The return of Kawhi Leonard couldn’t come any sooner for the San Antonio Spurs. San Antonio now sits at seventh in the West with a 37-29 record. The team has lost 10 of its last 13 games and will play the toughest remaining schedule of any West playoff hopeful.
Thankfully, Leonard’s return could come as soon as Thursday. If The Klaw’s quad is close to full strength, he can alleviate a variety of problems for the Spurs on both ends of the floor.
But if San Antonio wants to avoid falling out of the playoff bracket, Kawhi must first do some damage control on the team’s end-of-game woes.
The Spurs have a league-worst net rating of minus-57.2 in the clutch over their last nine games. They’ve also played the fifth-most clutch minutes in the league (27) during that timeframe. Even widening the parameters to the entire fourth quarter, San Antonio still has the worst net rating in the league (minus-18.7) over the last nine contests.
Here’s a sampling of some big fourth quarter runs the team has allowed in the past month:
Except for a 110-94 road win over the Cavaliers on Feb. 25, the above table is every single game the Spurs have played in the last month. In the stretch, San Antonio dropped seven extremely winnable games and nearly frittered away an eighth contest against the worst team in the NBA.
So what’s going on?
As other teams have tightened up their late-game rotations, the Spurs continue to trot out all sorts of different combinations. And while the Spurs have plenty of decent role players, the limitations of those players are especially apparent in key moments of games.
Clutch lineup data isn’t available, but we can glean some information from fourth quarter lineup data.
San Antonio’s most-used fourth quarter lineup this season is a garbage-time one (Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Brandon Paul, Davis Bertans and Joffrey Lauvergne) that has played 29 total minutes together. The second-most used group (Patty Mills, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge) has played a mere 21 minutes.
For comparison, the other six teams fighting for seeds three through 10 in the West right now have all been much more consistent with their lineup combinations. The top non-garbage time unit for such squads has played an average of 70.7 minutes in the final period.
And even when the other teams don’t play the exact same five players, there are late-game mainstays. Thunder fans know that Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams and Carmelo Anthony will close together. Timberwolves supporters expect to see Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler and Andrew Wiggins in crunch time. Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles are reliable finishers for Utah.
For the Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge has been the lone crunch-time rock. The other four spots in the closing lineup could go to pretty much anyone on the roster on a given night. This is due in equal parts to the Spurs’ bad injury luck and Gregg Popovich’s inconsistent rotations, which are somewhat justifiable.
The lack of chemistry is apparent on plays like this, though:
Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News posted this quote from a candid Tony Parker on San Antonio’s clutch struggles of late:
“So many times in the fourth quarter, we didn’t even need to talk. We had a package of three or four plays that we just had to look at each other, and it would be a backdoor or an easy basket that would make the difference at the end of the game. Right now, we can’t do that. There’s just no way.”
The offense is plagued by more than just a lack of chemistry. Often times, Aldridge is tired from carrying the offense and anchoring the defense for the majority of the game and can’t continue to be the efficient, high-volume guy when defenses lock in down the stretch. And San Antonio doesn’t have enough perimeter ballhandlers or shooters to take the pressure off him.
Here are some other recent examples of the Spurs’ poor clutch offense, which is scoring 84.2 points per 100 possessions in the past month. Notice how San Antonio’s lack of shooting, as well as speed and creativity with the ball, makes getting the ball near the basket a chore:
On defense, San Antonio’s lack of lineup continuity is a problem right now, as is its lackluster team athleticism. The squad is allowing 141.4 points per 100 possessions in the clutch in the last month:
What these problems boil down to is how limited the Spurs’ players around Aldridge are right now. Most of them have at least one very good skill. However, they all have at least one significant drawback.
For example, Parker is smart in the pick-and-roll, but he can’t shoot and is a defensive liability. Anderson is good on defense and facilitates well, but he can’t shoot. Mills can shoot well, but he isn’t a steady playmaker and hurts the team defensively. Gay is solid at a lot of things, but the first-year Spur lacks chemistry with his teammates. Murray plays awesome defense, but he might have the worst jump shot of all NBA guards.
You could continue this pattern with every other healthy Spurs player. Certain Spurs fans may make it seem like Pop’s crunch-time rotational choices are obvious, and he could be a little bit more consistent. But it’s not easy to cobble together good lineups with barely any star power.
Leonard coming in as a closer and second star next to Aldridge will make things infinitely easier for the Spurs.
Offensively, his versatile skill set takes the pressure away from more limited players, who can be more efficient in smaller roles and use the extra energy elsewhere. Leonard is a great scorer in isolation, post-up and pick-and-roll situations as a last resort. On defense, he can force some of the best offensive perimeter players to mentally check out of the game and blow up plays with his outlier length and instincts.
That impact is key for the entire game, but it shows up the most in winning time when teams expect their big guns to make plays. For example, it’s doubtful that Kevin Durant still would’ve scored 12 points in the span of 107 seconds in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game against the Spurs if Leonard was guarding him.
It may take a little time for Leonard to find his rhythm again, but the Spurs are hoping the MVP candidate version of him emerges soon to help them win these close games and get into the playoffs.