In my last post, I discussed the lower ranked players the Spurs had in The Point Forward's top 100 list. Now let's talk about the top three. (be sure to visit The Point Forward for their full analysis)
37. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (F, 22)
2012-13 stats: 31.2 MPG, 11.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.7 SPG, 49.4 FG%, 37.4 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 16.4 PER, 6.2 Win Shares, +1.5 RAPM
Plenty of players recalibrated their reputations during the 2013 playoffs, but Leonard is right there with Stephen Curry in a two-man race for best postseason breakout. The Spurs' third-year forward is famous for rarely speaking, so we'll gladly step in to shout his credentials: 13.5 points, nine rebounds, 1.8 steals, 55 percent shooting and 39 percent three-point shooting in 21 postseason games (San Antonio went 15-6). Not enough to impress you, even though Leonard turned pro after his sophomore year at San Diego State and slipped to the middle of the first round? Leonard shot 51.3 percent and had four double-doubles in seven Finals games against the Heat, playing unflappably despite intense pressure, up-and-down offensive performances from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and the toughest defensive assignments imaginable.
How crazy is it that Leonard became a top forty player in his second season? Of the players ranked ahead of him, only Kyrie Irving is younger. Only Andre Iguodala, Paul Pierce, Paul George, Kevin Durant and Lebron James are ahead of him at small forward. Pierce is going to decline soon and Kawhi will surely leapfrog him. Iguodala will likely become Stephen Curry's second banana and it doesn't look like guys like Jimmy Butler, Harrison Barnes and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will catch up any time soon. Even if Andrew Wiggins ends up being the huge star he is projected to be, Kawhi has a realistic chance to be in the top five in his position in the next few years. We couldn't have asked for a better bridge into the post Duncan future. If only a couple of things go well, Leonard could make this ranking seem awfully low next season.
6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs (C, 37)
2012-13 stats: 30.1 MPG, 17.8 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.7 APG, 2.7 BPG, 50.2 FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 24.4 PER, 8.3 Win Shares, +7.3 RAPM
Let's talk about 2013, a season in which Duncan was the league's best big man, period. Duncan was the most important player on the NBA's third-rated defense and the second-leading scorer on the No. 7 offense. He earned All-NBA First Team, All-Defensive Second Team, and All-Star honors, and he finished sixth in Defensive Player of the Year voting. His PER ranked No. 6 in the league, his RAPM ranked fourth in the league, his individual defensive rating led the league, he boasted a gaudy +10.5 net rating (among the very best in the league), and he registered more blocks (183) than fouls (117). The only player to post a PER as high as Duncan's at this age was Karl Malone. Then, Duncan averaged 18.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks as he led San Antonio to a 15- 6 postseason record. In case you somehow forgot, he put up a whopping 30/17 Game 6 of the Finals, a stat line that only Shaquille O'Neal has matched in a Finals game since 1986. Duncan came within 5.2 seconds of his fifth NBA title and his fourth Finals MVP award. Let's say that again for emphasis: he came within about six inches on one Ray Allen three-pointer of beating out a 28-year-old, top-of-the-world LeBron James for Finals MVP. That's why you were asked to stand up and applaud at the opening of this section. (By the way, it's cool to sit down now.)
As Goliver notes in this first part of his comment, Duncan is the highest ranked big man this time around after ranking 23rd in the league and 11th among big men the season before. He had the type of year you don't expect a player on the wrong side of thirty to have and the best part is it seems completely sustainable.
Duncan used his jumper a lot during the regular season and had others create for him, which reduced the wear and tear on the knee he's been nursing since before the current millennium even dawned. He stood back on defense, using his length and timing to protect the rim at an elite level while Tiago Splitter ran around guarding perimeter-oriented players or banging with the beasts in the post. He only took over when it was needed, preferring instead to do the little things the Spurs need from their defensive stalwart. And then when the team needed him to pull the offensive load in the playoffs, he answered the call.
The fear of every Spurs fan is to see the day when the wheels fall off, as Tim would say. I don't know if he will be a top ten player in the league next season but the way his role has changed and how he is utilized makes me confident about his chances of retiring in a couple of years while he's still one of the best big men in the league.
4. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs (G, 31)
2012-13 stats: 32.9 MPG, 20.3 PPG, 7.6 APG, 3 RPG, 52.2 FG%, 35.3 3FG%
2012-13 advanced stats: 23 PER, 9.3 Win Shares, +3.3 RAPM
Unintentionally, Parker's relative ranking here mirrors the results of the 2013 MVP voting. Parker finished sixth on that ballot, one spot ahead of Duncan, and second to Paul among point guards. This ranking might not please everyone but it does seem fair. Parker was the leading scorer and the leading assist man on an offense that has ranked No. 7 in 2013, No. 2 during the 2013 playoffs, No. 1 in 2012 and No. 2 during the 2012 playoffs. His quickness, poise, decision-making, natural distribution instincts, and his ability to get to the hoop seemingly at will combine to make him the engine behind San Antonio's spectacular attack. During the Spurs' 2013 run to the Finals, Parker beat the Warriors with his scoring (32 points in a key Game 3 win on the road), he beat the Grizzlies with both his passing (18 assists in a Game 2 win) and his scoring (37 points in a closeout Game 4 on the road), and he beat the Heat with pure ingenuity (his magical Game 1 winner). Parker's shaky health during the Finals is one of the many laments that San Antonio fans were left with following the soul-crushing series defeat. If Parker delivers an "A" night in either Game 6 or Game 7, the Spurs go back to Texas as champions.
Tony Parker earned this. Parker was an afterthought on the "who is the best PG in the league" conversation for years. He was considered the third best player on the Spurs as recently as 2011. He was the redheaded stepchild of Spurs fandom for a long time, and as an Argentine I have vivid memories of yelling at him because he wouldn't pass the ball to Manu. A lot of people thought the Spurs should trade him before he inevitably bolted to New York. His...extracurricular activities didn't exactly endear him to fans. But he quietly became one of the best players in the league and got his dues this past season.
Being behind a fellow future Hall of Famer like Chris Paul is no insult, as long as there is an actual debate on who is better. Can he stay at this level next season? Speedy point guards don't age well -- conventional wisdom tells us -- but Parker has evolved past that. His knowledge of the game and his mastery of rhythm and timing go past his speed. He might not be a lock to remain a top five guy, but I'm much more comfortable with the Spurs chances next season, not to mention the post Duncan future, with this version of Parker at the helm.
So what you think, Pounders? Are the Spurs ranked accurately?
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