As the antiquated expression goes, “a Gregg Popovich postgame scolding a day keeps you scared for your life, and re-calibrates your team for a playoff run.” Or it’s something to that effect.
The best coach in basketball, who is known as much by his brevity and the candor of his in-game interviews as he is by the five championships he’s won as coach of the San Antonio Spurs, let loose on his team last week after losing to the NBA-worst New York Knicks. It was on the road, in overtime, and the Knicks likely played their best comprehensive game of the season. The Spurs, well, didn’t.
“We didn’t respect the game. We didn’t respect our opponent. It was a pathetic performance and I hope that every player is embarrassed,” Popovich said after the loss.
In the week since, the team has beaten three potential playoff teams: Milwaukee, Boston, and Atlanta—all by double-figures. They have been the best-laid versions of themselves, the process-over-results championship-seeking conquistadors, at a time when are both necessary for seeding and final-stretch momentum. And it has been no surprise that Kawhi Leonard, the reigning NBA Finals MVP, has been part and parcel of the team’s uptick.
San Antonio’s reserved and stand-offish small forward spent the first half of the season battling a torn ligament in his shooting hand; and the team went 8-9 without him. The defending champions struggled to control the ball and find a consistent offensive rhythm — they lost to the Lakers and Pistons, for crying out loud — and they were lost defensively without his presence on the floor.
Leonard was considered a strong defender in his draft report. But ever since Leonard locked down LeBron James in last year’s NBA Finals, holding James to 16 percent shooting on field goal attempts when Leonard was guarding him, he ascended into the rarefied “best lockdown defender” discussion and hasn’t left.
Since his return, Leonard has usurped the league’s steals leader board, averaging 2.25 per game this season, three per game in March and a league-best 1.12 steals per personal fouls. He also ranks fifth in the league in Real Plus-Minus, ahead of all-stars Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and DeMarcus Cousins.
The Spurs certainly reap the rewards of his offensive game: San Antonio is 23-6 when he scores 15 or more points. He’s averaging 19.8 points per game, a true shooting percentage of 62 and a usage rate of 23.5 percent in March. Those are otherworldly figures.
But for as much as San Antonio’s offensive ball-moving clinic astonished viewers and pundits in last year’s NBA Finals, the team’s defense was the story line of the team’s playoff run. Popovich has a top 10 scoring defense (97.8 points allowed per game) for the third consecutive season, and San Antonio ranks sixth in defensive efficiency.
However, without Leonard on the floor, the team’s defense isn’t nearly as stout: San Antonio gives up approximately six more points per 100 possessions, posts nearly a 2 percent lower steal percentage, allows opponents to have nearly a 6 percent better assist percentage, all while opposing teams successfully crash the glass at a higher rate. In short: Leonard is the linchpin of this defense, and is the only player on the team’s roster that, when taken off the floor, watches his team post a net-negative rating.
His two-way acumen is unrivaled and he rarely hurts his team by getting into foul trouble.
There have been a number of articles written in regards to Los Angeles center DeAndre Jordan’s stake in the defensive player of the year race. The most common throw-them-up-in-the-air-and-see-where-they-fall names mentioned have been Jordan, Golden State’s Draymond Green and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis. As ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh noted, Jordan’s case is hedged by the Clippers ratings with him off of the court, and Green might split votes with Warriors center Andrew Bogut. Like Leonard, Davis’s team ostensibly struggles to defend without him on the court, and like Leonard, Davis has missed time due to injury this season. Both have been transcendent on the defensive end and even though Leonard holds a slight edge in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, each is perfectly suitable for the accolade.
Under Popovich, the Spurs often dominate the last two months of the regular season schedule; San Antonio is a combined 67-21 over the last 60 days of the regular season since 2011. They Spurs are 8-2 in March. They steamrolled the best team in the Eastern Conference, playoff-bound Chicago and Milwaukee teams, and are averaging 103.1 points per game in the month. The underlying factor has been the reemergence of Leonard, the 24-year-old perimeter defender that San Antonio needs to make yet another deep playoff run.