Through his first three seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, Kawhi Leonard has displayed a steep learning curve that has pushed the boundaries of his more limited role behind incumbent stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
From unexpectedly showing up post lockout with a full-fledged NBA three-pointer, built from scratch over the course of just a few months, to acquitting himself better than anyone could have reasonably expected against LeBron James in the NBA Finals, Leonard continues to expand his game to depths that increasingly validate coach Gregg Popovich’s “face of the franchise” predictions.
Promising as he has been, Leonard’s development is still a long road away from reaching such lofty expectations. Standing across from Leonard in a New York Knicks jersey tonight, Carmelo Anthony is more than the face of his franchise, he’s been a prominent face of the NBA.
Having entered the NBA alongside LeBron James advertised as a ready-made rival–a Bird to James’ Magic–Carmelo Anthony has somehow both realized the promise of his immense talent, and still undeniably under whelmed.
That statement isn’t an indictment of Anthony’s game falling short of such grand projections coming out of college, or the prognosticators that made them. Anthony is, in fact, one of the premier scorers to have ever played in the NBA; a bona fide superstar. But much has changed about our understanding of basketball since 2003. Hell, the game itself is vastly different.
A combination of rule changes, two new collective bargaining agreements, and the incorporation of analytics into everyday NBA life have shifted basketball values. Individually, Anthony is easily a better player than Leonard right now. Given the evolution of the NBA’s values, however, a reasonable case can be made for Leonard over Anthony.
Basketball, more than most other sports, is a game of limited resources. Once you get past the NBA’s salary cap and punitive luxury tax versus Major League Baseball’s blank check payroll system and the NFL’s non-guaranteed contracts, basketball is still just five players against five players operating simultaneously with just one ball.
NBA rosters don’t run deep, consisting of just 12-to-15 players. This shallow pool of talent coaches have to construct lineups from don’t allow for highly specialized roles you see in baseball with setup men, closers, pinch runners, or designated hitters, or football with linemen, receivers, kickers, and third down backs and so on. Imagine an offensive lineman having to drop back in coverage against a 4.4 wide receiver, or a designated hitter on the mound.
There is no division of labor between offense and defense in basketball, just five players on each team shifting roles with each bounce of the ball. Every player has some responsibility to contributing in each facet of the game, and playing a ‘specialist’ with a narrowly defined skill set in basketball comes at a significant cost everywhere outside that skill set.
Understanding these limited resources, efficiency over extravagance has carried the day in today’s NBA. Basketball may be art and improvisation, but it’s now evaluated on spreadsheets, where every aspect of the game is about return on investment.
Rookie contracts provide the most talent at the cheapest pay, therefore draft picks are the most valuable commodities. Three-pointers provide an extra point at similar shooting percentages to long two-pointers, and lay-ups finished at the highest percentages, so smart teams have adjusted their shot charts to move away from everything in between.
If efficiency is the quest of general managers, consider elite players their holy grail. There are so many different nuances to offense (shot creation, passing, shooting/spacing, screen-setting, cutting, finishing, etc.) and defense (length, lateral quickness, rim protection, rebounding, and many more less quantifiable things), that finding combinations of five players that cover all these basis are difficult.
If finding five players to cover all these basis can be difficult, then employing just one player that can provide a multitude of them is a huge advantage. Franchise players on max contracts take up a significant portion of the salary cap, but filling so many different resources through just one roster spot allows general managers and coaches much more freedom in filling in the gaps.
Tim Duncan wasn’t a franchise player because he put up staggering scoring, rebounding, or blocks numbers (though his statistics do hold up well). What made him perhaps the most important player between the Michael Jordan and LeBron James eras was his ability to anchor both sides of the ball. Limited players thrived next to Duncan because his ability to fill in the gaps. Able offenses were constructed out of nothing but Duncan and three-to-four standstill shooters. Elite defenses were constructed utilizing players like Brent Barry, Steve Smith, Steve Kerr, Hedo Turkoglu, and Michael Finley.
