I know what you're thinking. "Say, it's been a week or so since I felt bad about the Spurs." Well good news for you: I'm here to change all that.
It has fallen to me, in light of J.R. Wilco's optimistic post about Kawhi Leonard's prospects, and his subsequent discussion of said post on the Phil Naessens Show, to once again wear the black hat who drops the other shoe and ralphs in your punch bowl.
A couple weeks ago Leonard engaged the media during a charity event and declared his intentions to be a perennial All-Star and even a "superstar," whatever that nebulous designation means in today's fan and media culture. He didn't say it in an egotistical way that we're accustomed to hearing from athletes, but rather in the way that any of us would answer a "Where do you see yourself in five years" question in a job interview. Obviously, it's a noble and worthy pursuit for Leonard and one that all of us would be thrilled if he could achieve.
Certainly his play in the Finals has catapulted Leonard's fame to a different level. Manu Ginobili said in a press conference in his native Argentina that Leonard was the team's best player in the series. ESPN stat guru Bradford Doolittle (if ever there was a stat guru name, it's Bradford Doolittle) projects that Leonard will be third most valuable small forward in the league next season, though in his methodology he lists both LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony as power forwards and has Kevin Durant as more than twice as valuable as Paul Pierce, the second guy on the SF list. It's an interesting column to gander at, especially if you're a fan of Ginobili, but --SPOILER ALERT-- his metrics are not kind to a certain French point guard.
Meanwhile, in JRW's column, he dropped in this tidbit at the end, indicative of the kind of access he gets because of his
incriminating pictures of important people charming personality:
I'll end with this last note. One long-time NBA coach came with his team to San Antonio this year and hung out after his interview time to talk off-the-record about a number of things. When Kawhi came up, he said that he expected Leonard to be the Spurs' best player in 2013-14. That's quite a stretch in my eyes, but the fact that it's even something that he'd say made an impact that I haven't forgotten.
All well and good.
Here's the thing though... I think it'd be pretty silly of us to put more stock in a few Finals games, as impressive as they were, than the totality of the 2012-13 season, and what the numbers showed over the course of the year is that Leonard didn't make nearly as big of a leap between his rookie season and sophomore campaign as we would've hoped.
First, the per-36 minute numbers:
Not that encouraging, is it?
The shooting percentages from the field and from downtown are virtually identical (Leonard really couldn't buy one from deep after the All-Star Break), his offensive boards dipped way down as the coaching staff put more of an emphasis on getting back in transition, and there was no real progress anywhere except at the free throw line -- where Leonard unfortunately regressed big time in the postseason crucible. His spike in scoring came from attempting one more three-pointer per game more than his rookie year and hitting half a freebie. None of the other counting stats, whether they be assists, steals or blocks, improved much at all, and Leonard even had a couple of ticks on the negative side of the ledger on turnovers.
Now, the advanced stuff...
Yeah, this is the troublesome part. Rebounding rate: Down. Steal rate: Down. Turnover rate: Up. Assist rate up, but not to a level I'm at all happy with. Most disconcerting of all, Leonard's PER actually went down his second season, and it's not like the 16.6 he posted as a rookie was world-beating. I mean, we're talking about a fellow who has a worse career PER than DeJuan Blair, for all that stat is worth.
Compare his numbers to the first years of the Big Three and it's just not a pretty picture. Tim Duncan's PER improved from 22.6 to 23.2 in his second season, and he's perhaps the worst example of the three because he nearly came to the pros as something of a finished product after four years at Wake Forest. Ginobili had a far more dramatic improvement, from a 14.7 PER as a role-playing rookie to 18.5 his second season to a full-fledged star by 2004-2005, putting up a 22.3 mark. In terms of PER anyway, Ginobili's prime extended far longer than the average fan would guess, for a full eight seasons up to his age 34 year, as he put up something between 21.7 and 24.3 each year. Tony Parker's probably the best guy to compare Leonard to because they both came into the league so young, but Parker improved his PER from 11.7 to 16.5 his second season.
Don't get me wrong, it's not like any of the three reached their full peak by their second seasons. In all three cases it took until the fifth season for them to really hit their stride (in Duncan's case to go from a superduperstar to a full-fledged All-Timer with a stratospheric PER of 27) and in terms of PER they all reached their respective summits somewhere between years six and eight. But the point is that all three had objective, quantifiable gains in their second seasons. Leonard has not.
