The Spurs have gone 14-3 to open the post Tim Duncan era, including a 10-0 road start matched only in league history by several championship winning teams and last year’s 73-9 Warriors squad. Kawhi Leonard has played a major role in achieving this early success, and San Antonio’s retooled bench and back line defense are getting the job done. The Kawhi Leonard era is young, but there are a few distinct trends that are worth watching for the rest of the year.
1. Kawhi Leonard Pick and Rolls
Leonard has very quietly become one of the league’s best pick and roll scorers. After the preseason, it was clear that Leonard worked on this part of his game over the summer, and he has continued to dominate with this style of attack through the first 15 games.
He leads all players with more than 90 possessions as the pick and roll ball handler with 1.16 points per possession, a stat mostly dominated by guards like DeMar DeRozan and James Harden. Leonard only goes to the pick and roll 25 percent of the time, showing a more well rounded attacking style than other leaders in this category like Kemba Walker (53%) and Damian Lillard (39%).
Efficiency has always been the name of Kawhi’s offensive game, and his play as the pick and roll ball handler is no different. He keeps turnovers low, shoots 53 percent, and gets to the free throw line 20 percent of the time.
Leonard’s patience and passing out of the pick and roll is impressive, especially for a small forward. He has shown a keen ability to read the defense and find the best scoring option, taking advantage of one-on-one opportunities and hitting the open man when he occupies multiple defenders. Sometimes he freezes the big with a pump fake and bounces it to the diving roll man. Sometimes he hits an open shooter for a spot up three.
With Tony Parker back, Kawhi doesn’t have to run the offense quite as much as he did in the first few games of the season. It will be interesting to watch how that dynamic works as the season progresses.
2. Rim Protection
Contrary to popular belief, the Spurs have actually been excellent at defending the rim despite the replacement of an all-time great rim protector with Pau Gasol. San Antonio is ranked third in the league in rim protection percentage, behind only the Warriors and Hassan Whiteside’s Heat. San Antonio has also held opponents to lowest number of contested makes at the rim, and they rank fifth in blocks per game.
How is this possible? Dewayne Dedmon has certainly helped the cause, as the athletic seven footer has limited opponents to 32 percent at the rim. Former Spur Boban Marjanovic leads the league at 12 percent, but let’s not go there. LaMarcus Aldridge has more than held his own as well, limiting opponents to 39 percent.
Gasol has been the weak link, giving up 51 percent, and opponents have attacked him more than any other Spur. On the bright side, he has a team-high 20 blocks. Much of Gasol’s defense is positional, and as he gets more comfortable playing with Aldridge in the system, his numbers should improve.
3. The Juice
The Spurs bench has been solid this season. Contract year edition Patty Mills has been scoring very effectively, and Davis Bertans has impressed on both ends in limited minutes. David Lee’s solid start on both ends has been a pleasant surprise, and Dewayne Dedmon is proving himself to be a more than capable rim protector and roll man.
However, the most exciting member of that bench unit is undeniably Jonathon “Juice” Simmons. He treats an open lane to the basket like a fighter jet treats the deck of an aircraft carrier. He takes flight as if propelled by a catapult and turbines, and when he reaches his apex, he attempts to launch ball through the floor underneath the basket like a bunker busting missile.
Simmons isn’t your typical fundamentals-only Spur, and that’s what makes him so much fun to watch. He flies high, and he punctuated the season-opening win over Golden State by dousing JaVale McGee in gasoline and setting him on fire. He brings energy every night, and when he steps on the court, it’s appointment television.
4. The Kawhi Steal & Slam™
Steph Curry has the pull-up three in transition. LeBron James has the chasedown block. DeAndre Jordan has the missed free throw. Kawhi Leonard’s signature play is turning a steal on one end into a tomahawk dunk at the other. He does so many things well, but this is the one play that perfectly displays what makes him a dominant player.
A few factors make the Kawhi Steal & Slam™ special. The first being raw power. When Leonard decides that he’s going to take a guy’s cookies and dunk, the ball handler is completely helpless. They can be holding it with two hands like a running back at the goal line, but the so-called “system player” imposes his will.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the best ball handler in the world; when number two in silver and black wants your ball he’s taking it, and taking it to the house.
The other reason it’s special is the frequency with which Leonard does it. It seems that every game Kawhi victimizes somebody on his signature play, often multiple times per game. Just look what he did to Ben McLemore on consecutive possessions earlier this season. Neither resulted in a dunk, but he still got his points.
I doubt Leonard has actually trademarked Kawhi Steal & Slam, but he should. Nobody else should be allowed to do it. Maybe he doesn’t have to because he knows that nobody can do it like he does.