Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Beginning of the Post-Duncan Big Three Era: Looking Forward to the Kawhi-Era Spurs

With one season down, albeit, finished rather anti-climatically, ending with an unfortunate and fairly scary injury to Tony Parker (ruptured quadriceps tendon) and a poorly executed Zaza Pachulia close-out, after watching the game and seeing how Pop treated Kawhi after the sprain in Game 5 of the Rockets series I would surmise that Pop was just kind of riding however far the team could go in the playoffs because fairly, the Spurs didn't have much shot without Tony Parker and even less of one without Kawhi Leonard. This was quickly demonstrated by a convincing four game sweep of the Spurs out of the Western Conference Finals by the dominant Golden State Warriors. While many Spurs fans will point to the fact that this was something of a rebuilding year for the Spurs, which is crazy, considering it was just another ho-hum 50 win year for Gregg Popovich, but let's be honest, there is some merit to that. There were 7 new players on the roster (Pau Gasol, David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon, Davis Bertans, Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Joel Anthony), but most importantly, Tim Duncan, a fixture since the 1997-1998 season was no longer on the roster.

With this year potentially being the last for Manu Ginobili, and coupled with what could be a career-ending or at least career-debilitating injury for Tony Parker (whenever you hear rupture it just sounds bad), despite a timeline to return in January. With that, we now potentially look forward to a season in 2018 a season wrought with uncertainty, but before we do, let's consider a couple of the things we have learned this year:

1. Kawhi Leonard is the real deal

If there was any doubt before I believe that this season firmly silenced such doubts. He consistently raised his averages, and while the statistical lines of the likes of James Harden and Russell Westbrook may make Leonard's 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks with 2.1 turnovers on 48.5% shooting and 38% from beyond the arc not that special, it belies the impact that Kawhi makes on the game on both ends of the floor. The first thing we have to note is his efficiency. This line averaging only about 33 minutes per game, this doesn't even qualify him for the top 20 (which LeBron James leads at 37.8). Despite that, he remained 9th in scoring and 8th in steals across the league. If we look into advanced statistics, Kawhi was 3rd to only Westbrook and Kevin Durant in PER, 20th in True Shooting percentage (61%), 4th in overall win shares, 3rd if you break win shares down per 48 minutes, 7th in overall box plus-minus, and 7th in value over replacement player, which I think is actually more reflective of how much the Spurs get out of their backups than any deficiency on Kawhi's part. His game only elevated in the playoffs.

In the playoffs Kawhi was the definitive leader in PER (31.7, with the next being LeBron James at 30.4) as well as win shares per 48 minutes. He averaged 27.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.5 blocks, and 2.2 turnovers in just under 36 minutes per game and shot an efficient 52.5% from the field and 45.5% from beyond the arc. If there were any questions as to whether or not Kawhi Leonard could shoulder the heavy load that is the standard of the being the Spurs' franchise cornerstone as set by Tim Duncan, Leonard goes far and beyond silencing any such doubts and concerns. It's not just statistics though that tell us Kawhi is the real deal, Kawhi, who already boasts a Finals MVP, back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, an spot on the All-NBA First Team, as well as being MVP runner-up, is once again an MVP finalist and a Defensive Player of the Year finalist.

2. LaMarcus Aldridge is not a go-to guy

I can sense a slew of Portland fans saying, "I told you so." This is not a knock on LaMarcus, but rather, an understanding of who he is and how he fits into the scheme of things. Some sports commentators have called LaMarcus's performance during the playoffs something of an enigma, which I can totally see. He would follow dominant 20 point outings with a disappearing act, scoring only single digits. After seeing strong performances in Game 6 of the series against the Rockets and then subsequently Game 1 against the Warriors, I, like many others thought, maybe LaMarcus got it together. However, it wasn't meant to be, as he averaged just over 11 points per game across the following three. While at first, my thoughts about LaMarcus were less than kind, I actually believe rather than being enigmatic, LaMarcus's play over the playoffs was actually more of a revelation to many of us of who LaMarcus Aldridge is and how to most effectively use him.

