Tuesday April 7th, 2015

The run-up to this year’s NBA playoffs has been particularly thrilling because the three top title contenders—the Warriors, Cavaliers and the defending champion Spurs— are all enjoying dominant late-season surges.

Since the All-Star break, all three teams have posted point differentials above +9—Cleveland is +10.7, San Antonio is +10.5, and Golden State is +9.3—which amounts to a level of top-heavy excellence that the NBA has rarely seen during the post-Michael Jordan era. Looking back over the last 15 seasons, the best comparison point is 2007-08, when the Celtics (+10), Magic (+9.6) and Lakers (+8.9) all played dominant basketball down the stretch, with Boston ultimately prevailing over L.A. in the Finals. On average, about one team per year hits that +9 threshold, and there have been multiple times since 2000 in which no team managed the feat.

A lot of things must go right—performance, health, motivation, chemistry—for a team to achieve this level of dominance. Getting three teams there in the same season? That essentially requires a perfect storm.

The basketball intelligentsia has more or less agreed on how Golden State and Cleveland have managed such dominance over the last few months. The Warriors, under first-year coach Steve Kerr and MVP favorite Stephen Curry, are having more fun than everyone else, breaking wills with their fast-paced, pass-happy offense, mopping floors with their versatile, tested defense, and posting the best point differential since Jordan’s 1997 title-winning Bulls. The Cavaliers, reinvigorated by the midseason acquisitions of Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert and a return to form by LeBron James, have used their newfound auxiliary scoring options and improved interior defense to rapidly climb up the East standings after a slow start.

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Both of those narratives are easily digested, but it’s possible that the Spurs’ push is the simplest of the three to explain. Only two words are really needed: Kawhi Leonard.

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Because the Spurs are the Spurs, their every stumble cloaked by a unique assumption of excellence forged during nearly two decades of Gregg Popovich’s guidance, Leonard’s hand injury earlier this year was not met with the wall-to-wall, minute-by-minute coverage given to sidelined stars like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Anthony Davis, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Chris Bosh, and others. Think about that: Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP, remains so overlooked that even his rehabilitation was snubbed.

Leonard’s return to the court in mid-January has transformed the Spurs from a wobbly outfit to a certified steamroller that enters Tuesday’s action riding a league-best seven-game winning streak after walloping the Warriors on Sunday.  Without Leonard, San Antonio went 8-9 (.471) and suffered its first full losing month since Feb. 1999 in December. With Leonard, San Antonio is 27-10 (.730) since Jan. 16 and posting numbers that are eerily similar to last year’s Spurs.

2014 Spurs (Post-All-Star): 109.6 Off. Rating | 99.7 Def. Rating | +9.9 Net

2015 Spurs (Post-All-Star): 110.2 Off. Rating | 99.5 Def. Rating | +10.7 Net

Remember that the 2014 Spurs ran off 19 straight wins in February and March before going on to absolutely smoke the postseason competition. Even though the 2015 Spurs might currently have the No. 6 next to their name in the conference standings, make no mistake: they should be regarded as a heavy favorite against any of the West’s playoff teams besides the Warriors. 

There have been other contributing factors aiding the Spurs’ push—Tim Duncan has held off Father Time for yet another season, Tiago Splitter has returned from an early-season injury, Cory Joseph has proven capable of handling a bigger load in Year 4—but Leonard has been the most important piece. Spurs blog 48 Minutes Of Hell.com correctly described the 6-foot-7 small forward as “unequivocally the team’s best player” on the heels of his 26-point, 5-rebound, 3-assist, 7-steal effort against the Warriors, a label that carries true weight given Duncan’s All-Star and All-NBA worthy play this year.

Perhaps because of Duncan’s tall shadow, or because of Popovich’s minutes management, or because of Leonard’s quiet personality, or because he’s been known as a defense-first player, or because his hand injury kept him out of this year’s All-Star debate, or some combination of those factors, the quality of Leonard’s play still far outpaces the recognition it garners.

The national conversation around Leonard can stand to improve, and it likely will shift in the coming months if he continues to put together signature performances like his recent night against the Warriors. On Sunday, he roasted Harrison Barnes, particularly in the post, and tormented Curry, forcing turnover after turnover. “[Leonard] was the best player on the floor,” Kerr told reporters afterwards, the type of thing that hasn’t been said very often about players who have shared the court with Curry this season.

Specifically, the national conversation about Leonard can better reflect his all-around skillset. The “Defensive Player of the Year” buzz generated by his career-high seven steals is only half the story. There’s a little bit of “Klay Thompson in reverse” at play here. Until recently, Thompson’s shooting prowess overshadowed his defensive commitment and intelligence. With Leonard, it’s the opposite: his giant hands and wingspan produce the oohs and aahs, even as he’s taken his offensive game to new heights. This season, he’s averaging 16.3 points, 12.7 field goal attempts and posting a usage rate of 23, which all easily represent career highs. 

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It must be noted that Leonard is a key driver of that individual progress, rather than simply a system recipient. Per Synergy Sports, he grades out well in virtually every major offensive play type (spot-up, transition, pick-and-roll, isolation), and the following sampling of plays should give a taste of the many ways that Leonard is able to generate points independent of the Spurs’ famed drive-and-kick game.

