By: J.R. Smooth
Arron Afflalo’s performance in Orlando needs more TLC.
Kendrick Lamar needs to write another Arron Afflalo devotional. I made the mistake of hopping on Twitter at one point on Friday night to see if anything newsworthy was going on in the NBA and had the misfortune of seeing a number of fans pounding Arron Afflalo for what seemed to be poor play against the Oklahoma City Thunder.  I can freely admit when I’m wrong. And in so doing, perhaps it was misguided of me to compare Afflalo to his former Western Conference brethren at the two guard spot in James Harden and Manu Ginobili (which I have done on both my blog and Twitter). However, neither Ginobili nor Harden have ever had to play on a team as bereft of talent as the 2012-13 Orlando Magic.

It takes a lot of careful analysis to accurately measure player performance. And Afflalo’s numbers this year aren’t anywhere near as bad as his greatest detractors make them seem to be.

Take this past Friday night against the Thunder, for example. Afflalo played 41-minutes. Only Jameer Nelson’s game-high 44 surpassed Afflalo. Russell Westbrook played just 36 while Kevin Durant logged 35.

Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn must not have liked the potential Westbrook-Jameer Nelson matchup, or he would have never asked Afflalo to check his former UCLA Bruin teammate from the game’s opening tip. Westbrook is such a smart player that whenever Jameer Nelson was caught guarding him, he would immediately operate out of the post, as Nelson lacks both the height and strength to put up much resistance.

To be clear, Arron Afflalo saw time checking Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Kevin Martin, and even a little Serge Ibaka, while also acting as a primary option second only to Jameer Nelson on offense. Furthermore, it’s not like Trip was facing Steve Blake every time he got an offensive touch. Afflalo was being guarded predominantly by Thabo Sef0losha — a guy that’s earned his living playing heady, smart defense everywhere he’s been. To wit, according to Basketball-Reference, Sefolosha has had a greater defensive impact over the scope of his career than Denver’s Andre Iguodala. (Iguodala’s career on-court/off-court differentials can be found here; Sefolosha’s can be found here.)

Fans expect Afflalo to be Kobe Bryant when he can be no one other than Arron Afflalo. And until he starts getting Bryant’s dollar, he’ll continue clanging 3-pointers; he has no incentive to increase his conditioning and thus, see his percentages from distance improve.

He’s averaging career-highs in minutes, field goal attempts and makes, free throw percentage, rebounds, assists, points, and usage, while also being asked to initiate offense in the halfcourt and guard the opposing team’s best players. Essentially, he’s being asked to do even more than he was in Denver except with a lot less talent and experience surrounding him while playing under a rookie head coach. Only Glen Davis, Al Harrington, and the newly acquired Tobias Harris have higher usage rates. Fans need to chill out. Afflalo hasn’t been stellar. But the same can be said of their entire roster.

Orlando is one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Only New Orleans, Sacramento, and Charlotte are worse. Until Rob Hennigan is able to shore up his interior, it won’t matter who’s on the wing. Interior defense matters more than anything else when it comes to measuring team defense in the NBA. The Denver Nuggets aren’t creeping into the top-10 defensively because Andre Iguodala is that good (though he does play a part). They’re becoming a truly elite defensive team because Kosta Koufos is finally earning the minutes he should have been getting all season long.

Which brings me to my next salutation: Kosta Koufos.

Kosta Koufos IS Kosta Koufos

How good has Koufos been for Denver this year? Take a seat. You’re going to need it.
Kosta Koufos has started all 66-games for Denver this season. After chocking up 2397 total minutes in his first four seasons combined, the former Buckeye has played a career-high 1499-minutes during 2012-13. Koufos is ranked third in the league in field goal percentage (.614) behind only Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan. Koufos is posting a career-high 18.2 PER (Player Efficiency Rating), ranking him sixth in the league among true centers, ahead of such names as Omer Asik, Roy Hibbert, DeAndre Jordan, and Joakim Noah.

When Koufos is on the floor for Denver, the Nuggets have the most prolific offense in the league — ahead of even the Oklahoma City Thunder — scoring 113.0 points per 100-possessions. Nearly as impressive, the Nuggets also hold the league’s ninth-best defense with him on the floor, allowing only 103.7 points per 100-possessions. #1 offense. #9 defense. With Koufos off the floor, Denver sports the league’s eighth-ranked offense (scoring 108.2 points per 100-possessions) and 20th-ranked defense (allowing 106.7 points per 100-possessions). #8 offense. #20 defense.

With Kosta Koufos on the floor: #1 offense. #9 defense.

With Kosta Koufos off the floor: #8 offense. #20 defense.

Kosta Koufos improves Denver by 7.7 points per 100-possessions. Some of that definitely has to do with the quality of his backup at center. JaVale McGee is just that bad, essentially rendering everything Koufos does in his time on the court before him moot. Still, there aren’t many players in the league who have that kind of impact on their team’s performance. All that for just $9 million over three years.