With the Spurs playing a lot more isolation basketball than it had previously, particularly in juxtaposition to their dominant 2014 championship, it would actually behoove us to look more closely at the now touted Big 3 model. Every Big 3 model has its pecking order, though I would argue that the Spurs model behind Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili was a little more amorphous and adaptable. However, we do see it switching, moving more from Duncan to Parker as time progressed, as we can ascertain from simply looking at the 2003 and 2007 championship runs side-by-side. However, if we look at a recent history, the successful Big 3's all had a distinctive pecking order, or least fairly well-defined roles. If we begin with the 2008 Boston Celtics we see that Paul Pierce was still definitively the go-to guy, with Kevin Garnett relinquishing the largest role in terms of offense. While he was still featured and effective, he wasn't the go-to guy. As we progress to the Heat teams of 2011-2014, we see that similarly, Chris Bosh played a significantly diminished role, with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade rightfully taking the lion's share of the possessions and control of the offense. Finally, if we look at the modern era of the past few years, it is relatively easy to make the strong case that the 3rd options within the Big 3 of the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have been Draymond Green and Kevin Love respectively. Incidentally, these all happen to be PFs, which happens to be the position that LaMarcus plays.

I'm not arguing that the PF in every Big 3 is supposed to be the third option, though to some degree it makes sense. With the league rules favoring ball-handlers, elite play from play-makers at the wings or at the point becomes much more valuable than those in the post or even at the pivot. Increased range on 3-point shooting (mainly Steph Curry) has also extended the effective area of the court that defenses need to cover, making it harder to initiate half-court offenses, the ball just becomes harder to get into the post, be it high or low, without taking up too much time in the shot clock, it becomes easier then, for the offense to be completely dictated and initiated by the person bringing the ball up. Even teams like Memphis, which had traditionally been touted as an old-school, throwback team, relying grit and defense, running its offense through the effective high-low combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, has begun to shift over, giving more control and priority to getting Mike Conley (rightfully) involved in the offense.

That being said, Spurs have their number 1 option, Kawhi Leonard. Hopefully, his ankle injury isn't too serious, and he'll only get better as he continues to develop his ball-handling and play-making abilities. What LaMarcus has told us this post-season, is that he's a really solid number 3 option in a Big 3 scheme, and while that takes some getting used to (just ask Chris Bosh or Kevin Love) it seems like that is where he will thrive the most. However, what this means then, is that we need a number two option. Someone akin to Kyrie Irving or Dwyane Wade circa 2013 to help Kawhi with the play-making duties. To a greater or lesser extent that was Tony Parker. However, with Parker turning 35, which in and of itself is enough to raise concerns, considering he entered the league at age 19, but also coupled with returning from a massive injury (again, ruptured quadriceps tendon), Spurs need a definitive secondary play-maker that LaMarcus Aldridge is not (to be fair, neither is Pau Gasol).

3. Length matters

Seeing how Jonathon Simmons and Danny Green played defense against James Harden in Games 5 and 6 of the Houston Rockets series, I was hopeful after Game 1 that such defensive tenacity would help against the potent wing offense of Golden State. After Kawhi went down with his ankle injury in Game 1 though, I came to this realization, neither Simmons nor Green are long enough to stop Kevin Durant. Then looking down the roster, I came to a second realization, neither Kyle Anderson nor Davis Bertans had enough lateral speed to stop Kevin Durant. Which summarized nicely into, the Spurs didn't have anyone outside of Kawhi that could guard Kevin Durant.

Now, granted, it's Kevin Durant. You know, arguably one of the top 2 or 3 players in the league. Not much can stop him, and losing Kawhi, arguably the best perimeter defender in the league, there's going to be something of a drop-off creating a fairly large disparity. However, that being said, while Green and Simmons aren't by any measure undersized, they are both more ideally suited for playing the SG position, likewise, Anderson and Bertans lack the footspeed to effective contain some of the quicker SFs like Durant. Pop was forced to make a tough call, and while it can be effective, wing pairings of two of Manu Ginobili, Green, and Simmons, was far from ideal, especially if Pop wanted to switch Patty Mills off of Curry.

4. The young guys are all Spurs-y

This is particularly true of the two rookies Davis Bertans and Dejounte Murray. Both were somewhat thrown into the fire with the Parker and Leonard injuries in the playoffs and while there were some classic rookie miscues, I thought both of them carried themselves well. Certainly, there are a lot of rough edges to work off of both of their games but I'm optimistic about how they will develop and look to see how the Spurs coaching and development staff (looking at you Chip Engelland) continue to help them realize their potential.

