The Spurs’ Fate is in Kawhi Leonard’s Gigantic Hands
Every year. Every year a new season begins and the Spurs are expected to finish somewhere near the top of the West, yet usually aren’t the top favorite. Every year their boring style of play – much like their jerseys’ bland color scheme – is conservative and low-key to the point that they are often overshadowed by the flashy Warriors or Clippers out West. Every year they silently climb the rankings until they are once again labeled as a contender. The 2017 NBA Playoffs are now creeping right around the corner, and ho-hum the Spurs are right back in contention. Again.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have met each other in the Finals over the last two seasons. Then the Warriors added Kevin Durant to further solidified their status as the favorites to take home the title this season. Both powerhouses were virtually handed veteran role players like Deron Williams, Matt Barnes, Andrew Bogut (RIP), and Larry Sanders for nothing. Everyone and their moms want to play for these teams and are willing to give up money to do so.
However, the Cavaliers have struggled ever since the new year, going a mediocre 22-18. They’re just 6-8 in their last 14 and don’t look anything like the champions they were last year. They have J.R. Smith and Kevin Love back now, so they’ll likely play better once they are readjusted to playing at full strength.
The Warriors are adapting to life without Durant once again as their six-game win streak can attest to. They are still looking a little more vulnerable without their ultra-efficient forward, though. Prior to their win streak (which was mostly against bad teams, by the way), they went 5-5, including a three-game losing streak. Since they cannot stagger minutes between Curry and Durant, their bench is all of the sudden looking very weak — just look at their loss to the Spurs when almost all starters were rested and it was virtually San Antonio’s bench versus Golden State’s bench.
And then there are the Spurs. They don’t need to be the headline of articles. They don’t need to be excessive spenders, go over a humongous cap space, or sign discounted veterans that were waived. They will rest star players throughout the season at the risk of upset fans, viewers, and NBA hierarchy (although the Cavs and Warriors are following in their footsteps this year). Yet, San Antonio may be the favorite to take home the title. Do they look like a championship team?
In a league where it is commonly accepted that you need a star to win championships, the Spurs tend to rely on their whole team. Their big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili guaranteed that they always had a star since 2000, but their team play was indisputable. They never relied too heavily on one player to carry the load — at least they haven’t in over ten years.
This season, they are leaning on stud Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs have slowly been passing the torch to the San Diego State alum, and Duncan’s retirement this summer finalized the transition. Leonard is now the guy in San Antonio, and it’s very obvious.
The 6’7″ forward is ninth in the league in scoring with 26 points per game on 48.5% shooting from the field and 37.8% from deep. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the only ones ahead of him shooting more efficiently from the floor, and Isaiah Thomas is the only one shooting hotter from three. His 5.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.8 steals don’t even begin to tell the impact Leonard has.
He has taken his game up a notch this month, and now cannot stop making game-winning plays. On March 1st, Kawhi sunk a turnaround, fade-away, game-winning jumper over Paul George with 2.4 seconds left.
When the Spurs were down by three with under a minute against the Pelicans in their next game, Leonard stole Jrue Holiday’s cookies in the final minute and took it all the way for a dunk. That helped them push the game into overtime and eventually win.
Three days later, Kawhi had an MVP performance versus the Rockets that was worthy of a random drug test after the game. No lie, they actually tested him afterward. Leonard put up 39 points, but this game-sealing sequence is symbolic of his significance for the Spurs this season:
— Glasses Malone (@gmalone) March 17, 2017
It will be a major challenge for Leonard to snatch the MVP award this year, but he doesn’t really need it. His value to the Spurs has been well demonstrated time and time again — especially throughout March.
Leonard’s got the Keys
The Spurs rarely have one player be such a major key to their success. The surrounding talent is still there to an extent, but the MVP candidate is really doing everything for his team: he owns a team-high 31.4% usage rate and 11.6 wins shares. For reference, The Big Fundamental’s career-high usage rate was 29.7% in 2003-04. LaMarcus Aldridge has the second best marks in both departments for this year’s Spurs team at 24.5% usage and 5.9 win shares, which is clearly a significant dropoff from Kawhi.
The last Spurs player to have a usage rate higher than 30% like Kawhi has this year was the 2008-09 season when Parker posted a similar 31.7% rate. More notably, the last time the top two Spurs players were separated by at least 3 win shares was 13 years ago during the 2003-04 season when Duncan (13.1) had four more win shares than Ginobili’s 9.1. This year, their top two players are 5.7 win shares apart!
The Spurs’ championship teams further reveal how they seldom put so much weight on a single players’ shoulders. Here’s a look at how the top impact players of the 2016-17 Spurs compare to those of past championship rosters, with the highest stat highlighted in blue, the second highest in red, and the third highest in yellow:
There are a couple of things to take from this chart:
- Notice how evenly distributed the workload of past three Spurs teams was. The 2012-13 squad, in particular, was extremely balanced between their big three plus Kawhi. A couple years later, and this 2016-17 team is significantly more lopsided.
- Duncan’s role on the 2002-03 champions was straight ridiculous. The man was a beast, and Popovich rightfully unleashed him on the league. That’s about what he is doing this year with Kawhi. Other than this season and in 2003-04, the Spurs have never relied so heavily on one player to win a championship. On other words, they have had one player carry the bulk of the work on just 25% of their last four title teams. Can they do it this year?
- Also, note the scoring percentages. Kawhi has accounted for 22% of team points, by far the most for any San Antonio player since Timmy D more than a decade ago.
Coach Popovich didn’t really need any one player to dominate over the years since he’s had the big three. With only two aging players of that group left, he has handed the keys to the operation to his 25-year-old. Don’t get me wrong, Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Tony and Manu, Patty Mills, Danny Green, and the rest of the Spurs are fully capable of stepping up. For the most part, though, San Antonio’s fate is in the gigantic hands of Kawhi Leonard.
Photo of Leonard via Flickr