(Hover over the images to play the GIF)

First up: Leonard clears a defensive rebound and takes off by himself, settling in for a pull-up jumper once he reaches the elbow and encounters a set defense. There's a little Westbrook to this one.

Second: Leonard takes an outlet pass from Duncan and immediately starts running downhill. He splits two Thunder defenders and uses his strength and lift to finish over the top of Kyle Singler at the rim. The way Leonard crosses over and plows through contact is a little reminiscent of a certain Cavs star.

Third: Leonard seeks out a wing isolation against Danilo Gallinari. He turns to face, goes through a series of fakes, uses a jab step, and then rises for a pull-up jumper. Shades of Durant. 

Finally: Leonard uses a high screen from Aron Baynes to get a switch before exploiting the threat of his driving ability to create a short mid-range jumper over Pau Gasol.This is Chris Paul's bread and butter. 

No one is arguing that Leonard is a more spectacular finisher than LeBron or that he has a better mid-range shot than Paul. The idea is simply that he has busted the traditional (limited) Spurs wing construct that gets applied to Danny Green and other three-and-D players that have made their way through San Antonio over the years. While Leonard is still called on to hit corner threes and provide weakside spacing for Tony Parker's pick-and-rolls, he is also showing that he can beat defenses in a variety of useful methods and that he can translate his prodigious athletic gifts into points in ways that resemble the best of the best in the NBA. How many players around the league can do these things consistently while still making an impact defensively?

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Let’s take stock for a moment. Leonard is an elite defender who ranks among the league’s top players in Defensive Win Shares and Defensive Real Plus-Minus. He's an offensive force who, while still developing, is: comfortable with the ball in his hands, capable of bullying smaller defenders, well-versed in transition opportunities, a productive rebounder for his position, an increasingly willing isolation player and a career-best (36.7%) three-point shooter. Leonard is a strong, smart, playoff-tested champion, and his impact on his team’s performance is crystal clear (San Antonio’s offensive rating improves by 5.3 points and its defensive rating improves from 5.6 points when Leonard on the court). Now ask again: How many players in the NBA can reasonably match Leonard's checklist?

It’s possible—and regrettable—that Leonard won’t achieve full acceptance into the “superstardom” category until he surpasses the arbitrary 20 points per game mark often associated with the league’s alpha dogs. To demonstrate how misguided that thinking is, let’s turn to the major catch-all individual statistics to get a sense for Leonard’s place in the NBA’s hierarchy.

Here’s a complete listing of players who rank in the top 20 in Player Efficiency Rating, Real Plus-Minus and Win Shares per 48 minutes.

One would expect that cross-referencing the top of the charts for all three popular metrics would help cut down on the quirks of any individual advanced statistic and produce a list of the league’s very best players. As it turns out, just eight players made the triple cut. That group includes the consensus top-five for MVP candidates— Curry, James Harden, Westbrook, Davis, and James—plus Chris Paul, who is usually mentioned as the No. 6 guy. The only other two players in this unimpeachable inner circle of superstars? Duncan and Leonard.

At 23, Leonard is the second-youngest player in the group, he’s the only one never to make an All-Star team, and he joins Davis as the only players in this group who have yet to make an All-NBA team. (Davis is a no-brainer First Team selection this year.) If the MVP race were to be divided into tiers, it would look something like this...

Tier 1: Curry, Harden

Tier 2: Westbrook, James, Davis, Paul

Tier 3: Everybody else. 

Based on all-around statistical performance, Leonard should be included somewhere near the top of the third tier. That's why, regardless of how the Defensive Player of the Year award shakes out, this year's All-NBA voting process looks like the ideal place for the discussion around Leonard to begin shifting. He's ready to leap into that field now, even though he received just one Third Team vote last year. Voters shouldn’t hold his injury against him, as he’s played just three fewer games than both Davis and Westbrook, and four fewer than Griffin. Keep in mind: the crop of candidates was thinned significantly by injuries to Durant, George, Bosh and Anthony. There’s plenty of room to include him on the Second or Third Team, even if the Spurs are unlikely to launch a multi-channel blitz to campaign on his behalf. 

The most exciting part of Leonard’s continued growth, in the immediate short-term, is that it helps complicate the championship contention picture and ensures that the Spurs will be capable of mounting a real title defense. The post All-Star point differential numbers suggest that the NBA playoffs will be wildly competitive thanks to three teams that have kicked hard down the home stretch. A review of lineup data leads to the same conclusion, as three of the league’s top four lineups this season (with at least 250 minutes played) are the Cavaliers’ starters, the Spurs’ starters and the Warriors’ starters. 

While San Antonio's numbers are bound to regress from their ridiculous peaks as the sample size increases and the competition stiffens in the playoffs, the group's exquisite and surgical play last year makes it clear this is no mirage. Indeed, it feels like we're on the verge of one big fireworks show once Popovich, Kerr and David Blatt turn over even more minutes to their lethal five-man groups in the playoffs. Once that happens, “Steph’s Warriors” and “LeBron’s Cavs” will surely command a lion’s share of the headlines over the next few months, but be sure to save a seat at the table for “Kawhi’s Spurs” too. 

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