The San Antonio Spurs’ series loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder highlighted the urgency with which they need reinforcements, especially in regard to easing some responsibility away from Kawhi Leonard. It’s not that he isn’t capable of carrying the responsibility, but that aside from LaMarcus Aldridge, no other player consistently provided offensive help in meaningful quantities.
Leonard is going to be 25 in June, and has shown that he’s adept at being the Spurs’ leading contributor on both ends of the court. This isn’t a case of inflated role; Leonard would be the best player on probably over 90% of the other teams in the league.
Basketball is a team game, however, and despite the praise the Spurs received all season for the depth within their lineup, their series with the Thunder showed that Leonard can’t realistically do as much as he was being forced to do on both offense and defense and expect to win a playoff series against a great team like the Thunder.
His defensive assignment for most of the series was trying to contain Kevin Durant, and occasionally he would be switched onto Russell Westbrook. That duo might collectively be the toughest to guard in the entire league, and Leonard was going to have to expend a lot of energy to sufficiently limit their offensive influence. He’s the back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, and possesses the unique skills to be up to the challenge of thwarting each of them.
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The task of shutting down those 2 superstars is nearly an all-consuming endeavor, yet it’s amazing that Leonard was able to have the successful series on offense he did. He shot about 49% from the field in the series, and averaged about 23 points per game. His shooting percentage was slightly down from about 51% in the regular season, but his points per game average was up by about 2 points.
What this series proved more than anything was that despite Leonard’s capabilities to lead the charge on both offense and defense, against the best teams in the NBA, the Spurs are going to need more than just Leonard and Aldridge to play great on offense.
As a team, they averaged about 3 points per game less in the Thunder series than in the regular season, and had a shooting percentage about 2 percentage points less in the Thunder series compared to the regular season.
Only 4 players (Leonard, Aldridge, Tony Parker, and Danny Green) averaged over 7 points per game in the series. Leonard and Aldridge accounted for 49% of the Spurs’ points in the series. The Thunder were supposed to be the top-heavy team that was forced to put more scoring emphasis on 2 players, not the Spurs.
The Thunder had 6 players (Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Dion Waiters) average 8 points or more per game during the series. The Thunder were able to get far more production from their role players than the Spurs were, and it made a huge difference in the outcome of the series.
This is why the Spurs need to make a big splash in free agency. This series is evidence that Leonard can’t win a series by only relying on Aldridge to provide substantial scoring. Imagine if Durant, Mike Conley, or even Pau Gasol was able to do their thing for the Spurs that series. Durant could’ve added 25 points per game, Gasol could’ve added 17 per game, and Conley could’ve added 15 points per game. Suddenly the Spurs’ third leading scoring option is averaging somewhere in the low 20s or high-to-mid teens instead of the 10.8 from Parker.
The current formula doesn’t work, and this series has proven that. The Spurs as a whole looked tired and slow compared to the more youthful Thunder, and even if they had gotten past this round, the Golden State Warriors likely would have accentuated that energy gap even more.
Leonard should not be blamed for this loss. He simply needs more help on offense from someone besides Aldridge. It’s officially his team now, but there are limits to the impact he can make. Leonard and Aldridge would love a viable 3rd option to consistently score, because right now they don’t have one.