Kawhi Leonard’s strong play has been the driving force behind the San Antonio Spurs’ 26-6 start. The two way dynamo started every game of the season until Wednesday night against the woeful Phoenix Suns, as he was allegedly suffering from gastroenteritis, or a stomach bug.
I say allegedly because my mom taught me a neat trick for getting out of almost any obligation: “just say you have diarrhea, and nobody will ask any more questions.” My hunch is Kawhi and Coach Popovich know this same trick, as Leonard got a night off against the Philadelphia 76ers for the same reason last year.
Maybe Pop is using my mom’s trick to avoid a possible fine from the league office. Maybe Kawhi had too many mango habanero wings and was actually sick as a dog (like Popovich mentioned about Kawhi not being able to keep food down pregame), devastated that he could not suit up against the 9-23 Suns. This is pure speculation and we’ll never know for sure, but we do know that San Antonio was without their alpha for this game.
The Spurs missed the reigning back to back Defensive Player of the Year in the first half, as Phoenix shot 68% and took a 64-58 lead into the locker room. San Antonio was able to put the clamps on in the second half though, cruising to a 119-98 victory.
Leonard is also the Spurs’ main scorer and ball handler, so other stars stepped up to share that burden. LaMarcus Aldridge put up a game high 27 points on 10-of-12 shooting, bullying smaller defenders in the post up game.
— Project Spurs (@projectspurs) December 29, 2016
The real story of the night, though, was the play of Tony Parker. He did something he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to do while sharing the floor with one of the league’s best scorers, which is attack the rim and look to score.
Rumors of Tony Parker's demise have been greatly exaggeratedpic.twitter.com/y0cHxofRbp
— Project Spurs (@projectspurs) December 29, 2016
Parker started the night out with an assist to Pau Gasol out of the pick and pop, but then he set his sights on blowing by bigger defenders. He flipped Tyson Chandler’s hips with a crossover and then brought it right back, getting past the veteran big man before laying it up off the glass with his right hand.
Next, he used pure speed to burn Chandler out of a pick and roll and finish with his left. Afterwards, the bearded big man’s body language screamed, “damn, he got me again.” The next score is similar but different, as Parker attacked in a pick and roll with Dewayne Dedmon, but his drive got stopped by center Alex Len. Parker pulled Len out of the paint before sprinting past him for another layup.
The next time a big man got in the way of his lane to the basket, Parker pulled up in his face for the mid-range jumper. Then he victimized Len once more, this time with a crossover dribble into a pump fake at the free throw line. Len flew past, and Parker hit an off balance up-and-under shot in the lane.
Parker kept driving straight to the rim, it didn’t matter if it was in the half court offense or on a transition break, screen or no screen, he was getting his. On the final play in the highlight, he beat his man and split two help defenders, finishing an and-1 layup with his off hand off the wrong foot.
One of the prettiest plays he made won’t show up on the stat sheet or his personal highlight reel, but it was delightful. He drove the lane out of a pick and roll with Gasol, got a help defender to bite by jumping as if he was going to try to lay it up, but instead threw a midair two-handed bounce pass to David Lee in the paint. Lee used what looked like a volleyball set to assist Gasol’s dunk, but the whole play was set up by Parker.
As Kawhi has developed into one of the best ball-dominant scorers in the league, Parker has taken a back seat in that regard. Popovich wants him to focus on facilitating, and look for his shot mostly when defenders go under screens or leave him open in the corner.
Parker is decent in this new role, but he isn’t aggressively driving to the rim and scoring the same way he did in his prime. This change in style and decline in statistical production has led many to the mistaken conclusion that he isn’t effective anymore, that he’s “washed”.
As the 34 year old Parker showed on Wednesday night, he still has the quickness and creativity around the rim that made him an MVP candidate just a few years ago. His ability has not diminished all that much, but his usefulness in the starting lineup has.
Parker is still effective in attacking the rim, it’s just that Leonard is better at it. Leonard has become a pick and roll phenom, and his passing ability is extremely underrated. LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the most versatile scoring big men in the league, and Gasol is the third scoring option. Parker still initiates pick and rolls and drives, but mainly to facilitate for those other guys.
The starting lineup filled with scorers forces TP to focus on passing and leaves little room for him to put a defender on skates and finish with an acrobatic layup. His coach is probably discouraging him from looking for his own shot, which is kind of a bummer because that’s when he’s the most fun to watch.
Those in the Tony is Washed camp will point to the fact that this game was on a few days rest against one of the worst teams in basketball, both of which are fair observations to make. However, this exact set of circumstances leads me to believe that Parker will be even more effective as his role gets smaller.
TP has said that he plans to play with the Spurs until he’s 40, and if he does manage that, it probably won’t all be as a starter. Sooner or later Parker will become the sixth man, and that will be good for him because of a lot of the things that factored in to Wednesday night’s performance.
He’ll have fresher legs, which he needs to perform at his best. He won’t be sharing the floor with Leonard and Aldridge as much, which will give him more opportunities to do the things that make him truly special. Plus, he’ll be attacking second units nowhere near as good as the competition he has faced for his whole career.
Parker can still play the way he used to, albeit a half a step slower and a few years older, he just doesn’t anymore because that’s not what the team needs him to do. If and when he moves into that sixth man role, expect the perceived aging of his game to reverse a la Benjamin Button. Manu Ginobili is proof enough that a guy who plays like that can hold on to those special parts of his game well into his golden years as the leader of the bench.