With star forward Kawhi Leonard returning against Dallas, the San Antonio Spurs are in for a major boost.
By all standards, the San Antonio Spurs were not expected to maintain the third seed in the Western Conference without Leonard to start the year. The Finals MVP has been the team’s unquestioned leader since the retirement of Tim Duncan two seasons ago.
Even so, this Spurs roster was considered questionable to start the season. The team failed to land Chris Paul or any other marquee free agents this past summer and opted to extend their relationship with an aging LaMarcus Aldridge in October. While the addition of Rudy Gay bolstered their bench depth, they entered the season with two starters sidelined.
Now with Leonard reentering the lineup, San Antonio should continue to dominate as they have for the past two decades.
Jumper looks good. He's going tonight, per Pop. pic.twitter.com/dyaJsg02W2
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) December 12, 2017
At just 25 years old, Leonard finished his second consecutive season as a top three candidate for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. He notched a career high in scoring with 25.5 points per game while forcing nearly 2 steals per night.
Needless to say, his impact is vital to this Spurs team. Behind the team’s 19-8 start to the season and the elite coaching of Gregg Popovich, Leonard could be the catalyst to another championship calibur season for San Antonio.
Assuming he’ll be able to perform at a high level from the jump, Leonard’s production will be immense. In his fourth season out of UCLA, forward Kyle Anderson has assumed the starting small forward role with Leonard sidelined.
In 27.4 minutes per game, Anderson has put up 8.9 points and six rebounds at the starting spot. His performance has been commendable in place of the team’s leader, but pales in comparison to Leonard’s production. His ball handling ability, on-ball defense, shooting and athleticism make him a dominant force against all competition, while Anderson more often fills in as a viable role player.
Replacing the now injured Anderson with a healthy Kawhi Leonard can elevate this team to real contention. The Spurs are just 2.5 games behind the Golden State Warriors for the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference. With Stephen Curry nursing a sprained ankle and Leonard reentering the rotation, there’s no reason why the Spurs can’t snag the second seed.
Unfortunately, Kawhi’s return comes with many questions. It’s been more than six months since he’s seen NBA action, so he may need to readjust to game speed and intensity. Since May he’s sustained two major injuries, one to his ankle and one in his quad, which may put a damper on his mobility.
— Jabari Young (@JabariJYoung) December 12, 2017
On the other hand, Leonard’s impact should be evident even if he takes time to readjust to game pace. Catch-and-shoot opportunities are plentiful under Popovich’s offense and Leonard is no slouch in the post. His combination of strength and length allow him to create space on his shot and score from anywhere in a half court setting.
Reflecting on his 2016-2017 season, Leonard impressed in his advanced metrics and statistics with high value in multiple facets of the game.
Kawhi was the only player to rank top six in both offensive and defensive win shares with 8.9 and 4.7 respectively. Players such as Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and John Wall have had their names throw in the conversation of “best two-way player in the NBA,” but Leonard is the only player with the numbers to back it up.
In addition to his win shares, Leonard tied with the league’s most recent Finals MVP in Kevin Durant for second in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating with 27.6.
Even on a minutes restriction, Leonard should make an instant impact against forward Harrison Barnes. Through 17 meetings between the two, Leonard has shot 47 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from behind the arc.
Although Leonard has the edge in the all-time matchup, Barnes has started his season strong for Dallas. Through 27 games, Barnes is averaging 18.4 points and a career-high 7.3 rebounds. It’s been 212 days since Leonard’s last NBA action and Barnes has the hot hand, putting up at least 18 points in each of his last four games.
The reintegration of Kawhi Leonard will set the season’s tone for San Antonio. As long as his health is in tact and he regains his footing, the Spurs have no reason not to return to the Western Conference Finals.