So now we have tasted and are running full-speed into the Kawhi-era of Spurs basketball. I'm actually fairly excited. However, there are some reservations, there are several key contributors that Spurs have heading into free agency, and if we look at the likes of previous Spurs role-players, we can assume that they're going to get paid (see: Marco Belinelli, Cory Joseph, Gary Neal, Aron Baynes, Boban Marjanovic). All three free agents were critical to the Spurs' success this season and it'll be hard to keep all of them let alone land a big name free agent. It's hard to not see Patty Mills, Dewayne Dedmon, and especially Jonathon Simmons not getting big contracts, not max deals, but perhaps big enough to put them out of Spurs' reach, in order to sign a bigger need contract, as the Pau Gasol contract did with Boris Diaw. Even if Manu retires, the Spurs won't really have much cap space to maneuver, and thus landing any big name free agent may mean losing even more valuable core players like Gasol or Danny Green (or maybe even Aldridge).

With Tony Parker's injury still up in the air and his return not set until January, it'll be interesting to see if Pop hands things over to Murray right away or if the front office opts to try to bring on more established talent. Chris Paul's name has been all over the internet, but it's difficult imagining Spurs being able and willing to make the space for another aging point guard, despite his known efficacy. Another intriguing option would be George Hill, who can play well next to Tony when he comes back and brings a sort of defensive tenacity that would be great for countering the growing small-ball trend, however, the question again is what do the Spurs give up for that?

A quick gander at the free agent list shows us that there are a lot of big names. Several of them probably aren't truly "free agents" in the sense that it's pretty much a given where they'll end up. I sense that if they win a championship, Durant and Curry will somehow figure out a way to keep the Warriors together. Likewise, I think Andre Iguodala will take a paycut to stay with his team. Most of the big name players just aren't really affordable to the Spurs. If we consider what we'd be losing, at the very least, in terms of free agents, we would have to assume that it would be Patty Mills, Jonathon Simmons, Dewayne Dedmon, and Joel Anthony, let's also assume Manu retires. This leaves the Spurs with the following lineup:

PG - Tony Parker (out until January), Dejounte Murray
SG - Danny Green, Bryn Forbes
SF - Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Anderson
PF - LaMarcus Aldridge, David Lee, Davis Bertans
C - Pau Gasol

I for one still don't like Kyle Anderson at the 3 position, I think at this point at best, he might be something akin to a less athletic, play-making Marvin Williams type player, but he still needs to improve his shooting and strength to be more effective. I also think Bryn Forbes is like a Gary Neal, in which, he's useful in spots but not someone I like to rely on, especially being slightly undersized at the SG spot, though, if he improves his ball-handling and court awareness he could potentially turn into a decent spot replacement for Patty Mills. This of course is all assuming neither David Lee nor Pau Gasol opt out, which if they do, changes the whole picture.

The main question for the Spurs has to be whether what they have is enough. In some sense, I think if Gasol comes back, the Spurs will still be in the mold of treading water (which still of course amounts to a certain level of championship contention) until Parker, the last of the Big 3 retires. That being said, there seem to be needs at every major position, and certainly while there are players that might help, the question is are they better than what we have? Certainly, any 3-and-D player has to be compared to Danny Green, especially if they're taking his minutes, and/or possibly Danny's spot in the roster. I would argue immediately though, that at that price point, any 3-and-D player added to the roster, even if he were physically more imposing than Danny, would at best be a lateral movement rather than a step forward.

Most urgently, I think would be some bigs for rim protection and a secondary play-maker, probably a PG, to at least spot Tony Parker's minutes while he's injured or backup Dejounte Murray until Parker returns. Generally speaking, no names really jump out at me. However, it feels like there might be a major shakeup across the league as some teams continue to struggle to find success in the post-season (read Clippers). We'll have to see, there's too much fluidity right now for us to be able to really know for sure. After the Finals and the draft I think R.C. Buford and Pop have a lot of homework to do, but I have confidence they'll make the best choice, they generally have. Even then, they're entitled to a Richard Jefferson sized mistake every now and again.

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