Everyone has a bad week. On Monday maybe you spill coffee on your pants, Tuesday your boss yells at you in front of the whole office, Wednesday your car breaks down, and Thursday your dog runs away. By Friday it’s unexpectedly snowing, trapping you at work, and you are ready to curl up in the fetal position under your desk. We have all been there.
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That’s the kind of week the San Antonio Spurs are having.
The Spurs are in the midst of a four-game losing streak to the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz and most recently, the Portland Trail Blazers. They have lost five of seven games on their famous “rodeo road trip” and have guaranteed their first losing trip since it first began in 2003.
While the whole team has struggled to some degree, other than stalwart in the middle Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard has shown startling inconsistency during this stretch. His defense has still been solid, but offensively, Leonard has just not been as reliable as he has been in the past.
Leonard has not scored over 20 points since Feb. 6, and during this four-game losing streak, Leonard is averaging 9.5 points per game on 42.3 percent shooting. If you go back one more game to a pre-All-Star break meeting with Detroit, Leonard is 16 for his last 49 shot attempts.
What exactly is going wrong for Leonard? His outside shot has been a disaster lately. During that span he is also 2-for-14 from three-point range. During his 1-for-11 effort against the Clippers, TNT’s Reggie Miller, a noted three-point specialist during his playing days, noticed that Leonard was not getting enough lift during his jump-shot.
Miller said that Leonard was shooting with “all arms,” and was not using his legs enough to generate his shot. That is as good an explanation as any as to why Leonard’s shots have been drawing more iron than net in the last five games.
A mechanical issue can lead to missed shots, which can lead to a lack of confidence, which can lead to more missed shots. It’s seemed to be a snowball effect for Leonard, once he gets off to a poor start, he battles his shot for the rest of the game.
When Leonard is not making outside shots, it allows defenders to play off of him, making his drives to the basket, and usually potent pull-up jumper, easier to defend. When Leonard is on his game, he can beat you in a variety of ways, but without that three-point jumper falling it’s one less tool on his tool belt.
Against Portland Wednesday night, Leonard was more aggressive than he had been in his previous four games. Four of his five made shots came in the paint, and he also knocked down all three of his free-throw attempts.
Once he realized his jumper was not falling, he made an effort to attack the basket rather than continually throwing up missed jump-shots. Though his shot did not show signs of improving during the game, it is encouraging that Leonard adjusted his game to fit his current predicament. Even so, it was still a difficult 5-for-13 shooting night for the young swingman.
No player is immune to a slump, but this is not the kind of performance the Spurs would like from a player they will likely give a maximum contract to this offseason. Leonard was pegged as a budding superstar after his MVP level performance in the 2014 NBA Finals. His injury-plagued 2015 season has featured flashes of that potential, but given the high expectations; it is fair to say that his season has been a slight disappointment up to this point.
If the Spurs are going to get things turned around, and avoid a late season collapse that sees them fall to the eighth seed or even miss the playoffs, then Leonard is going to have to start knocking down shots again.
Their next two games are against the Sacramento Kings and the Phoenix Suns. That will finish off the “rodeo road trip” and it is important that they finish the trip strong. These teams are absolutely beatable, but they won’t just roll over and die. The Spurs proved this season they can be beaten by anyone. Just ask Utah.
At 34-23, they are now less than three games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder for seventh seed in the Western Conference. A first round matchup against the dominant Golden State Warriors is a real, and daunting possibility. Is it time to panic? Not quite yet. There is still enough time for San Antonio, and Leonard, to regain their winning ways before heading into the postseason.
However, there is definite reason to be concerned. All good things must come to an end. Eventually this Spurs dynasty will end, and they will have to rebuild.
Kawhi Leonard will be the player they rebuild around, but they need the version that demolished the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the NBA Finals back, and they need him now.
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