San Antonio Spurs: What if Zaza Never Injured Kawhi Leonard?

Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Zaza Pachulia
Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Zaza Pachulia / Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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Human beings are doers. We can do almost anything we put our mind to, regardless of the effects of our actions. We’ve built great monuments, empires, reshaped the climate, left a film of unerasable plastic in the oceans. We’ve gone to war, harnessed energy and fire, and conquered the world for ourselves. 

We’ve built nearly everything we’ve set out to do, but the one thing we can’t do and never will be able to do is change the past. It’s a futile effort. Past deeds can be forgiven and forgotten, but they can never be completely undone. Memories and perceptions of the past, yes, absolutely. But the real events will always remain unchanged. 

On May 14th, 2017, the San Antonio Spurs entered Oracle Arena for a matchup against the Golden State Warriors. This Warriors team was arguably the most talented team ever assembled and was widely predicted to easily beat the Spurs en route to an NBA Finals appearance. 

And yet, with only seven minutes and 56 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Spurs were beating this Warriors team. Not only were the Spurs winning, but they were winning big, 76-55. We all know what happened next.

Zaza Pachulia would stick out his left foot out while closing out Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi went down, the Spurs lost, and that was effectively the end of the Spurs' dynasty. 

May 14th was Mother’s Day, and I was enjoying time with my family at a Cuban restaurant in Detroit. This establishment had a single TV behind the bar, and much to my mother’s chagrin, my dad and I would frequently make dashes to check the score. At halftime, we agreed we could check less often. About three minutes into the third quarter, he checked for the last time and flashed me a thumbs-up. 

As dinner came to an end and we left the restaurant, we glanced at the TV. We both assumed that ESPN had made a mistake. How had the game become that close? What had happened? I checked my phone and put the pieces together.

The Spurs only lost that game by two points, but at that point, I knew the series was over. Leonard had put the Spurs on his back with a box plus/minus of +21, by far the most of anyone in that game. It was clear he would not be returning in that series, and the Warriors would beat the Spurs handily over the next three games. 

The past can’t be changed. We know this. Zaza Pachulia ruined the Spurs and their success for the foreseeable future. While we can’t go back and tell Kawhi not to take the shot or personally block Zaza ourselves, I often find myself wondering what would have happened if the injury, the uncle, the trade, the hate, and the beef with Leonard never happened.

Tim Duncan was the perfect Spur. He was completely unproblematic off and on the court. He showed up to do a job and did it better than anyone. For a while, it looked like Leonard would be worthy to take the San Antonio throne. What if?