Kawhi Not?

Last season in San Antonio had the etchings of another peaceful transfer of power from one franchise player to the other.

The baton, in many ways, was passed from Tony Parker to Kawhi Leonard. After all, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year was already the Spurs’ most important player from the two seasons prior. But even amongst a culture of sharing, San Antonio needed Leonard to assume the ‘best player’ mantle. In other words: Tim, Tony and Manu needed him to do more than just devour shaky handles and orchestrate the occasional pick-and-roll on offense.

There were times last season when Leonard negotiated double teams in the post, attacked with dynamism and smarts, and speared the team’s offense in the gut-check moments. The Spurs machine grew rickety without him. And when Gregg Popovich slid Kawhi to the four, they damn near returned to 2014 Finals levels of scary. Heck, he was probably involved in the regular season’s most memorable wind-back-the-clock junk-yard duel with LeBron James.

A matchup with the Clippers – who were bereft of a legitimate starting small forward – in the first round of the playoffs, seemed like a fine tonic for Kawhi’s declaration of superstardom. But there was Tim Duncan, slapping bums, blocking shots, hurling fall-away flick shots from the elbows, and nailing clutch free throws. Not Leonard. If Duncan had a second leg, he’d probably have snuffed Chris Paul’s all-time shot, and carried his team through another playoff round, yet again. This wasn’t exactly the script we expected after watching Kawhi squeeze the life out of any fool dribbling a basketball down the stretch of the regular season.

A star’s flaws become intensely magnified when he first moves into office. Every short-armed jumper in the game’s final minutes feeds the hot take fiend. You can’t escape it. Even in the Alamo City.

Every prime contender has a built-in window, and almost always, you know what it is. And yet, we’ve all given up predicting when the Spurs’ window might slam shut. The ‘’disease of more’’, poor coaching and bungling front office moves barely seem to pollute San Antonio’s air.

Even still, that seven game brawl against the Clips revealed a stark truth: the Spurs can’t ascend without Leonard owning both ends of the floor. Too many possessions ended with Kawhi deferring and not exploiting the overmatched Matt Barnes. It felt as if he could blow past or bully LA on any possession. But he didn’t.

This season, how the Spurs have meshed Aldridge, and to a lesser extent, David West, in its offense has been fascinating. Between LMA, West, Duncan, Boris Diaw and Kawhi, San Antonio can mix and match in the front court. Opposing defences are happy to flat-out ignore big guys who can’t shoot or post up but San Antonio boasts none of those dopes. And perhaps this is why the Spurs’ decision to reset its offense to the days of 2005 as a Golden State Solution is both ballsy and smart. They’re ranked 26th in pace at 93.2, which marks a 16 spot drop off from its 2013-14 championship season. The very best option, of course, is sliding LMA at center (a positon he isn’t particularly keen to play) and Leonard at power forward, especially for when the Warriors suicide squad eventually comes to town.

On a side note: Can the Spurs really counter Golden State’s death line up with the Aldridge and Duncan pairing? Manhandling foes in the low block and banking the two points is all well and good until your slow-footedness concedes an immediate triple on the other end. We’ll know a little more on January 25th at Oracle Arena when the two rivals meet for the first time… Actually, toss that thought. Pop’s likely to “DNP-Old” Duncan and start Ray freaking McCallum instead. He’ll probably make us wait another three bloody months. Crap.

Aldridge’s defensive frailties were overplayed in Portland, and so was Tiago Splitter’s exit. Bottom line: The Spurs are sculpting the best defense of the three-ball era (91.8 Defensive Rating) despite its star free agent acquisition still acclimating.

Most envisioned a slight variation in the beautiful game this season. After all, an identity shift was inevitable with a thinning of three-point bombers and an arrival of midrange savants. Their offense has never been all that complicated, but inserting a high volume shooter in the starting line-up and transitioning total creative authority to a rising superstar tends to murky the waters.

But a funny thing has happened. Kawhi’s emergence, and not LMA’s ball stopping tendencies, has left the more decisive mark on the offense. Indeed, the wave of gorgeous passing lingers, but the Spurs have made a deliberate attempt to seek out Leonard in the post, where he’s trailing only Kevin Love as the league’s most efficient scorer.

Aldridge, on the other hand, has slithered in and out of the offensive lens, sometimes (especially in the first month of the season) twiddling his fingers off the ball, along the baseline. Nearly two thirds of LMA’s shots have come in under two seconds this season compared to last year’s 49.5 percent. Heck, he launched 54.9 percent of his shots off one dribble last season. Now it’s 60 percent without a dribble. Of course, this is mostly about the adaptation process and his attempt to harness Spursean values. Simply: PEAK SPURS.

Aldridge will grow more comfortable and frisky as he munches deeper into the Spurs’ playbook. Even so, Kawhi is San Antonio’s shape shifter in the long haul. LaMarcus could be the Draymond cooler, but Leonard’s ability to devastate defenses from beyond the arc, in-between the lines and deep inside the paint renders him the linchpin to the Spurs’ reshuffled offense.

Remarkably, the fifth year pro is scratching the surface of a 50-50-90 season while boasting the highest usage rate of any Spur (25 percent). This is advanced, elite level stuff from a guy who coughed up this shot chart in his final year of college:

The Spurs have worked to leverage Leonard’s expanding game by drilling him in spot-up situations, which end in catch-and-shoot or catch-and-drive plays 25 percent of the time. This is a subtle change in his diet of shots compared to the last season or two. Unpredictability is important, and he’s developed it in spades. No longer just a mean post-bully, he can muscle his way in the paint with a nice change-of-pace game.

The Spurs know how to win, but no team – including the five time champs – yet know how to beat Stephen Curry’s mob. The West was supposed to be its deepest version ever and the East’s feel-good stories from last year – Washington and Atlanta – have drifted into a drab state. We can partly blame the Dubs for this. They violently whipped ill-equipped teams into a small ball obsession. To quote the philosopher Metta World Peace, the NBA are “horny” for threes and small ball. Yet, very few can do it well.

Hell, Pop might be on to something: plod while everyone else guns. Or he might have sunk one too many red wines. All we know is that Kawhi needs to be monstrously good for San Antonio to challenge the champs or even fend off Oklahoma City. They have a formula – a sort of throwback to the Spurs of old – and now The Claw might just be the solution.

Kawhi not?


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