Kawhi Leonard and the Most Unique Role in the NBA

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The impact of Kawhi Leonard’s return sent waves through the entire Spurs roster immediately, reflected by the final score in the Spurs 14 point victory over the Portland Trailblazers.

The young small forward plugged some energy into a defense that had become a little bland during his time out, as the Spurs were able to come up with 12 steals as a team (3 of which were by “The Claw” himself). He proved to be a vital piece to the offense as well, leading the pack in scoring in a game where the Spurs collected 34 assists.

The last time the Trail Blazers played the Spurs, they were without Kawhi Leonard and the team had just 8 steals and 24 assists, even while the game extended all the way into triple overtime.

Kawhi Leonard belongs in this new brand of NBA roles, one that somehow combines “Superstar” and “Glue Guy,” a small class filled with defense-first NBA players that continue to reach the top of the list every time we make a new advanced stat.

While just a comparison of two games, that’s a dramatic difference. Portland’s a team that presents a challenge for any NBA team, and the Spurs were able to hold a relatively consistent lead on them for most of the game, something they’ve struggled with quite a bit in Leonard’s absence.

All of this ultimately leads to the question: Just how valuable is Kawhi Leonard?

He came into the league already being labeled as a defensive specialist, even drew Bruce Bowen comparisons (although, even at the time this was a bit laughable because Leonard has a  good 40 pounds over Bowen), but he quickly was able to develop a solid jump shot and is now rounding it out into a very solid offensive game overall.

Kawhi Leonard belongs in this new brand of NBA roles, one that somehow combines “Superstar” and “Glue Guy.” It’s a small class filled with the likes of Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green, a group of defense-first NBA players that continue to reach the top of the list every time we make a new advanced stat.

Apr 2, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots the ball as Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (front) defends during the second half at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 111-90. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

While Leonard’s role isn’t the leader of the team or the playmaker, it still could be the most important one.  According to data collected by 82games.com, the Spurs are over ten points better (combining both ends of the floor) with Leonard on the floor as opposed to off. This leads the team by far, the next highest being +6.6.

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This may be largely due to the fact that Leonard is such a rare breed; a high IQ basketball player with supreme athleticism and elite defensive ability that also has a respectable arsenal of offensive moves. While Duncan may be the easiest to pin as the “best Spur” so far this year, Leonard is the most irreplaceable.

What makes him, as well as  the other players mentioned above, so valuable is that he mostly functions as apiece of the offensive system around him but does it exceptionally well. He isn’t as prone to the ups and downs as a typical high scoring star player, the defensive intensity is a valuable presence every night.

Leonard’s athleticism dominates on the defensive end, and his hustle energizes the entire team. He creates fast break opportunities and momentum swinging plays that nobody else on the Spurs can recreate in his absence, and it may be exactly what the struggling Silver and Black need to get back on track.

Next: Spurs at Nuggets: Prediction, Key Players, Injuries

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