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San Antonio Spurs: 4 potential changes when Kawhi Leonard returns

By Rob Wolkenbrod
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 21: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs applauds from the bench in the third quarter against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on October 21, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 21: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs applauds from the bench in the third quarter against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on October 21, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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When Kawhi Leonard returns to the San Antonio Spurs, how will the rotation change?

In Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals, the San Antonio Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard deep into the game against the Golden State Warriors, due to an ankle injury. The Spurs led by double-digits, but without Leonard, they blew the lead and ended up getting swept, 4-0. Golden State went on to win the NBA Finals.

The Spurs star had the summer to rest his ankle, but a new injury arose, as he did something to his quadriceps. The severity wasn’t made official, nor a specific timetable for his return. So, he missed the entire preseason.

After those five games, Leonard’s status remained in question. He didn’t play in the regular season opener against the Minnesota Timberwolves, a trend that continued for the next three games. The organization continued to rule him out, still not providing an update on when he could return.

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Meanwhile, the Spurs won their first four games and, as of Oct. 26, they stand at 4-0 without Leonard. It’s a turnaround from last spring’s playoffs but none of these wins were against the Warriors, either.

Recently, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich gave MySanAntonio.com some clarity on when the 2016-17 MVP candidate could be back. He didn’t rule out early November, although it wasn’t a convincing answer that the team will definitely get Leonard back then.

Whenever Leonard gets back, changes are abounding for the Spurs. That goes for the lineup, roles and potentially someone leaving the rotation.

Some players became a bigger part of the team to start the season. Of course, that will change with Leonard back and 30-35 minutes per game taken up. How will this be impacted, along with other aspects of the team? Let’s take a look.

Next: Kyle Anderson moves out of the starting lineup

HOUSTON, TX – OCTOBER 17: Kyle Anderson #1 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots a free throw during the preseason game on October 13, 2017 at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX – OCTOBER 17: Kyle Anderson #1 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots a free throw during the preseason game on October 13, 2017 at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

4. Kyle Anderson moves out of the starting lineup

Minutes wise, Kyle Anderson has been the biggest beneficiary of Kawhi Leonard’s injury. He started most of the preseason games and all four regular-season contests, playing more than 20 minutes in all but one. Regular season games have seen Anderson in at least 27 minutes each, where he’s scored in double-digits three times.

These numbers, of course, will change when Leonard gets back and takes the starting small forward spot. He’ll take between 30-35 minutes, maybe not, to begin with, but in three-to-four games.

In Anderson’s first four seasons he never averaged more than 16 minutes per game. He’s played well, so maybe that number rises in the 2017-18 season but not by much. This will come through fending other bench players off for minutes, including Bryn Forbes, Davis Bertans and Brandon Paul, depending on how the rotation looks at the time.

We see you with the spin moves, @KyleAnderson5. pic.twitter.com/lWNUW1lpPT

— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) October 26, 2017

Bertans won’t be an issue since he’s barely seen on-court time this season, unless Anderson struggles in his bench return. He should get a long leash before this, as a more versatile and well-rounded offensive player than the Latvian forward.

Moving out of the starting lineup will cause the UCLA product’s production to dip, but there’s a chance he plays a bigger bench role than past seasons.

Next: Aldridge takes a step back

3. LaMarcus Aldridge takes a step back

LaMarcus Aldridge looks reborn for the San Antonio Spurs to start the season. He’s become the temporary leader of the offense, getting all the touches he desires, early and often, and finding his way toward big scoring nights. It’s a complete turnaround from the offseason, which took Aldridge reaching out to Gregg Popovich about his role in the offense.

Not only that but the five-time All-Star has a fresh three-year, $72.3 million contract to keep him in San Antonio. It makes for an inspired and comfortable player that looks nothing like the 2015 and 2016 versions. He even has a 29.6 Usage Percentage, his highest since the 2014-15 season in Portland and the third-largest number of his career, for now.

Current look at LaMarcus Aldridge…….. #GoSpursGo pic.twitter.com/Var9v3twel

— News 4 San Antonio (@News4SA) October 24, 2017

This has happened without Kawhi Leonard’s on-court presence. It won’t last forever so Aldridge must make another adjustment: stepping back to the No. 2 role in the offense.

How easy will this be for Aldridge? He played this role in his first two Spurs seasons but both were down years. If this conversation with Popovich meant that much, then the adjustment shouldn’t be an issue. The Spurs can still get the ball in the 32-year-old’s hands at the start of every game, but with fewer touches. How will he react to this?

Next: Someone will leave the rotation

HOUSTON, TX – OCTOBER 17: Bryn Forbes #11 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts during the preseason game against the Houston Rockets on October 13, 2017 at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX – OCTOBER 17: Bryn Forbes #11 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts during the preseason game against the Houston Rockets on October 13, 2017 at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

2. Someone will leave the rotation

Adding a player to the San Antonio Spurs’ rotation potentially means someone leaves. With the rest of the roster losing 30-35 minutes per game, it will impact not just Kyle Anderson but one or two players at the end of the bench.

It starts with Bryn Forbes. He received time in three of the Spurs’ four games and hasn’t been a factor. The longest run of three was against the Chicago Bulls, where he played 17 minutes and scored 4 points on 2-for-7 shooting. The next two games were for 4 and 3 minutes, respectively, totaling just 2 points.

Unless Popovich provides Forbes extra playing time to close October, he seems like the most likely candidate to lose all playing time.

Brandon Paul just played 19 minutes against the Miami Heat, scoring 7 points and hitting 2 3-pointers. It was a great look in his first taste of extended minutes but even he will be at risk when Leonard returns.

It’s end-of-the-rotation minutes for Paul, which haven’t been consistent to start the season. If they remain this way, then his playing time will either be just a handful of minutes per game or wiped out at shooting guard.

These players are the two most likely to leave the rotation when Leonard returns. Another injury must arise for them to see consistent playing time, or a change in plans for the nine or 10 players Popovich uses.

Next: More small ball

1. More small-ball lineups

Small-ball is becoming a staple of the San Antonio Spurs. Maybe not as much as other NBA teams, but its presence has grown to start the 2017-18 season.

Kawhi Leonard provides versatility for the Spurs. His seven-foot wingspan and 6-foot-7 height allow them to play him at shooting guard or small forward, with an occasional run as the primary ball handler. Adding to that, a run at stretch four could be in the cards for the San Diego State product, if the Spurs want to expand his versatility and take another step toward small-ball lineups.

After curiously signing just one big man in free agency, the Spurs provided new lineup looks to start the season. Most of them included new signing Rudy Gay at power forward, a role he rarely played for the Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors and Sacramento Kings. He extends the floor as a 6-foot-8 power forward, with the ability to take his man off the dribble and to the hoop. There was even a moment or two when he played center. It’s provided results, with 14.8 points in 23.8 minutes per game.

https://twitter.com/spurs/status/923386559914655745

When Gay isn’t on the floor and Popovich wants to get creative, he can place Leonard in this role next to Aldridge as the center. The length is there to grab rebounds and defend other stretch fours, so it’s something he should be able to pull off.

Must Read: 25 greatest players in Spurs history

The current Spurs roster provides enough versatility and length as it is. Leonard’s just an added bonus that makes them a bigger threat in the Western Conference.

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