Until this season, the Spurs had never finished short of the Western Conference Finals in Kawhi Leonard’s already well decorated career. In a vacuum, Kawhi is not short on playoff experience, but the issue with the Spurs this year had a lot to do with experience, and it starts with Kawhi Leonard.
In sports we tend to think of experience as something you acquire and then subsequently possess. That’s true for most dynasties because most binge on wins and championships over a short period. In the NBA these are teams that reached the top after first failing. They succeeded through their experiences. In many ways these teams do possess experience.
The Spurs are the antithesis of the traditional dynasty. They were built, and then they were rebuilt, and then they were rebuilt again, all on the fly. They remained championship contenders while overhauling their personnel and schemes over the last two decades. The Spurs rebuilt their offense this year, because they needed to be more Kawhi-centric. Kawhi was the Finals MVP last season on the strength of incredible defense and an offensive game that constrained to the confines of the Spurs impeccable ball movement. This season, the Spurs transitioned away from a Tony Parker initiated offense to try and take advantage of Kawhi’s skillset. It is an embarrassment of riches, but it is also a transition that is not without consequence. Those growing pains manifested itself within the Spurs first round series against the Clippers.
Classifying the Spurs first round series loss to the Clippers as a lack of experience in a transitional year is not meant to validate the result in hindsight. If anything it’s truly amazing that the Spurs managed to win 55 games in an extremely tough conference, all while overhauling their offense.
Remember Tony Parker’s quote? After scoring 27 points on 18 shots against the Rockets during the final week of the regular season, Parker said something that was perceived to be a selfless representation of the Spurs:
“It’s like me and Manu back in the day. We have to share, you have to wait your turn and sometimes I won’t see
the ball for a long time, because Kawhi is unbelievable and it’s going to be Kawhi’s team anyway. Like Timmy transitioned to Manu, Manu transitioned to me and now it’s going to be transitioned to Kawhi. I’ll try to do my best to stay aggressive and be involved, but Kawhi is going to be the man. He’s playing great and sometimes I’ll have nights like this where I have the ball. bust most of the time it’s going to be Kawhi. We have to transition to that. He’s young, he’s playing great, and he’s going to demand double teams. So I’ll play off him, like all those years I did with Timmy. I’ll just stand in the corner and just wait for Timmy to do his thing. We always did a great job sharing and wait our turn. It will be no different with me.”
Kawhi led the Spurs this season in scoring with 16 points per game, on a team-high 13 shots per game. Through three quarters of the season Kawhi was averaging 15 ppg on 13 shots per game. Good, but not what you would classify as a Spurs level of efficiency. In the final quarter of the season, Kawhi’s game took off. He averaged 20 points on 14 shots.
The Spurs first round series loss to the Clippers was a microcosm of Kawhi’s season. Through the first four games of the series Kawhi put up 25-ppg on 57 percent shooting. Then, in the final three games of the series he averaged a pedestrian 14-ppg on 29 percent shooting.
Kawhi Leonard has a ton of playoff experience, but none as the focal point of the Spurs offensive attack. His previous playoff experience is moot now that he’s a main catalyst for the Spurs. This playoff run exposed the growing pains of an emerging NBA star. Experience is part of the Spurs DNA, but their constant evolution is the main reason they’ve stayed in championship contention.
Blake Griffin was a star in the Spurs first round series loss to the Clippers. Kawhi surely noticed. In Kawhi’s rookie season, the Spurs dispatched of Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers in five games in the second round of the playoffs. Blake was overmatched and one dimensional on offense, averaging 16.8 points on 46.7 percent shooting, numbers that were drastically below his season averages. The Spurs exposed Blake’s largest weaknesses.
It’s through those experiences that Blake evolved into the well-rounded offensive player that helped propel the Clippers into the second round this year. Kawhi is 23 and has already been named Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. He has achieved a lot already in his young career, but nothing could prepare him for this season’s struggles, which as it turns out are part and parcel to the next evolutionary turn in the Spurs everlasting championship window.