Heading into this season, the outlook for the San Antonio Spurs was a confusing one.
How would a team that has been the go-to model of consistent dominance throughout the entire sports world handle playing without Kawhi Leonard, their superstar?
Since Leonard's quad injury had no defined recovery time, the team adopted a wait-and-see approach regarding his return. In fact, coach Gregg Popovich admitted that he’s never seen anything like the injury at any point during his lengthy career.
"What's really strange is that Tony (Parker) has the same injury, but even worse," said Popovich, as reported by ESPN in late November. "They had to go operate on his quad tendon and put it back together or whatever they did to it. So to have two guys, that's pretty incredible. I had never seen it before those guys.”
But, the Spurs have made the best of their situation and sport a solid 18-8 record through 26 games. Despite Leonard’s absence (along with a couple other injuries suffered along the way by veteran Tony Parker and newcomer Rudy Gay), Popovich has mixed-and-matched his lineups and proved yet again that his system reigns supreme, getting production from seemingly anyone he decides to play.
Completely without Leonard, the Spurs are in third place in the Western Conference standings as of Friday and have gone 13-2 in San Antonio and 8-2 over their last 10 games overall.
Although they clearly don’t need their star to rush back, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that Leonard will likely make his return on Tuesday against the Dallas Mavericks.
This refutes an earlier report that claimed Leonard was aiming to return on Saturday against the Phoenix Suns.
Last season, Leonard averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per contest, leading San Antonio to a 61-21 regular-season mark. He then, of course, suffered his quad injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors. Without him, the Spurs stood no chance against the eventual champions.
Judging by San Antonio’s start, Leonard’s presence will undoubtedly make them a much stronger team. Trailing the Houston Rockets and the Warriors in the standings, the elite two-way wing could play a gigantic role not only for the rest of the regular season, but also eventually in the playoffs.
Leonard’s individual skill set
Leonard is the very definition of a two-way player. You can easily make the argument that he is the best two-way player in the entire NBA. He is a career 49.5 percent shooter and owns a career 38.8 percent three-point shooting percentage. Additionally, he has brought his scoring averages up in each consecutive season of his six-year career, starting with 7.9 points as a rookie in 2011-2012 all the way up to last season’s 25.5 point mark.
However, Leonard’s defensive ability is what makes him a menace to opponents. Averaging 1.8 steals per game for his career, Leonard won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015-2016 and is tasked with defending the opposition’s best wing. He has also been used to match up with point guards and power forwards at times, as he has an ability to match up with anyone who isn’t a traditional center based on his 6’7”, 230-pound frame.
Assuming that the Warriors and Rockets will be at the top of the standings throughout the season and will be in San Antonio’s way in the playoffs, he will play a crucial role defending Kevin Durant and James Harden, something that the Spurs would have a hard time doing without him.
An improved supporting cast
Last season, the Spurs were a Kawhi-centric bunch, relying mainly on him to show up on a nightly basis. However, due to the circumstances, other players have had an opportunity to show their stripes this season.
No one has taken more advantage of that than LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging an outstanding 22.6 points and 8.0 rebounds in 33.3 minutes per game as the team’s go-to scorer. Judging by his struggles last season at times, his success in this campaign has been incredibly important. Veterans Pau Gasol, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili and Parker are all healthy and know their respective roles as well.
Rudy Gay, an offseason free agent acquisition, has averaged 12.2 points per contest in a limited 22.8 minute-per-game role. As he regains full health, he will likely push towards major minutes and has the versatility to play either the three or four, which will come in especially helpful against the Warriors and Rockets, who both play small at times.
Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes have all taken steps forward as well and will be factors in certain matchups throughout the rest of the year, as will Davis Bertens, Joffrey Lauvergne and Brandon Paul.
Therefore, Leonard will be added to an already-cohesive bunch that are clicking.
The Popovich effect
Last season, the Spurs extended their NBA record to 18-straight 50-win seasons. That type of consistent regular-season dominance has not been seen in the sport’s history. The Los Angeles Lakers held the previous record with 12-straight from 1979 to 1991.
”It’s incredible,” Gasol said at the time. ”It speaks highly of the organization. It’s unbelievable the consistency that this team has been able to achieve.”
As seen this season, Popovich gets the most out of his players and pulled off 18 wins in 26 games despite not having his best player on the floor for a single minute.
As of right now, Popovich ranks sixth in NBA history in regular-season wins (1,168), and sits behind George Karl (1,175), Pat Riley (1,210), Jerry Sloan (1,221), Lenny Wilkens (1,332) and Don Nelson (1,335). He will almost assuredly pass Karl this season and will likely surpass both Riley and Sloan next year.
At the beginning of November, he admitted that he’s paying attention to his all-time win numbers.
“It’s the most important thing in my life,” Popovich joked to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “My grandchildren can take a hike. What I might do when I retire, what kind of wine I’m going to drink — all those things pale in comparison when I think about how many wins I have. … I hope I can coach long enough to get more than anybody has ever had.”
Popovich also ranks third all-time in playoff wins (166), trailing just Riley (171) and Phil Jackson (229) and comes in third all-time in NBA championship wins with five.
Therefore, while the Rockets and Warriors seem like the two clear favorites to take down the Western Conference, don’t sleep on the Spurs, especially now that Leonard will be back on the floor with an improved supporting cast and arguably the best head coach in league history.