The San Antonio Spurs are allowing more points with two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard on the floor than off of it this season.
It’s a statistic that has baffled the NBA world. How does perhaps the best wing defender in the NBA make his team’s defence worse by nearly five points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor?
Contrary to what the statistic may suggest on the surface, Leonard has not suddenly become a worse defender. Instead, as CBS’s Matt Moore discovered, NBA teams are simply taking Leonard out of the equation by avoiding him completely.
As Moore notes, this was on display in a December 8 loss to the Chicago Bulls. The Spurs stuck Leonard on Bulls leading scorer Jimmy Butler in the first quarter. What did the Bulls do? They stuck Butler in a corner and played four-on-four basketball against Leonard’s relatively weak defensive supporting cast. According to Moore, Butler did not even touch the ball on the Bulls’ first ten scoring plays.
On several possessions, the Bulls basically secured Butler and Leonard as far away from the action as possible.
As Moore notes, the Orlando Magic did the same thing when the Spurs put Leonard on Evan Fournier after a strong first half. Fournier, one of the Magic’s best playmakers, was vanquished to the corner.
Much of this is because of the personnel surrounding Leonard. According to Moore, Tony Parker, Pau Gasol, and LaMarcus Aldridge rank in the sixth, 30th, and 37th percentile, respectively, in points allowed to opposing ball-handlers in pick-and-rolls. That is, they’re all meager pick-and-roll defenders. If teams remove whoever Leonard is guarding from the equation, they can feast on open space against subpar defenders. If the Spurs switch Leonard onto another team’s top offensive weapon, it can create mismatches around the court for opponents to exploit.
It’s an interesting tactic, although not a revolutionary one, either. Avoid Leonard completely, and the Spurs’ tenth-ranked defence isn’t quite so stingy.
It will be a situation worth monitoring as the season goes on. While teams in the playoffs may not so easily concede to play four on four, if the Spurs are haemorrhaging points while Leonard is taken out of the action, then they will have to surround him with better players. And if the Spurs are forced to dip deeper into their rotation to put competent defenders around Leonard, then they’re likely in trouble.
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