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Leonard's emergence came at perfect time for Spurs' defense

Our Defensive Player of the Year pick is one of the biggest reasons San Antonio had No. 1 defense for the first time in 10 years

POSTED: Apr 15, 2016 10:50 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann


Kawhi Leonard ranked in the top 10 in defensive rebounding percentage among non-bigs.

From the 2003-04 season through '11-12, the San Antonio Spurs underwent a slow and steady decline on defense. The '03-04 team was one of the best defensive teams in NBA history. But consistent regression dropped the Spurs to 11th in the league in both '10-11 and '11-12, and you don't want to be outside the top 10 if you want to contend for a championship.

In the summer of 2012, the Spurs broke down their defensive numbers and made contesting shots their No. 1 priority. The result was a reversal of their defensive decline, three straight top-five finishes in defensive efficiency, two straight trips to the Finals, and their fifth championship.

It was an example of how analytics can help a team perform better. But as much as the numbers can teach you, you still need talent on the floor to turn plays into buckets and schemes into stops. And the Spurs' defensive turnaround coincided with the emergence of the league's best two-way player.

This season, the Spurs had the No. 1 defense in the league for the first time in 10 years. They allowed 7.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average, their best mark and the league's second best mark since that '03-04 season. San Antonio ranked first in effective field goal percentage defense, third in defensive rebounding percentage and second in opponent free throw rate.

You don't have a defense that good without multiple positive-impact defenders. No team is more balanced, on both offense and defense, than San Antonio. Their system, which keeps the ball away from the middle of the floor, is the foundation for their success. And Tim Duncan, in his 19th season, is still their anchor in the paint. They had no problems overcoming the departure of Tiago Splitter inside or Cory Joseph on the perimeter.

But the guy who has made the biggest impact for the league's best defense is Kawhi Leonard, our pick for Kia Defensive Player of the Year.

Leonard is the defensive stopper, the best one-on-one perimeter defender in the league. Once the Spurs get back in transition, keeping their opponent out of the paint starts on the perimeter. Leonard is a fundamentally sound defender with elite skills. Being loose with the ball anywhere near him is asking for a turnover.

Leonard ranked in the top 10 in defensive rebounding percentage among non-bigs and the Spurs allowed 4.4 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor than they did with him on the bench, even though he was generally defending starters and his backups were defending the opponents' reserves.

The Spurs' defense was at its best, allowing just 93.6 points per 100 possessions, with Duncan on the floor. But Leonard played 840 more minutes than Duncan did. And the team still defended at a league-best level (96.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) in the 1,142 minutes that Leonard was on the floor without Duncan.

Leonard's role in the Spurs' offense has grown every year. This season, he increased his scoring average from 16.5 to 21.2 points per game and, for the first time, he had a higher usage rate than both Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. He also ranked third in the league in 3-point percentage.

But he's still, at his core, a defensive stalwart. Leonard won this award last season, having missed 18 games for a team that ranked third defensively. This year, he's got a stronger case: 347 more minutes for one of the two best defenses of the last 12 years.

>> Check out the new defensive hub at

Here are a few more candidates for DPOY ...

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz -- The Stifle Tower was, once again, the league's best rim protector. He saw an improvement in defensive rebounding percentage and the Utah defense was 2.7 points per 100 possessions better with Gobert on the floor than it was with him off the floor. But he missed 21 games and the Jazz couldn't quite carry over the level of defense they played at the end of last season.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors -- Green was, by far, the most important piece of the league's fourth-ranked defense. His ability to switch onto guards, stifle pick-and-rolls, and keep the ball out of the paint is unparalleled. The Warriors allowed just 97.5 points per 100 possessions with Green on the floor and 109.5 with him on the bench. That difference of 12.0 was the biggest in the league among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes. He's got a strong case for the award, but it was a little stronger last season, when the Warriors had the league's best defense and when he played 15 more games than Leonard did.

Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks -- The Hawks fell off offensively this season, but had the league's best defense after Christmas. Paul Millsap was the more versatile defender, but Horford was the anchor, defended a few more shots at the rim, and, according to SportVU, was the big defender on mover 600 more pick-and-rolls than Millsap was. Both deserve consideration, but give Horford the edge.


Editor's note: As the 2015-16 season winds down,'s writers give their picks for the various end-of-season awards.

Below is our schedule of stories:

April 5: Executive of the Year

April 7: Coach of the Year

April 11: Kia Most Improved Player

April 12: Kia Sixth Man of the Year

April 13: Kia Rookie of the Year

April 14: Kia Defensive Player of the Year

April 15: Kia MVP


John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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