May 25, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (left) looks to pass as San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (right) defends in game three of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Oklahoma City won 106-97. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Today the NBA announced the two All-Defensive teams for the 2013/14 NBA regular season, and one of your own San Antonio Spurs made an appearance. For the first time since Bruce Bowen was donning the Silver and Black, a Spur not named Tim Duncan appeared in an end of season superlative team. Kawhi Leonard joins fellow NBA finalist LeBron James (heard of him?) along with three other first time appearance makers in Patrick Beverley, Jimmy Butler, and Roy Hibbert.
2013-14 NBA All-Defensive Teams – 2nd Team: L. James (MIA), P. Beverley (HOU), J. Butler (CHI), K. Leonard (SA), R. Hibbert (IND)
— Marc J. Spears (@SpearsNBAYahoo) June 2, 2014
The first team consisted of Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, Andre Iguodala, Chris Paul, Paul George, and Serge Ibaka. Tim Duncan also received votes (33, 12 of which were 1st team votes), although he wasn’t that close to making either team in the end.
I’m sure he’ll be alright with that though, because I’m confident that Tim Duncan never even considered the possibility of winning ANOTHER defensive team award: he just doesn’t care about that sort of thing. All he wants is that elusive 5th ring.
Making his first appearance on an end of season team probably means quite a lot to Kawhi (although he would never let anyone know that). Other than All-Rookie 1st team in his first season, Kawhi has never received any love from media members in terms of awards and he probably should have made a defensive team before this season, but there is no time like the present.
Leonard emerged during the regular season as the best Kevin Durant stopper this side of the Mississippi River (or any side of that muddy ol’ stream), and showed his importance to the Spurs by sparking their 19 game winning streak with his return from injury.
May 21, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) shoots the ball over San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in game two of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Although he isn’t the most obvious candidate for MVP on the Spurs, the team’s record without him was worse than the teams record without any other player (i.e. it suffered more without him than when anyone else was missing).
He contributed on both ends of the floor, but his defensive impact was especially felt. With his ginourmous hands, Kawhi averaged 1.7 steals per game, despite playing less than 30 minutes (like all of the other Spurs). Had he played 36 minutes per game (a standard amount for a starter), he would have averaged 2.1 steals – an incredible number for a primary on-ball defender.
Advanced metrics also back up Leonard candidacy as his 97.7 defensive rating (points given up per 100 possessions he was on the court) shows. If he was a team on his own, his ranking would be second only to the Indiana Pacers’s overall defensive rating. Kawhi is both an intelligent team defender, and a tenacious on-ball defender.
“He’s starting to feel his oats. … He’s the future of the Spurs, partially because everyone else is older than dirt.” Pop on Kawhi
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) June 1, 2014
He has improved each year defensively (and offensively) under Coach Pop and with the mentoring from Duncan he has become a defensive force for the Spurs. Leonard is reaching the potential that the RC Buford and Popovich saw in him when they traded away George Hill for the rights to draft him. He will be a key part of the rebuilding process once the old guard move on, due to his ability on both ends of the floor
Kawhi isn’t all potential though. He has been instrumental in San Antonio making it’s first back-to-back finals appearances ever this season. Without him, there is no way the Spurs would a) have beat three very strong Western Conference teams to have made the NBA Finals, and b) own the best record in the NBA and therefore home-court advantage in these NBA Finals. Without Leonard we would never have got the incredible game 6 in the Western Conference Finals, which almost cost Matt Bonner (AKA The Red Rocket AKA The Red Mamba) a sister in law:
All I want to do tomorrow is sit on the couch and wait for game 6 to start. But sadly, I have a fiancé.
— Luke Bonner (@LukeyBonner) May 31, 2014
With his excellent performance in the NBA playoffs so far this year and the chance to show the nation (again) what he can do to slow down LeBron James, Kawhi could, one day in the future, do what even Tim Duncan never managed: Win a Defensive Player of the Year award. Fingers crossed, Spurs fans!
P.S. It is also worth mentioning that James Harden received two votes for All-Defensive second team. I can only assume that Harden’s parents had once vote each…
Will Kawhi Leonard Ever Win Defensive Player of the Year?