In the 2013 NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard burst on the national scene (at least for non-Spurs fans) by matching up with King James, and holding his own - and then some. For stretches of the Finals, including Games 6 and 7, he outplayed the best player in the known universe. In Game 1, he covered Lebron for 35 minutes, and did not commit a single foul. Despite the disappointing outcome of the Finals for the Spurs, Kawhi seemed poised for a break-out regular season in 2013-2014.
But Kawhi did not have a break-out year in 2013-2014, and many were disappointed. He missed a stretch of the season after breaking his hand. His points, rebounds and assists per game went from 13.7/6.9/1.8 in 2012-2013 to 15.8/7.7/2.5 in 2013-2014. Solid numbers, sure, but he wasn't going to get any all-NBA votes with them. Of course, part of that is because the Spurs system spreads the ball and the minutes, and rarely runs plays to get any particular player shots -- not even the future face of the franchise.
But Kawhi's numbers are much more impressive than at first glance. Going from 13.7 to 15.8 points per 36 minutes is a 15% increase, and the improvements in rebounds and assists were 11% and 38%. He also kept his three point shooting percentage near 38% and increased his 2 point percentage from 55% to 58%.
More importantly, Kawhi did what we used to ask our players to do each year when I was coaching. Each summer, we wanted our guys to either add a new skill or improve on an existing one. It could be increasing shooting range, improving ball handling, getting stronger, or adding a new move or counter-move. In watching the Spurs last year, I believe Kawhi vastly improved in two important skills.
Defensively, we knew from the prior year's Finals he could match up with his designated cover. Last year, he added or improved his ability to match up with whatever perimeter player was in front of him, even if it was the other team's point guard. He incorporated what I always told my players when I was coaching - the most important thing about playing defense is caring that the other team not score. In shorthand: The most important thing about defense: Caring.
This then keyed the Spurs transition defense. Kawhi's willingness and ability to match up with whomever was in front of him eliminated the need for the other perimeter players to scramble back to their man. With Kawhi, he could put up his hand to announce "I got this" and match up with the opposing point guard, especially on those occasions when Tony Parker had just finished a hard drive to the hoop and was unable to get back to the other team's point.
A small forward with the ability to match the fastest player on the opposing team is a luxury most teams don't have. Among other things, it also frees players like TP to attack the rim, or Patty Mills to fire the corner 3, knowing that someone has their back in transition. As a result, it improves both the Spurs defense and the Spurs offense.
The second skill Kawhi added was the ability to take a defensive rebound and immediately push the ball up court himself, eliminating the need for an outlet pass. This skill clearly arose from a great deal of work on his ball-handling, which allows the coaching staff to give him the freedom to get the board and go. Just as Magic Johnson and Scottie Pippen did on their championship teams, grabbing a board and pounding the rock up the middle creates great opportunities.
With Kawhi, this often led to an open 3 for the Spurs shooters sprinting ahead, a coast to coast for Kawhi, or a smooth transition into the Spurs early transition game, with the defenders scrambling to avoid their own mismatches. And memorably, in Game 5 of the Finals, it led to Kawhi pulling up and drilling the 3 to give the Spurs their first lead - that was something he clearly would not have done the year before.
So will it be another disappointing season for Kawhi? If the standard is another year of across-the-board improvement in all facets of the game, mastery of two new skills, and another NBA Finals MVP award, Spurs fans should hope for another such disappointing season from their young star.
In my next piece, I will give some ideas about ways the Spurs might expand Kawhi's role as the season goes on and he begins the transition to the lead player role. Stay tuned.