I like to read nice things about the Spurs from other news outlets. When those things are well written and from respected sources, so much the better.
After coming in 11th last year in Sports Illustrated’s admittedly subjective rankings of the NBA’s top 22%, Kawhi Leonard shoots up to number 6 -- trailing only James, Durant, Curry, Paul and Westbrook. Here’s what Ben Golliver says about him:
The back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year ranked in the 99th percentile in overall offense by Synergy Sports. Read that sentence back again so that it fully sinks in. Yes, Kawhi Leonard made another gigantic leap in 2015–16, elevating his offensive game for the fifth straight season, earning his first All-Star and All-NBA First Team selections, and launching him into the pool of perennial MVP candidates for years to come. The 25-year-old Leonard’s improvement has been maniacal: Last season, he set new career-highs in minutes, points, assists, three-point percentage, Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares, while just barely missing out on joining the vaunted 50/40/90 shooting club. Oh, yeah, he also led all perimeter players in Defensive Real Plus Minus and guided the Spurs to the fourth-stingiest defensive rating of the past decade. And, by the way, even though Tim Duncan was on one leg and headed for retirement, Leonard helped the Spurs win 67 games, four more than their previous franchise best. Honestly, this gushing can go on and on, depending on how carefully you want to read through the valedictorian’s transcript. Leonard averaged more than one point per possession in all of the following offensive scenarios last season: spot up, post-up, transition, using screens, using hand offs, cuts, putbacks, and as both the ball-handler and the roll man in pick-and-rolls. If you can invent a new method for putting the ball in the basket, Leonard will surely master it. Defensively, the drill down renders similarly pristine results. Step back from the situational breakdowns and there are still areas for potential improvement: Leonard can do more as a play-maker for others, and he didn’t exert quite enough authority during San Antonio’s last two postseasons. Odds are, he’s in a gym right now figuring out to take those next steps. While perfection might be an unattainable ideal, few if any players chase it with as much vigor and demonstrable progress as Leonard.
LaMarcus Aldridge moved up this year too, albeit just one spot up from last year’s 12, but there’s some good stuff said about him as well:
Never underestimate the composite value of a consistent shot creator who plays effective team defense. There are players ranked behind Aldridge on this list who are independently better at offense or defense. Where he distinguishes himself is in conceding so little: Aldridge is a first-option scorer who rebounds well, holds up defensively, and maximizes his possessions by avoiding turnovers. He can’t really be exploited or attacked in any consistent way and his game—by virtue of the fact that he already shoots and makes so many difficult, mid-range shots—isn’t particularly vulnerable to scheming. That immutability matters. Every team in the NBA is a blend of variables that players and coaches do their best to account for. To have a stabilizing certainty in the middle of everything makes the entire process simpler. Aldridge grants that, and in the process alleviates lesser offensive players from overstretch. The fact that he moves and contests well defensively—even if not well enough to anchor a defense himself—keeps possessions from falling apart. It’s not just Aldridge’s production that stabilizes a team but the very way that he operates. San Antonio will lean on that quality as it makes sense of a present and future without Tim Duncan. Kawhi Leonard is San Antonio’s best player. But it’s Aldridge who offers the groundwork for a franchise’s redefinition and helps stabilize the transition from one era to the next.
The bottom line with Pau is that his typical output, no matter its caveats, is genuinely special. Only other two other players (Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love) over the last decade of basketball have matched his scoring (16.5), rebounding (11), and assisting (4.1) averages in the same season. Typical bigs just don’t pass like Gasol. The league’s top rebounders don’t usually score like him, either, nor do the top scoring bigs rebound in such volume. Those box score stats don’t much account for Gasol’s limitations, though in an empirical sense they’re also largely unobjectionable. These are the facts of Pau—not without complication but also not without truth. Yet as with most in this range, Gasol can only be as effective as his circumstances allow. The wrong mix of players will crowd his space in the post or exacerbate his problems on defense. It’s a delicate balance; Gasol is functionally locked into playing center but needs a comprehensive interior defender to play alongside him. His desire to post-up also calls for a floor-stretching counterpart who can keep the lane clear. The combination of those needs makes for a difficult prescription. Building a decent team around Gasol shouldn’t be a problem. It’s building a great one that’s more of an issue, given the way his game has aged and the intersectional talent needed to bring out his best. (Last year: No. 40)
So, what do you guys thing of SI’s analysis, and how do you see Pop and company mixing everything together this year?