Getting offensive: Of Kawhi Leonard and efficiency

Much has been made of the Spurs’ metamorphosis in recent years.

Their surprising transition was completed last season, during which they led the league in offensive production (110.9 points scored per 100 possessions) just six years after suiting up the No. 1 defense (99.6 points allowed per 100 possessions).

Lots of factors went into the shift: The inability to find a suitable replacement for Bruce Bowen, the decline of Tim Duncan, the emergence of Tony Parker, the addition of multiple cheap yet effective offensive role players, rules changes emphasizing perimeter play, etc.

More interesting than rehashing those details is exploring what makes the Spurs so effective on offense, and how their individual players contribute. The results might surprise you.

yesterday, using a formula concocted by At The Hive, that credited rookie small forward Kawhi Leonard as being San Antonio’s second-most productive offensive player last season – behind Manu Ginobili, but ahead of MVP candidate Tony Parker.

I was a bit skeptical of those findings until today in which Leonard edged not only Parker but Ginobili using their preferred metric, offensive wins produced. That jibes with a previous piece in the NBA last season.

Despite two different sites using two different formulas to reach similar conclusions, it seems hard to imagine that a player who averaged only 7.9 points and 1.1 assists per game could be that important.

So why does Leonard rate so highly?


The importance of efficiency in sports has become increasingly apparent ever since Bill James, the father of advanced statistics, began using scientific analysis to examine baseball in the early 1970s during his stint as a night watchman.

It took a while, but the movement finally caught on in the NBA, allowing us to better grasp why players like Leonard and Matt Bonner, despite their limited box-score output (points, rebounds, assists, etc.), are such effective players.

Enter the various studies that have been linked here.

In Leonard’s case, he’s a player who shoots above the league average in all three facets while rarely turning the ball over – qualities that are easily glossed over by his modest production, but rank among the four most important factors in offensive success. (Offensive rebound rate and free throws to field goal attempt ratio being the others.)

As always, caution is suggested with the use of advanced hoop stats. The lack of even a few preferred measures often leads to wildly conflicting results. For example, the Spurs were actually outscored when Leonard was on the floor according to . There’s also the matter of efficiency being naturally inflated by limited minutes and/or roles.

But by keeping things simple and focusing on the four core factors to offensive success, Leonard’s value is obvious.

Indeed, shooting and ball protection are also among the main reasons why the Spurs have been able to reinvent themselves as championship contenders.

They ranked only 12th in 3-point shooting (35.3 percent) and 14th overall (45.2 percent) last season. But adjust for the extra point given on 3-point shots, and the Spurs boasted a league-leading 52.8 effective field goal percentage.

Combined with their third-place finish in turnover percentage at 12.8, and you’ve got a highly efficient team – there’s that word again – that performed far better than the sum of its parts would suggest.

The Spurs Prospectus podcast, Episode 2

Our boss liked the first episode, so you’re stuck with us — blogger Dan McCarney, beat writer Jeff McDonald and NBA columnist Mike Monroe — for the rest of the season. We chat about Nando “Mini Manu” De Colo, DeJuan Blair and the all-important battle for the 15th roster spot in our latest outing. Enjoy.


Training camp report: No debate homework for Spurs

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made a point to ask his players to watch the first presidential debate between incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, going so far as to dispense DVD copies the following day.

There was no such homework assignment after Tuesday’s rematch, however, as the Spurs went home empty-handed. Popovich, an Obama contributor, also declined to give his thoughts on the matter.

“My opinions aren’t very important,” he said.

Popovich might have skipped the DVDs because his message sunk in. Boris Diaw, despite being unable to vote due to his French nationality, said he actually watched part of the debate.


* Popovich said Tim Duncan returned to work Wednesday after an undisclosed illness forced him to take a rare day off on Monday. Duncan might have passed on whatever he had to reserve guard Gary Neal, who stayed home on Wednesday, but Popovich wasn’t willing to speculate.

“What do I look like, Louis Pasteur?” he said when asked if a bug was sweeping through the team.

* The Spurs practice facility was swarming with a crew on hand to film one of the popular H-E-B spots starring Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

Judging by , Parker is playing some kind of club doorman – maybe a bad choice considering his experience last summer in New York? No matter – Diaw expects him to nail his latest role.

“He’s a great actor,” Diaw said. “The best French actor since…who do you guys know? Gerard Depardeu. And the guy who got the Oscar. The Artist. Dujardin. Jean Dujardin. He got the Oscar in front of every American actor. That was pretty good.”

* Even though it won’t matter, Popovich said he’ll use Saturday’s preseason game at Miami as a measuring stick.

“It’s a championship team, a championship program,” he said. “You play a team like that, you get some questions answered. I’m looking forward to it.”

* Popovich also said he’s looking forward to the second leg of the Spurs’ two-day road trip to Florida, where they’ll face former Spurs assistant Jacque Vaughn in his new gig as Orlando’s head coach.

“In the preseason it’s great fun,” he said. “In the regular season we’ll be trying to beat each other’s brains in, probably after having dinner the night before. We’ll have a lot of fun with that, maybe try to screw with him, just for kicks.”

Vaughn could probably use some good advice instead; the Magic are 0-4 in the preseason.

* Popovich contrasted the presence of rookie assistant coach Ime Udoka with that of the departed Don Newman, who left to take the lead assistant role in Washington.

“Ime is going to be wonderful,” he said. “He really commands respect from the guys. The kind of professionalism he had as a player extends to what he’s trying to do now as a coach.”

Perhaps Udoka can also fill Newman’s role preventing Popovich from tearing onto the court after bad calls – although that job might be easier to fill.

“He didn’t have to work very hard at that because I rarely get (technical fouls),” Popovich joked. “He just acted like he was holding me back all the time. It was like a game.”

* Backup point guard Patty Mills (ankle) participated in non-contract drills.

Twitter: @danmccarneySAEN