Sorry, I wish it weren't true, but he has not, at least as far as the numbers tell us.
* * *
The argument for Leonard is that the numbers are not the be all and end all. We all remember the flashes, the blips, the subjective highlights so fresh in our mind's eye, whether it was Leonard shutting down Klay Thompson in the playoffs, that game at Chicago where he was clearly the best player on the court (on a night where the big three sat and Leonard obliterated the likes of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng) or that dunk on Mike Miller's hirsute mug.
Then there's the injury excuse, which cannot be dismissed. Not only did Leonard miss 24 games last year with a bum knee, but he was compromised to various degrees in countless other contests. The injury and missed time not only hampered his development but curtailed any plans that the coaching staff may have had as far as calling plays for him or integrating him more fully into the offense.
Which isn't to say that Leonard didn't develop at all. His post-ups looked assured and smooth. The only robotic aspect to them being how he automatically switched to "kill" mode anytime someone smaller was matched up on him. The Spurs never really ran any plays for Leonard, and he didn't actively look to score in the half court, but he was plenty aggressive in transition and when he had the mismatch.
It's easy to think that Pop will run some plays for Leonard, but really how many are we talking about over the course of a game and what end will it serve? We've still got Duncan and Parker out on the floor as starters and they're gonna get the lion's share of the opportunities. It's hard for me to fathom Leonard's field goal attempts suddenly skyrocketing from 9.3 to something like 15. Assuming that the others stay healthy, I think 12 would be on the optimistic side. As far as running plays for people, it makes more sense to run them for Danny Green than Leonard, because he's someone who can really hurt teams with an open look from three.
My real concern with Leonard, whom the consensus of Spurs fans and insiders think will be the beneficiary of all these new pick-and-rolls that Pop will call for him, is in envisioning how that will look, regardless of whether Leonard is to be the ball-handler or the roll man. In either event, I can't say I'm super confident about the result because A) Leonard's passing skills, particularly on the move, haven't developed much at all, and B) his finishing around the rim tends to be a bit wonky when he's not dunking. He's not Green-level wonky, but not nearly as proficient as Parker by any means.
Lest you jump to the conclusion that I think of Leonard as some kind of disappointment, nothing could be further from the truth. I'm ecstatic that he's come as far as he has. As an Aztec alum, I'm astonished that Leonard has passed Stephen Strasburg as the most prominent athlete out of San Diego State, something that would've been completely inconceivable back in 2010. It's certainly possible that he'll be an All-Star reserve next season, more on the strength of the memories of his Finals play than the actual numbers he'll be posting, but I'm just not ready to go there with the folks that think Leonard will eclipse Duncan and Parker's production next season (or even in two years, in Parker's case).
I can't stress enough that this article is not intended to be a slam on Leonard. I just feel this is yet another case of the pundits throwing dirt on the steady, unrelenting, uncompromising brilliance of Duncan and Parker (and to a lesser extent these days, Ginobili) because it's been there, done that with them. They're "boring" and Leonard is perceived as being ready to overtake those guys because he was the one in the frame guarding LeBron James; he was the one throwing down those huge dunks. It's fresh, it's exciting, it's new. It's everything the Spurs are not, right down to the cornrows. The Spurs have never had a player at all like Leonard since I've been following them, and I've been a fan since 1989.
However, they've never had anyone remotely like Duncan, Parker or Ginobili either, and it's worth pointing out that they're all really, really good. Still. It's no insult or shame in any sense to suggest that Leonard won't be as good as them next year and quite likely never will be. If it was easy to be in the Hall-of-Fame, there'd be no point to having one.
You may think of me as a pessimist for suggesting that Leonard will only be the third most prolific Spur next season in terms of production and perhaps fourth or fifth on the team's PER rankings. I prefer to think I'm being an optimist.
The way I see it, if Leonard does wind up leading the squad in the big stats, then, while it may be bully for him individually, something will have gone disastrously wrong with the team. So you'll excuse me if I hold off on all this "face of the franchise" stuff.
The Spurs still have a couple dudes better than Kawhi Leonard. And that's awesome.