LeBron James isn’t the best player in the world because he’s a significantly better scorer than Anthony or Kevin Durant, or a markedly better defender than Paul George or Roy Hibbert. He’s perhaps the best player since Michael Jordan because his ability to provide every resource a team needs from just one spot on the court.
Where teams can start getting in trouble is when they start spending significant resources on players that can dominate, but only in very narrow scopes. Players like Carmelo Anthony.
It’s hard to argue that Anthony isn’t worth his salary, or blame him for all of his team’s flaws. But that doesn’t mean he should be extricated from blame. Somewhere out there is a championship contending team that features Anthony as its best player, but it’s a roster whose framework is so specific that the margin of error is too small for most front offices to put it together.
Carmelo Anthony is effective at what he does, one of the best, but he consumes a lot of resources in the process. The usage rates are high, the efficiency middling, and the limitations apparent. While Anthony bends defenses via the threat of his own offense, making it easier for teammates to operate, he isn’t much of a playmaker himself. In that hypothetical championship team mentioned, a steady playmaker is essential.
Because Anthony uses so many possessions, that playmaker would have to be very efficient in limited touches. Because Anthony occupies prime real estate along the blocks and elbows (another resource he consumes) that playmaker would have to work within those spacing confines. Little wonder that Anthony’s best team featured the last quality iteration of Chauncey Billups.
And going from that Denver Nuggets team and Marcus Camby, to last year’s Knicks team with Tyson Chandler, Anthony’s inattention to defense also necessitates elite defensive players around him. Pairing Anthony with just one other below average defender was often enough to tax Tyson Chandler beyond his abilities to compensate for Carmelo. This is significant because most of the defensive specialists in the NBA tend to me limited on the other end, and those that are capable on both ends tend to be pricey.
Anthony himself consumes a significant portion of the cap space. Seven-foot rim protection is also an expensive commodity that’s an absolute requirement next to Anthony. That leaves few financial resources available to fill in the rest of the roster with quality two-way players. Because Anthony cost the Knicks multiple draft picks, he’s also absorbed the cheapest means of finding such players.
If Carmelo Anthony consumes a vast amount of resources to produce one elite-level skill (scoring), Kawhi Leonard is his opposite. For lack of a better analogy, he’s fuel efficient. The Spurs have relatively little invested in Leonard in terms of finances, shots, or realty on the court. In return, Leonard provides spacing, rebounding, secondary scoring, sparks of rudimentary shot creation, and of course, elite defense.
The defense is especially helpful in making the case for Leonard over Anthony. Because Leonard can defend multiple positions at a high level, he allows Popovich to get creative with his lineups and field more offensively diverse units.
Is there a championship contending roster out there that would feature Leonard as its best player? Of course not. Not now, and perhaps not even in the future. But that’s hardly the point of this exercise. A championship team probably couldn’t be built around Leonard, but a competent general manager would probably find it a lot easier to build a championship team with Leonard on the roster as opposed to Anthony.
Remember, Anthony is a better player, but a championship team built around him would have to be done in a very specific way.
Leonard, on the other hand, gives a general manager endless flexibility. On his current development path, he’ll have enough self-sustained offense to operate independently of anyone a team might bring in, and is comfortable enough working off the ball to play off any type of offensive player.
Furthermore, even as Leonard moves past his rookie contract, he’s likely to sign for far less than what Carmelo Anthony will command on the open market. This frees up financial resources for the Spurs to pursue that elite talent a championship team needs; and it’s a 100 percent guarantee that Leonard will fit in seamlessly with whoever that might be.
So, no, Leonard might not ever be one of the faces of the NBA like Anthony is. But the Spurs largely aren’t either. What they are is hyper efficient, intelligent, and adaptable–things one needs to thrive in a game with such limited resources. In this manner, perhaps Leonard is the perfect future face of the Spurs after all.