Seventeen games into his sixth season, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard is exactly where most NBA observers expected him to be: the primary scoring option and the best defender on a dominant, championship-aspiring team.
The Spurs are great because they share the ball, get everyone involved, and force defenses to treat everybody as a threat. With offensive talents like LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Patty Mills on the roster, Leonard hasn't been forced to carry his team a la Russell Westbrook or James Harden, but his workload this season has increased on that end of the court as Parker and Ginobili continue their age-related declines.
Leonard's usage percentage is about five points higher than it was last year—a career-best 30.5 percent, teetering around the top ten league-wide. Last year, Leonard ran pick-and-roll on a little over 13 percent of his possessions, per Synergy Sports. That number has leaped up to 24.3 percent so far this season. He's isolating more frequently, and averaging more touches and seconds per touch. He's drawing more fouls and posting a much higher assist rate in his expanded role, too. It all raises an interesting question: now that Leonard's offensive workload clearly has gone up, does that mean his defense has to go down?
According to NBA.com, opposing players' two-point shooting averages dropped by 7.2 percent whenever Leonard defended them last year. Right now, they're up 2.8 percent. Synergy Sports currently characterizes Leonard's overall defense as "below average." So should San Antonio worry?
_"_I think our players get less minutes than other players from those positions, if I'm not mistaken. So he's—I don't think he's ever gonna be worn out. I'm not gonna play him like Latrell Sprewell or something like that," Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said when I asked whether Leonard's increased usage has diminished his greatness on the other side of the ball.
"If I'm wise in time outs or giving him rest here and there, I think he can do both. And really the common denominator, the bottom line is he's getting paid to do both. So get your ass out there and do both, if you want to know the truth. If you don't want to do both, then we'll pay you $4 million. We'll pay you according to what you want to do."
The last part of Pop's response was said with a wry smile, but he's right. Players should go hard on both ends. At the same time, every athlete has a physical limit, even the NBA's two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year. There has to be a tipping point—a level where too much offense decreases defensive impact, or vice versa—but has Leonard come close to reaching his? The former Finals MVP isn't concerned quite yet.
"The Spurs coaching staff is doing a great job," Leonard said. "And players on my team: Tony is playing great defense on the point guards, starting off on them, Danny [Green], starting on the wing. So we're just interchanging and making sure that we all have energy to have an overall great performance."
Leonard is so great that him losing a step and still being the best defender in the world are not mutually exclusive propositions. But given San Antonio's change in backline defensive personnel—Gasol and David Lee are not Tim Duncan—any decrease in their best player's impact could have serious ramifications.
The Spurs are allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the floor. That number drops all the way down to 94 points per 100 possessions when he sits—an individual team low. It's also the same gap between the NBA's first and 25th defensive units. Obviously, this says more about San Antonio's awesome bench than Leonard's individual faults—of which there remain very few—but it's something to keep an eye on. (Last year, San Antonio's defense allowed a ridiculous 94.9 points per 100 possessions when Leonard played.)
Leonard ended last season ranked No. 1 at his position in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Right now he's seventh among small forwards and 38th overall. And then there's the question regarding playing time, which Popovich referenced earlier. Fourteen forwards average more minutes than Leonard's 34.2, and only eight other players in the entire league are averaging at least 32 minutes with a usage percentage above 30. Precisely none of them are asked to defend the opposing team's top scoring threat for lengthy stretches in almost every game. Down the stretch of two recent battles, Leonard had to cover Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas, two of the quickest players in basketball. San Antonio won both games.
"I would say that he's a very unique player," Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. "His ability to guard any number of positions, 1 through 4 is, you know, very, very rare. And then his ability now to not only play in pick-and-roll and play facing the basket but also post up if you have to go with smaller guys is ..."
Stevens trailed off for a moment before adding, "He's a handful, he's a problem."
Leonard's defensive metrics may be down, but they don't tell the whole story, especially without a heavy sample size. You also need to look at the tape. A vast majority of the shots Leonard has defended have gone in despite some impressive defense. For the most part, he manages to contest without fouling, and to make every inch between his backside and the rim feel earned by whoever has the ball.
Leonard still does a fantastic job tip-toeing the line between wild gamble and calculated risk. When zoned up on the weak side and responsible for two players at the same time, he'll somehow take both out of the play by cutting off the obvious passing lane and bothering the shooter all in one fluid motion.
He takes away open spot-up attempts and forces guys to put the ball on the floor; then he either slides beside them step-for-step, forces a difficult pull-up or drive into help, convinces them to pass, or steals the ball altogether.
Nobody makes his man second-guess himself more than Leonard, especially against bigs who aren't used to being guarded by athletic wings in the first place. Let us pray for Ryan Anderson:
Leonard's usage has dropped a bit since Parker and Green returned to the lineup, and there's hope he won't have to do as much heavy lifting if either Kyle Anderson or Jonathon Simmons can show their worth.
But it'd be truly remarkable if Leonard manages to win his third-straight Defensive Player of the Year trophy in a season when more playmaking tasks are dependent on him than ever before. The drop-off on defense is slight and hardly noticeable, but as a perimeter player whose team needs him on the floor, Leonard can't be as aggressive as he has been. And the grind of an 82-game slate should only magnify the issue as the season continues.
The Spurs can't rely on his greatness on both ends forever.
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