After last night’s game in Los Angeles against the Clippers in which the San Antonio Spurs lost 103-97, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich didn’t hold back when discussing his disappointment with second-year swingman Lonnie Walker IV. Pop said Walker played “horribly” and that he was “noncompetitive.”
While that may sound harsh considering Walker only played five minutes against the Clippers, a review of the film plainly illustrates why Pop was upset.
Early in his first stint, Walker got blown by off the dribble by Lou Williams. Walker was actually playing good defense until he bit on Williams’ pump fake and took a half step forward. Williams, one of the smartest scorers in the league, instantly noticed Walker was slightly out of position and took advantage.
Soon thereafter, Walker gets posted up by Leonard, who collapses the defense and creates an easy shot for his teammate. Walker’s issue on this possession is simply a lack of physicality. In today’s NBA, defenders aren’t allowed much contact but Walker can’t just let Leonard position himself unimpeded. Once he was defending the post, Walker’s main responsibility was to not allow Leonard to go middle — but that’s exactly what Leonard was able to do. Again, it was a case of a lack of effort on Walker’s part.
It’s important to note that what made Pop upset last night wasn’t the above two plays. Pop was angry because Walker responded to the Clippers challenging him by trying to hide on the defensive end.
Keep in mind that Walker was in the game to defend Leonard. On this play, Leonard gets the rebound but Walker doesn’t immediately pick him up like he should, which forces Rudy Gay to switch onto him. After the switch, Walker should have taken Gay’s man (JaMychal Green) but instead inexplicably takes Marco Belinelli’s man who was at halfcourt. Belinelli tries to cover for Walker but is late and Leonard is allowed to operate three-on-two.
In this next video, Walker for reasons unknown doesn’t pick up Leonard after a made basket. That causes his teammates to panic; Aldridge points out that Leonard is open and Bryn Forbes scrambles to pick him up. Leonard starts backing down Forbes and Walker just bluffs at helping even though the man he picked up is 35-plus feet from the rim. Not good.
Once again, on this possession after a made basket, Walker fails to defend Leonard. A miffed DeMar DeRozan realizes the mistake and goes to Leonard. Pop, rightfully, is irate with Walker for again not even taking on the challenge of defending Leonard.
Noncompetitive is an accurate description of Walker’s defense in the above possessions. Pop can live with Walker making mistakes on defense but isn’t going to let him hide from Leonard. That’s indefensible.
What made it even more frustrating for the coaching staff is that Walker actually had really strong defensive possessions when he was brave enough to take the challenge. In the first clip, Walker fights over the screen twice, exhibits extremely fast feet and forces Leonard to carry the ball. In the second clip, Walker uses his fast feet to stay in front of Williams and he remains perfectly vertical to avoid a foul.
I agree 100% with Pop calling out Walker for the noncompetitive possessions against the Clippers. This is the vintage Pop who helped mold some of the best defensive teams in NBA history, not the version of Pop who had to bite his tongue last year because he didn’t have the personnel to field a strong defensive team. If he were to let Walker get away with hiding on defense, that’d set a terrible precedent with the rest of the team.
But it’s even more than that. Walker has the physical tools to be a defensive stopper: he has fast feet, he’s blessed with lightning-quick reaction speed, he’s smart and he can jump out of the gym. If Pop coaches him hard and doesn’t allow Walker to settle for being just another swingman in the league who goes through the motions, Walker can be special on defense. That’s a goal worth fighting for.
Walker shouldn’t take Pop’s ire personally. Even Bruce Bowen was repeatedly challenged through the years when he was far and away the best perimeter defender in the NBA. Danny Green, like Walker, was a nice, considerate human being that Pop had to relentlessly push in order to turn him into an elite defender.
If anything, Walker should take it as a compliment that Pop sees great defensive potential in him. Players like Patty Mills and Belinelli could be fitted with shock collars with Pop triggering the electricity after every defensive miscue and it wouldn’t make a difference because they don’t have the physical tools to be even decent defenders. Walker, on the other hand, just needs pushing, prodding and encouragement.
And that’s exactly what Pop is doing, in his unique way.