At the start of the regular season, PtR Editor-in-Chief, Head Honcho and All Around Good Guy J.R. Wilco asked me to apply my coaching experience to talk about ways the Spurs could fulfill their goal of featuring Kawhi Leonard in the Spurs' offense.
My piece was written right at the start of the season, October 30, 2014 - which seems like years ago. If not years ago, October 30, 2014 certainly feels like several seasons ago. The first season was "Everybody is injured, calm down everyone, this doesn't tell us anything". The second season was "Wait, everybody is back, why aren't we playing better?" The third season was "Ah, these are The Spurs - watch out world!". The fourth season was a one game season that happened Wednesday night against the Pelicans, best described as "What just happened?"
After all that, the Spurs wind up a 6 seed needing to win three series on the road just to get to the Finals. The silver lining, as noted here earlier - Spurs would have home court against the Cavs in the Finals. (As would the other top 6 Western Conference teams except Portland.)
Anyway, back to the theme of this piece. How accurate were my thoughts about different ways to feature Kawhi?
From the October 30 piece:
Under the caption entitled "MORE PLAYING TIME", I noted that Kawhi averaged only 29 minutes per game the previous season. I wrote:
"Perhaps the Spurs could bump up 23-year old Kawhi's minutes to what 53-year old Dirk Nowitzki played for the Mavs last year -- 33 minutes per game. Note that Kawhi averaged 32 minutes in the playoffs last year, against top competition. As you may recall, he did just fine."
Kawhi did in in fact play more minutes this season. He averaged just under 32 minutes per game, the most on the team. This average includes the early games when he was working his way back into shape or recovering from injuries, and many later games when he didn't need to play as many minutes because the Spurs were dominating their opponents. I think I got this one right - Kawhi spent more time on the floor, and that was a good thing. Side note: 54-year old Dirk Nowitski averaged about 29 minutes per game this season.
In the October 30 piece, under the caption "MORE RUN WITH THE SECOND UNIT", I wrote:
"If Kawhi sees more time with the reserves, some of those additional scoring and creating opportunities will be his -- and they may come against the lesser defenders that populate most teams' bench units. Further, while on the second unit, the Spurs could put him in the post more, especially if paired with Boris Diaw and/or Matt Bonner - giving him "close to the basket" opportunities not available when Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter are on the floor with him."
The fact that Kawhi led the Spurs in minutes played necessarily meant that he spent more time with the second unit. Moreover, the many games missed by Tony Parker and Tioga Splitter meant two things. First, without the Oui Frenchman dominating the ball, Kawhi had more opportunities to have the ball in his hands instead of Parkers'. Second, without Splitter on the floor, there was more space around the hoop to operate. However, Kawhi's most dominant stretch came in the last third of the season, when both Parker and Splitter were healthy, and often while all three were on the floor together. So while Kawhi did get somewhat more run with the second unit, this was not a major factor in making Kawhi the focus of the offense.
My October 30 piece suggested, under the caption "LOBS", that the Spurs might throw Kawhi some lob passes. I wrote
"The other team in L.A., the Clippers, will likely be the Spurs' primary competition in the West.... The Clippers throw more lobs than anyone in the league and I believe the Spurs throw the least."
Perhaps I was overly excited about this play from the Finals. It turns out that Pop's distaste for the lob pass remained strong, and the lob pass did not become part of the Spurs offense. Except this once against the evil Rockets...
However, I was arguably right about one thing. If we loosely define the word "primary" as meaning "first", the Clippers are in fact the "first" team the Spurs must get through to get back to the Final.
Being in L.A., I am also able to see the other side of the coin. Those of us who live and die with the Silver and Black are understandably distressed by the sudden fall from the 2nd seed to 6th. We are equally unhappy about facing a strong Clipper squad instead of the faded Mavs. But imagine how the Clipper fan base feels. Actually, you don't need to imagine it. This is from the Thursday morning Los Angeles Times:
"The Clippers might have nearly choked on their appetizers Wednesday evening when they sat down for a team dinner and contemplated the San Antonio Spurs trailing by 23 points in their regular season finale.... When it comes to the teams' playoff pedigree, it's no contest. San Antonio has advanced to the Western Conference Finals or NBA Finals in 9 of the last 16 seasons; the Clippers have never made it past the second round in their 45 years of existence."
So, Spurs Nation, don't stress too much about the Spurs playing the Clippers. The Clippers are really stressing about having to play the Spurs.
Back to my October 30 piece about Kawhi:
"[I]t will be interesting to see if Kawhi worked this past summer on adding some post moves, and a counter. For instance, he was shooting an MJ-esque turn-around from the post in the preseason. Most great wing players, from Jordan to Kobe to Lebron, developed a post-up game as they matured. (This includes both scoring from the post, and passing out of the post after defenders are forced to double.) Kawhi should, and probably will, do the same."
Kawhi in fact developed into a very effective post-up player. Interestingly, he seemed most effective in the 10 to 12 foot range where he could either face up and attack, or back his man down and jump over the defender. Most encouraging of all was Kawhi's passing out of the post, making the defense pay whether they tried to defend him one-on-one or by doubling. Combined with all his other offensive skills, Kawhi's transition to an effective post-up player, whether scoring the ball himself or passing out of the double-team, made me confident that Kawhi can indeed be the focal point of a good NBA offense.
My last point in the October 30 piece, entitled "ATTITUDE":
"Part of what makes a player great is the attitude that he is the best player on the floor. Kawhi already has that attitude on the defensive end. We know he will continue to improve his individual offensive skills -- ball-handling, shooting, and passing -- and as time goes by, Kawhi's mind-set will follow."
Those of us who watched the second half of the season saw Kawhi embrace his role as the focal point in the offense. That, more than anything, is what sets great offensive players apart. Jerry West famously said that the first time he saw Kobe, he knew Kobe had "it". This year Kawhi let us know that Kawhi Leonard has "it' too.