The San Antonio Spurs have had a rocky year, but cannot be counted out. If Kawhi Leonard can return to his team, there’s no telling how far they can go.
When you think of great modern players such as San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and James Harden, it’s hard to find common factors in their playstyles. These are three of the game’s juggernauts who’ve already built legacies through small sample sizes of their young careers. There are few similarities between them in terms of specific skill or on-court demeanor, and yet they stand atop the league in their own respects.
There’s one quality amongst these three that reigns supreme: killer instinct.
Killer instinct is crucial in the landscape of the NBA. Basketball is more than just X’s and O’s, it’s a game of mental exercise with many similarities to strategy games such as chess. You must always anticipate what your opponent’s next move is and calculate a gameplan. The right move could put you in the perfect position to win, but a slip up will cost you.
And that instinct is exactly what made Kawhi Leonard the perfect superstar for the Spurs’ next dynasty.
On paper, this San Antonio Spurs team has some of the best players to ever fit the Popovich mold. Take Davis Bertans, for instance. The sophomore forward is a positionless sharpshooter with underrated athletic ability and high basketball IQ. He’s a solid rebounder and plays with heart on both sides of the floor. It’s almost as if Pop created him in a laboratory to play under his scheme.
There are veteran Spurs, such as Danny Green and Patty Mills, who’re both regarded as fantastic shooters and defenders in their own rights. Mills is solid within a team-defense while Green can essentially be switched onto anyone and lockup on-ball.
And yet they’re projected to lose their streak of consecutive 50-win seasons and have a genuine chance at falling out of the playoffs entirely.
With the win over the Warriors, the Spurs are now…
…41-30 (5th out West)
…27-8 at home
…16-24 vs above .500 teams
…on PACE for 47 wins
— Paul Garcia (@PaulGarciaNBA) March 20, 2018
For 20 years, San Antonio has rotated through players who fit their mold of two-way effort and dynamic ability, but for the first time, they’re without their star. In that stretch, they’ve relied on David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and now Kawhi Leonard for their killer instinct.
Each of those players has the ability to take over a game at any given moment. The system that the Spurs dynasty has been so highly coveted for was always built on a foundation of multitalented players surrounding a fundamental star who could hit the big shots, spark a run or finish off a lead. Someone to rely on in fourth quarters, pass to when in need of a bucket or depend on to make a play when no one else could.
And this is what’s sent the Spurs into a downward spiral following the latter stages of their 2017 campaign. For those who could never believe the talent of Kawhi Leonard, this season is proof that he was not built on a system, but quite the opposite; the system is built for Kawhi.
Here’s how it went down:
In the 2010-2011 season, Tim Duncan put up career-lows in minutes, hitting below 30 MPG for the first time in his career, as well as a drop of 4.5 points in his scoring average from the previous season. Excluding his final season, this was Duncan’s lowest scoring and rebounding season of his career despite playing in and starting 76 games.
To be fair, this was a year in which Parker and Ginobili shined, averaging a combined 34.9 points per game. A large reason behind this was that Ginobili, Parker and (hold onto your hats because this is going to get interesting) Richard Jefferson played more minutes than Duncan in that season. Yes, the same Richard Jefferson that Pop notoriously hated, played more minutes than Duncan.
Take a moment to examine this: Popovich experimented with an explosive 6’7” small forward with high two-way potential. A guy who never had the most conventional jumpshot, but hit at a consistent clip with solid range. Someone who could take you off the dribble or defer to teammates.
Little did Richard know, Popovich and his staff were scouting another two-way 6’7” small forward who was hooping for San Diego State at the time. The team traded away one of Popovich’s favorite players in George Hill to take a risk on that kid, knowing that he had the potential to be the successor to Duncan and the next star of the San Antonio Spurs.
Even then, they know that they’d have to move on from Duncan at some point and that the league was changing. They sat back and watched as bigmen fell second fiddle to influential and powerful small forwards like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. From that time, Pop knew that he wanted a guy like that to take over once Tim’s time was done.
Credit to R.C. Buford, who doesn’t get enough recognition, by the way, and Popovich for looking ahead to what he could become. Using the tools, guidance and resources made available to him by the organization, Leonard, who’s been noted for his tremendous work ethic, hit the gym and improved every season that he was with the team.
He was the catalyst for the aging Spurs to crush one of the game’s greatest dynasties in the 2014 Finals victory over the Heat. They continued to contend for years to come until finally, Duncan retired and Leonard was handed the reigns.
When given the opportunity in the 2016-2017 season, he won his second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award, finished top-three in MVP voting and brought the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals, where they held a 20-point lead over the Golden State Warriors superteam led by Durant and Stephen Curry.
Leonard was not built by the system, he is the system. Simple and Plain. Without Kawhi, the Spurs are not built to compete for a title.
It’s hard to discredit LaMarcus Aldridge, who’s putting together his best season for the silver and black by far. In his own right, Aldridge has the killer instinct that Popovich needs. Whenever the team needs him most, he’ll do his personal best to put the team in a position to win.
Unfortunately for San Antonio, Aldridge isn’t the player they’re supposed to be relying on. When Leonard was diagnosed with right quadricep tendonitis. For a player whose explosive movement and unpredictable offense, mobility is key. To successfully and efficiently perform on the court, Leonard needs to have a fully functional leg to run on. Disease in a major leg muscle is not optimal for on-court performance.
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And that’s how we got here. Leonard, primed to take on the mantle as the Spurs’ superstar leader, is stuck at home nursing a bum leg. Aldridge has been forced to readjust and become the number one option he was in Portland while the organization patiently awaits the return of their savior.
There’s no telling what’s next. In a season full of discomfort throughout the team and its fans, minds have often dwelled back to Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. With Leonard performing at his best and a team of well-suited Spurs around him, they held a 20-point lead on the eventual world champions.
If, and only if Leonard can return to form, there’s little doubt that the Spurs can contend again. Whether that’s this season, next season or in the distant future is yet to be determined but one thing holds true: the Spurs refuse to give in to their situation.
Pop was asked if there was a point of no return for when to bring back Kawhi Leonard: "No, why would we do that?"
— Michael C. Wright (@mikecwright) March 20, 2018
At age 69, Popovich continued to dedicate himself to the team and the city. Every time the San Antonio Spurs compete, you can find flashes of what they want to be as a team. Whether it be off of a Dejounte Murray dunk, an Aldridge fadeaway or a Tar-Heel Triple from Danny Green, you’ll always find glimpses of who this team is at their core.
Championship DNA is not something that just disappears.