Written by: Don Knock
The Spurs offense is no longer the post centric powerhouse or the later ball movement dynamo that it was in the heyday of now retired Tim Duncan. What has rose from Duncan’s ashes is a more postmodern drive-and-kick based style that uses Kawhi’s gravity to get defenders out of position. Elements of the past forms of Popovich offense still show up frequently but usually when someone other than Kawhi has the ball in their hands.
For this system to work, Kawhi had to actually become a serious threat to score. Leonards free throw attempts per game took a major jump (4.6 up to 7.2). He also jumped from 25.8% to 31.1%, becoming the only wing in the Popovich era to finish a season with a usage rate over 30%. To turn Kawhi into an offensive machine, Popovich let him in on a little secret that most of the greats have to discover on their own. Pop gave Kawhi film on Michael Jordan and Kobe and worked with him to methodically pick up key pieces of their offensive repertoires.
This is not a new strategy, Kobe modeled his entire game after Michael. “Damn near 100 percent of the technique, damn near 100 percent”, Kobe told Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck. Michael himself modeled his game after Dr. J, Elgin Baylor, and Jerry West among others. This is how all the greats arise, by standing on the backs of the giants that came before them. Having coached against both Michael and Kobe, Popovich knew how dangerous this skill set could be in the right hands, and he guessed correctly that Leonard’s massive mitts were the right ones for it.
Being slightly taller and 15 lbs heavier than Michael or Kobe, Kawhi relies slightly more on using his strength than the two predecessors. This can be seen through the spin fadeaway when backing down a defender. Michael and Kobe gave the defender a slight nudge then exploded backwards to create the separation needed for the shot. Kawhi uses his strength to create the separation while backing the defender down and consequently doesn’t need to jump as far back while spinning. Because Kawhi doesn’t need to cover as much distance, he takes the shot more on balance than Michael and Kobe did.
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This attention to balance can be seen again when working off of the triple threat. Coming out of the stance explosively, Michael leans in and raises his feet up slightly behind him to even out his momentum for the shot. Kobe, comes out of the triple threat and fades backwards, correspondingly kicking his legs forward to even out his momentum. Rather than leaning forward like Jordan, or leaning backwards like Kobe, Kawhi’s momentum is vertical giving him great balance on the shot and relieving him of having to adjust for his momentum in the air.
Pull Up off Triple Threat:
Another way to see if a player is on balance during a shot is by watching how they land. Watch Michael as he drives from the wing to the corner. When he lands, he has to take quick steps to bring himself back to a neutral position. This is even more pronounced when Kobe performs the move, but Kawhi sticks the landing like a gymnast coming off a balance beam.
Wing to Corner Pull Up:
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Through sheer force of will Michael and Kobe had spent thousands of hours training their body to adjust to these torques and forces spinning and flying through the air. Kawhi and Pop didn’t have that kind of time, but what they did have is an improved strength and conditioning knowledge base and two spectacular careers to put under a microscope. By tempering these acrobatic feats to more on balance shots, Kawhi was able to make them at a more consistent rate. In this way, he was able to add his own spin onto some already legendary spin moves.