebody! That joke never stops being funny guys, and you only use it every single time you see the Spurs. I'm still waiting for Howard to ever raise his hand for a foul call. He's only been in the league like 10 years, but I'm sure it's gonna be any day now.
* * *
The November slate has mercilessly come to an end and the Spurs sit at 14-3, exactly where I thought they'd be. They had a win in the bank with the roadie at Memphis but then gave it back with the loss to Houston. I know it's a pipe dream to hope for this squad of geezers to finish with home court advantage, but I reiterate for the umpteenth time how I think it's absolutely vital against the likes of the Heat and the Thunder. My ever-growing concern is that the East is so weak that both Indiana and Miami will accumulate artificially inflated, uncatchable records on the order of something like 68-14 because of all the easy games. Something to monitor as we go on. There will be 16 more games in December before the schedule eases up a bit, and I'll predict a 12-4 record there, with road losses to the Clippers, Warriors and Mavericks (SEGABABA) and one other random one, perhaps the Mexico City tilt versus Minnesota or the Pacers game next week. I think I'd be pretty good with 26-7 and no injuries going into the new year.
Here's your Three Stars tally so far:
1. Mem 3. Ginobili (1) 2. Diaw (3) 1. Mills (5)
2. @LAL 3. Ginobili (2) 2. Diaw (6) 1. Parker (5)
3. @Por 3. Diaw (7) 2. Belinelli (3) 1. Duncan (5)
4. @Den 3. Leonard (1) 2. Parker (8) 1. Duncan (10)
5. Phx 3. Duncan (11) 2. Green (3) 1. Parker (13)
6. GS 3. Duncan (12) 2. Parker (16) 1. Leonard (6)
7. @NY 3. Leonard (7) 2. Parker (19) 1. Green (8)
8. @Phi 3. Ginobili (3) 2. Mills (8) 1. Green (13)
9. Was 3. Splitter (1) 2. Diaw (10) 1. Belinelli (8)
10. @Uta 3. Duncan (13) 2. Diaw (13) 1. Parker (24)
11. Bos 3. Ginobili (4) 2. Parker (27) 1. Leonard (12)
12. @Mem 3. Parker (28) 2. Splitter (4) 1. Ginobili (9)
13. Cle 3. Mills (9) 2. Duncan (16) 1. Green (18)
14. NO 3. Duncan (17) 2. Splitter (7) 1. Ginobili (14)
15. @OKC 3. Duncan (18) 2. Ginobili (17) 1. Leonard (17)
16. @Orl 3. Joseph (1) 2. Belinelli (11) 1. Duncan (23)
17. Hou 3. Ginobili (18) 2. Parker (31) 1. Duncan (28)
Parker: 31 (Three 1sts, Five 2nds, One 3rd)
Duncan: 28 (Four 1sts, One 2nd, Five 3rds)
Ginobili: 18 (Two 1sts, One 2nd, Five 3rds)
Green: 18 (Three 1sts, One 2nd)
Leonard: 17 (Three 1sts, Two 3rds)
Diaw: 13 (Four 2nds, One 3rd)
Belinelli: 11 (One 1st, Two 2nds)
Mills: 9 (One 1st , One 2nd, One 3rd)
Splitter: 7 (Two 2nds, One 3rd)
Joseph: 1 (One 3rd)
So congrats to Parker, the Spurs MVP for November, though Duncan came on strong down the stretch.