The 5-3 Warriors are bored by their own perfect design; the 3-4 Cavaliers are coping with the imperfections of theirs. In San Antonio, the diagnosis for what ails the team is a bit clearer, even if the prognosis isn’t.
‘Team misses injured superstar’ isn’t exactly newsbreaking, but it’s where we’re at right now with the Spurs, who have regressed since starting out the season 4-0. They have a 99.7 offensive rating, rank ninth in defensive rating, and are feeling Kawhi Leonard’s absence in pretty much every way you’d expect a team would with a top-three defensive player who also sported a top-10 usage rate.
Nowhere is it illustrated better than in the team’s 2017-18 shot chart, where the pockets of low usage and low efficiency on the right side of the floor are precisely where Leonard excelled throughout last season.
Outside of the odd LaMarcus Aldridge post-up, nothing has looked easy for the Spurs’ morose offense. Replacing Tony Parker with a 21-year-old hasn’t helped, but Pop is also asking for more shot creation out of Danny Green and Kyle Anderson than they have ever given, and the team on the whole is producing a low-low rate of both open and wide open looks, according to NBA Stats. Everyone is trying to step up, but that doesn’t always mean they’re stepping in the right place.
Spurs ran the hammer play for Pop. pic.twitter.com/11GYV8sRE8— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) October 29, 2017
On the other end, Leonard splits primary defensive duties with Danny Green, while wreaking all kinds of havoc with his length and anticipation. Every defensive rotation is better when he’s sniffing out lobs and skip passes. With him gone, the team’s perimeter defense also takes a big hit, and opposing wings like Evan Fournier and Jaylen Brown have taken advantage. Andrew Wiggins, whose milkshake Leonard routinely drinks, had the best game of his career versus the Spurs in the season opener, going for 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting.
Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Indiana Pacers underscored another dynamic the team is missing: going to Leonard in the clutch. The Spurs had two cracks in the final minute to take the lead and then tie; both came up short. Here’s what Pau Gasol said after the game:
The Spurs aren't using Kawhi Leonard's absence as an excuse, but tonight's nail-biter was the first time they really missed him. Gasol: pic.twitter.com/h1YvNM3zSD— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) October 30, 2017
In a similar situation last season, against the same opponent, Leonard put the Spurs on his back and hit this turn-around jumper:
With him in uniform, the Spurs may not have been in a make-or-break situation to begin with. As it was, the offense routinely struggled to generate looks against a team missing its sole rim protector in Myles Turner, and no one outside of Green was able to score in the game’s final 4:58.
The good news? Leonard’s return should fix a lot of the Spurs’ systemic woes. The bad news? We’re still not sure when that’ll be. Here are some suggestions for what they can do in the meantime.
Get the ball to LaMarcus in space
Aldridge is fine as a primary option, but he needs help, and that starts before he gets the ball. The more action there is before the catch — whether it’s a simple cross-screen before he gets position or something more elaborate like below — the less time teams have to anticipate, react and push him off the block.
Give Brandon Paul more minutes
The 26-year-old rookie can’t spell Leonard offensively, and he’s not a Jonathon Simmons type who can get from the three-point line to the rim consistently, either. But he might be the team’s second-best (healthy) perimeter defender and is shooting the ball extremely well right now.
Against teams like the Warriors, whom the Spurs host on Thursday, Paul’s shooting and defensive versatility should be an asset.
The Aussie guard has not had it thus far -- not off the dribble, and not from long range, where he was way short on the potential equalizer against Indiana. After a 3-for-10 shooting night in Boston, he’s now under 32% from the field for the year. If his struggles continue as the sample size grows, this will probably merit a closer look.
Gay is a walking mismatch and coming along faster than most would have thought, averaging nearly 12 and 5 a game on 50% shooting. On a team with limited options for easy buckets, Gay’s ability to break defenses down should lead to quick doubles or opportunities for him to get right to the rim.