After the Spurs' rout of the Timberwolves, Gregg Popovich was asked about his team's recent penchant for thievery. San Antonio racked up 13 steals against a youthful Minnesota squad, had a season-high 15 swipes the previous Sunday against the Bulls, and tallied 13 thefts against the Kings.
"You mean Kawhi Leonard," he corrected good-naturedly, before adding, "He's done a fine job."
When thinking of Leonard's defense, it's the steals that lead to coast-to-coast dunks that leap to the mind's eye. Those plays change momentum, get the fans out of their seats, and are a significant part of Leonard's appeal, but their true value is in the way they affect both defense and offense. Nothing swings variance as wildly as a live turnover. No offense, not even the 1992 Dream Team's, is as efficient as the average NBA team's 2-on-1 fast break.
Phil Jackson realized this with the early 90's Bulls. Their "Triangle Offense" got all the publicity, but what made them deadly was the way Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen (with Horace Grant behind them hedging and recovering) could wreck people on the perimeter with their quickness and length, snatching the ball away and turning it into easy points. The Miami Heat had similar success with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. A turnover against them was guaranteed death. No matter how their half-court offense sputtered and stalled at times, the Heat had their defense to rely upon.
Miami ranked at or near the very top of the league in offensive efficiency the past three seasons, but has anyone separated what they did in the half-court from the points their defense generated? In turnovers forced per game, they ranked third in 2012, fifth in 2013 and second in 2014. Considering how deadly James and Wade were together in the open court, those turnovers gave their offense a huge boost.
Leonard has been on a tear of late, averaging 2.7 steals a game in March, and his season average of 2.2 leads the league. And he's getting better at it as he gains experience and learns opponents' tendencies. Having Tiago Splitter back in the starting lineup alongside Tim Duncan only emboldens him further.
After matching his career-high with five steals against the Raptors, Leonard talked about how his steals kick-start his offense, "Each game I'm just going out there with the focus defensively, letting my game fall into place."
It's hard to overstate how destructive the Spurs starting five of Splitter, Duncan, Leonard, Danny Green and Tony Parker have been since reuniting. They have a net rating of 24.2 over 160 minutes (116.9 offensive, 92.8 defensive) overall according to NBA.com's stats database. The numbers are even more staggering since Feb. 26, with a 132.0 offensive rating and 92.7 defensive rating over 95 minutes according to NBAWowy.com.
The Spurs have traditionally been a defensively conservative team, preferring to clog the paint, deny threes and concede low-efficiency mid-range jumpers. This season, through Leonard's hot streak, they've risen to 13th in steals at 7.8 per game and consequently shot up in pace as well, to middle-of-the-pack 17th after sinking as low as 22nd at the season's midway point. They're also in the top ten in offensive rating now after slumping to 13th in February. Duncan has become a believer in how a more aggressive approach can flip games.
"We need to create those turnovers and obviously Kawhi is a big part of that, getting in those passing lanes. But all of us [forcing] turnovers, blocking shots, getting steals, those are things that we haven't done well in the past but it's a huge help for us because it gives us some extra possessions and we can turn those into points really easily," said Duncan after the win over Minnesota.
Manu Ginobili has been the Spurs chief improviser the past dozen years, and Popovich often uses the anecdote about deciding, late in Ginobili's rookie season, to stop screaming at him. As the story goes, Pop demanded to know what the heck was the matter with him, and Ginobili responded "I am Manu. This is what I do."
Supposedly from that point forward Popovich decided to just let him do his thing because he figured if he couldn't control Ginobili, then other teams couldn't game plan for him either.
Perhaps Leonard has earned that kind of trust from Popovich on the other end of the floor, the freedom to improvise and break game plans as he sees fit. "There's probably some truth to that," Popovich conceded. "When a coach says he stopped coaching somebody that's basically a lie, but you do need to close the lips once in a while, let the players go, let them play. With Manu it's more on offense because he's a winner, with Kawhi defensively, he's got great instincts, and letting him roll with that is almost always a positive thing."
The latest evolution of Leonard's game has been the way he's learned to turn his steals into points for others and not just himself. Passing on the move was his biggest weakness early in his career, but he's improving, both in half-court situations and in transition, as we see in these two plays against the T-Wolves:
In the first play, once Leonard's path to the rim is cut off, he feeds Green with a perfectly weighted bounce-pass, In the second, he makes a quick outlet over to Green to initiate the break. They're far more efficient plays than the 1-on-3 forays to the rim he used to force after steals.
"Just trying to go out there and put my hands on the game and give my team energy," Leonard said after the Toronto game. Whether the pun was intended or not, the idea of a fully-confident Leonard given license by Pop to do anything he pleases has to be terrifying for the rest of the league.