Kawhi Leonard is a man of many talents. He's well-rounded in most sklll categories, and ends up doing a bit of everything throughout the season for the Spurs. He's their best perimeter defender, a coast-to-coast machine, he cleans up misses on offense and errors on defense, is a streaky spot-up shooter, and an emergency blanket ball-handler. Not to mention he does all of this with a low usage rate, and stays out of the Big 3's way.
And now, he's hurt.
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The short-handed Spurs were handed some losses last week, none bigger than the injury to Kawhi Leonard. How did it affect them in the weekly power rankings?
The biggest thing Leonard brings to the table is his ability as a defender. He has a combination of size, length, and quickness good enough so that he can guard positions 1-4 on the floor. He's always matched up against the opposing team's best perimeter player, which will be the place San Antonio will miss him the most.
Normally, if Kawhi were to be injured, or even just sitting on the bench to get a breather, Danny Green would be the one to take over his duties defensively. However, Green has been out for the past week with a similar injury to the hand as Kawhi's and looks to be out for at least 2 more weeks.
So without Leonard and Green able to check the other team's best perimeter player for at least the next two weeks, and with matchups against dominant wings such as James Harden (as well as some other decent scoring wings) looming on the horizon, what are the Spurs to do?
After the Spurs' loss to Oklahoma City on Wednesday, Paul Garcia of Project Spurs reported a glimpse of what will come on the perimeter in the absence of Leonard and Green.
"As for what type of lineups he’ll use going forward, Popovich said it’ll just depend on the matchup that opponent presents. In some instances the Spurs may play ‘small ball’, they may use a zone defense, or they could play a similar regular lineup with fill-in role players."
Those fill-in players Popovich referred to will most likely end up being a mixture consisting of Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph, and Boris Diaw if there's a bigger, more physical presence on the opposing team.
We know what the Spurs are going to get from Ginobili on the defensive end already. After so much time in the league he's worn down a bit, but is still a solid defender that will rely on his lateral quickness and wily veteran tricks to keep the opponent from scoring. On-ball, he keeps good position in front, and as we've seen before, he's one of the best in the league at drawing charges. He likes to gamble a lot, and while that's part of what makes Manu Ginobili who he is, it can also get him beat. In pick and roll, Ginobili usually slinks his way around being screened hard, and chases his man well. Again, he gambles a lot, so expect to see him try and poke some balls out from behind.
Off the ball is where Ginobili can get into trouble. His defensive IQ is high, so there aren't many problems tracking his man, but there are some problems when he's in help and guarding a spot-up shooter. He will go for steals on opponents driving to the hoop and shoot the gap to deflect a pass and leave a shooter open from time to time. If he gets too far away from a shooter, his recovery speed isn't what it used to be, so he won't always get back to his man in time, which can create a sloppy closeout that can either be shot over or blown by. With all that said though, Ginobilli is still a a plus defender, and in general, I'd expect Ginobili to start off on the best wing defender and do whatever he can to frustrate them.
The other two players you'll see guard the best outside scorers are Marco Belinelli and Cory Joseph. For Belinelli, my hope is that he only matches up with a great offensive scorer when everyone else is tired and in need of a rest. That's probably not realistic considering he's the only Spur outside of Ginobili (and the newly signed Othyus Jeffers) with a good enough combination of size and speed to match up well. But, one can hope. Seeing him guard Kevin Durant on Wednesday in the fourth quarter was almost comical, as he was either out of position, awkwardly trying to steal the ball, or some nasty combination of both.
Cory Joseph on the other hand, is a welcome choice. After Kawhi went out with his injury on Wednesday, Popovich asked Cory Joseph to take the responsibility of starting the second half against Kevin Durant, and Joseph did about the best that one could against a fire-breathing dragon. Even though Durant was about 8 inches taller, Joseph showed a great amount of tenacity in his defensive exploits, and got up in his grill whenever he had the chance. He harassed Durant until he would pick the ball up, and then get into his base when he would put up a shot. It's essentially the same tactic the Spurs used to use on Dirk Nowitzki with Bruce Bowen.
Because of the height difference, Durant was able to make some clutch shots over Joseph to put the game away. But that kind of tough, in-your-face defense is enticing to watch, It'll be nice to see how he works against lesser scorers than someone like Durant.
While Ginobili and the others will take the responsibilities when the best perimeter player is in fact on the perimeter, the Spurs will need to throw a different defender onto an opposing wing if they begin to post heavily, or if they're used as a stretch 4 in small-ball lineups. The man for that task is none other than Boris Diaw.
Diaw showed off his ability to guard big wings in the post last year in the Finals versus LeBron James and the Heat. When the Heat went to small-ball and put James on the block, it was Diaw that defended him the best when the game got physical. Diaw has a wide, steady base, and can take the punishment down low.
It's no secret that his foot speed is lacking dramatically, but Diaw has also shown that he can work in short stints against perimeter-oriented scorers if needed as well. It worked in the Finals versus James because he could sag off of him and absorb his blows as James drove to the paint. However Diaw does not have the closing speed to continuously close out well on shooters, so his time spent around the arc will have to be short-lived.
San Antonio's team defense will have to be better than it has been all year, with quick rotations and fewer mistakes to make up for lost individual talent, but it's not an impossible task. The players on the Spurs have a high enough basketball IQ to still be able to follow their schemes well enough to be able to win games.
Another area of concern for the silver and black without Leonard is rebounding. On Wednesday versus the Thnuder, that was their downfall. The Thunder are already a better rebounding team than the Spurs because of their team length, and without Splitter or Leonard on the floor, the Spurs lost the rebounding edge and gave up key second-chance buckets that left the game out of reach. The Spurs are in the middle of the pack as a rebounding team, and that is sure to go do down without their second- (Splitter) and third-leading rebounders. On defense, the Spurs have to preach getting into position after each shot, and each player boxing out so that someone can get the rebound.
On the offensive end, Leonard was the best rebounder on the team, and losing him will take a serious chunk out of their second-chance opportunities. Popovich's scheme tends to concede the rebound on offense in an effort to get back in transition defense quickly, but there is an exception when it comes to Leonard. Commonly seeing him fly down the baseline in an effort to snatch a board with his huge paws and exceptional length and athleticism is something that will be put on hold, in place of hoping Tim Duncan and Jeff Ayres can outduel their opponents for a couple extra possessions every game.
All in all, the absence of Leonard, combined with that Green and Splitter were already out spells out a good amount of trouble for the Spurs. And in the immediate future, they will face some tougher squads. To finish out the month of January, the Spurs have a three game road stretch versus Atlanta, Miami, and Houston; all of which are currently in playoff position.
After that, the schedule lightens up as the Spurs have a two game home stand against Chicago and Sacramento, and then on this season's Rodeo Road Trip, which consists of nine games this year. About halfway into the trip is when the injuries to Green and Splitter should start to heal up, and they'll prepare to return. But, for this three-game road trip before then, the Spurs will have to figure out how to play with a short roster in a hurry, or else they could find themselves losing a lot of ground in the Western Conference standings.