The San Antonio Spurs have found early success in the 2016-17 season, opening with a convincing win over Golden State and getting out to an 8-3 record. Their three losses came at home against Western Conference foes who scored big in the first quarter. Utah dropped 38, the Los Angeles Clippers 39 and the Houston Rockets 33 in their respective wins. As key players return from injury and this new group develops chemistry, there is still room to grow for this Spurs team.
Kawhi Leonard: Alpha
The biggest story about the Spurs so far is the emergence of Leonard as the team’s leader on both ends of the floor. Vegas thinks he’s the favorite to win his third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award, and now he’s a primary scorer and ball handler with a devastating skillset. He’s so dominant that he has morphed San Antonio’s system of constant ball movement into something less subtly beautiful and more awesomely powerful.
San Antonio has had several close games this year, and Kawhi drove them down the stretch in each one of them. In the past, the Spurs have been lauded for their focus on creating shots unselfishly in a motion offense, but we’re seeing less of that. When the game is on the line, Leonard has the ball in his massive hands. He slows the game down, says something to the effect of, ‘set a pick’ or ‘get out of the way,’ and then chooses how to break down the defense and put points on the board.
Kawhi can shoot from anywhere, he can drive on anyone, he can score at will and he can get to the free throw line simply by being better. A rare combination of size, strength and skill makes him a matchup nightmare; too big for most guards and too fast for most forwards. His shot selection is aggressive and effective, even though it includes pull up mid-range jumpers with a hand in his face. It’s fine with his coaches and teammates because he hits the shots. He is the Alpha when he steps on the floor, and that much is clear when he takes it to the rack.
Defense was a calling card for the Spurs last year as they led the league in defensive efficiency, but it has been a question mark this season. Tim Duncan’s retirement will obviously hurt the Spurs paint defense, but Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dewayne Dedmon and David Lee have all stepped up admirably in his absence. Duncan’s presence can’t be replaced, but these guys are physical and usually in the right place at the right time.
Plus, the 11 game sample is a bit skewed toward teams that get a high percentage of their points in the paint. San Antonio faced DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, the Clippers, Hassan Whiteside twice, Rudy Gobert twice, and the Rockets twice. That should be a tough stretch, but the Spurs have averaged the third fewest opponent points in the paint per game so far.
San Antonio is also holding opponents to 31% from beyond the arc, the third best mark in the league. Despite this, they have given up an average number of 3 point makes because opponents have shot a high volume of attempts. Time will tell if that’s more about the Spurs or their opponents, but Danny Green will probably be running some of those shooters off the line now that he’s returned from injury.
The Spurs have the second highest 3-point percentage in the league at 39%, but they’ve done it on the third fewest attempts. Many of the long range shots come in transition or before the defense is set, as Leonard and Patty Mills run fast breaks looking for three. Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge have been shooting more and more open 3-pointers in the flow of the offense, which helps San Antonio spread the floor and punish defenses for helping in the paint.
Leonard shot 44% last year taking mostly uncontested 3’s, and this year he’s draining 28 footers with a hand in his face. He started the season a bit cold from downtown, but his shooting percentage has crept up to 41%. The Spurs stand to get even better from distance if Leonard gets hot, and the return of the sharpshooting Green certainly won’t hurt.
Despite three tough losses at home early in the season, the Spurs are on the right track. Leonard is a beast on both ends of the floor, and he is leading the Spurs to victories in close games. Gasol and Aldridge have been adequate rim protectors thus far against stiff competition, and they should improve on both ends as they grow more comfortable playing with each other. San Antonio is getting healthy and building chemistry with their new pieces, and the new ways the old pieces fit. It’s a process of continual improvement, and Coach Popovich will be tinkering all year until the machine runs at peak performance.