Kawhi Leonard’s performance in the absence of Tony Parker has been stellar.

Kawhi Leonard scoffs at a Sophomore Slump. Since losing Tony Parker to injury on March 1, the San Antonio Spurs have gone 5-2, with an impressive 105-93 victory over Oklahoma City as proof it’s been no fluke. Granted, there were some tight victories mixed in with a blowout loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, but the point remains: The Spurs keep chugging along. The main reason why is because Kawhi Leonard, who’s wingspan should be measured in yards, has stepped up his game tremendously.

In 46-games played this season, the 21 year-old sophomore is averaging 11.6 points on 8.9 shots, 5.6 rebounds,1.5 assists, a team-high 1.7 steals and only one turnover per game. He’s missed 21-games due to injury.

In the six games he’s played since Tony Parker’s exit, Leonard is averaging 16.2 points on 13.6 shots, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.2 steals, and, despite a higher usage rate, still only one turnover per game. If player improvement were to be measured in six game increments, Kawhi Leonard would come out looking mighty fine. He’s still just 21 years-old. I said he was the can’t-miss prospect of 2011’s NBA Draft and I’m happy he’s not making me out to be a fool.

The San Antonio Spurs’ mastery of the crunch-time conundrum intrigues

What else do I like about San Antonio? Here’s a better question: What don’t I like about San Antonio?

If you want to see a clinic on how to handle late-game situations during a tight contest, watch the final few minutes of the Spurs-Cavs game from Saturday night. The most amazing thing about it? They didn’t even have their head coach, as Gregg Popovich had been ejected midway through the second quarter after two straight technicals and a questionable offensive foul call on Boris Diaw.

The Spurs went on a 17-10 run over the game’s final five minutes to seal it. How did they do so, you ask? Well, for one, Kawhi Leonard came up huge, scoring eight points, grabbing three rebounds, and dishing out one assist (in just those five minutes). Tim Duncan also had two (and what should have been three) pretty important blocks.

The Spurs’ substitution patterns — particularly in late-game situations — are what intrigue me most. Leonard played the final 10:07 of the fourth quarter. That’s kind of insane. He was a +4 in that time. However, the two key substitutions appear to be Tim Duncan’s entrance for Stephen Jackson at the 6:25 mark and Boris Diaw swapping in for Tiago Splitter at the 6:10 mark. Both Duncan and Diaw finished with +7 for the quarter — in what ended up being the aforementioned 17-10 run.

The key play, and what gave San Antonio a lead they would never relinquish, came with just under five minutes remaining. The Spurs isolated Tim Duncan on the left block and let him go to work. Naturally, this concerned the Cavaliers, as they sent three defenders his direction. Duncan remained patient and spotted Nando De Colo on the opposite baseline. Because this was so late in the shot clock and they were just coming out of a triple-team, the Cavs’ defense was scrambling. De Colo and Kawhi Leonard were at one point so close together that they could have been holding hands. Leonard, the smart player that he is, realized this and spaced himself away from De Colo behind the 3-point line — probably out of instinct – just as De Colo sent the ball his direction. With enough space to spot an open 3-pointer, Leonard drained it easily, giving the Spurs the lead for good at 105-103.

That’s why Kawhi Leonard was a can’t-miss prospect. And that’s why the San Antonio Spurs win games. Because of smart players making smart plays just like that. You have to watch an awful lot of basketball to pick up on subtle nuances like those and remember them when the time comes to call a player’s name on draft night. San Antonio does just that.

Leonard of course followed that up on Cleveland’s ensuing possession with stellar ball denial on Dion Waiters, swarming on-ball defense after Waiters was fortunate enough to get the ball, and a decisive defensive rebound. The guy is simply elite at every single phase of the game. And he’s just 21.

Memphis has figured out how to slow the pace against Denver. Can they now figure out how to beat them?

The Memphis Grizzlies have done everything to solve the Nuggets – everything except figure out how to beat them. To my knowledge, there is not yet a way to quantify transition defense. But if there were, you can bet the Grizzlies would be the category’s league leaders.

There isn’t a team in the Association able to slow down the Nuggets quite like Memphis. It’s kind of a marvel to watch unfold, actually. What does Memphis do so well that no one else is able to capture?

The Denver Nuggets currently play at the league’s second-fastest pace (behind only the Houston Rockets), tallying 95 possessions per 48-minutes. In four games against Memphis this season, by which Denver holds a 3-1 series advantage, the Nuggets average 85.7 possessions per 48-minutes — nearly ten full possessions less. The Grizzlies (tied with the New Orleans Hornets) play at the NBA’s second-slowest pace (88.5 possessions per 48), however, no one else in the same “dead-ball” vicinity has been able to keep Denver from running like John Hollinger’s new team.

What gives? And if the two meet in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs, does Memphis have the advantage even though Denver has proven itself more than capable of winning the grit ‘n grind games the Grizzlies have made famous? Only time will tell.