Last night, for the first time since the Western Conference Finals, Kawhi Leonard suited up for the San Antonio Spurs, but unfortunately for him, his team wasn't able to win on the night against the Dallas Mavericks.
While Leonard was out of action, the Spurs went 19-8 and climbed to third in the star-studded Western Conference. They surprisingly managed to do well without the man that finished third in the MVP voting.
On Tuesday night on his return at the American Airlines Center, the two-time NBA All-Star scored just 13 points on 6-of-12 shooting, with six rebounds, one assist, one steal, and one block in just under 16 minutes. The team, however, would ultimately lose 95-89 against the Mavericks.
While the Spurs might have lost the game on the night, but with the return of Leonard, it was a big win for them for the rest of the season in the Western Conference, and it's easy to see how his return will make the team a legitimate contender in the West.
The small forward was brought out of the game after just 16 minutes because he was on a minutes restriction, but in just that little sample, plus what we've seen in the past from Leonard, we know the Spurs will be a legitimate Western Conference contender.
First of all, last season, Leonard finished third behind James Harden and the Russell Westbrook in the MVP voting, so the talent is definitely there. The rust picked up from spending a couple of months on the sideline with an injury just needs to be taken off.
That process began last night against the Mavericks, as he started off the game strong, nailing all three of his first-quarter field goals, but that cooled as the game went along, as he went just 3-of-9 for the rest of the game. Conditioning is needed to get Leonard back into MVP style form.
Due to the minute restrictions, it might be another couple of games before we see the Leonard from last season return, but when he does, we know it's going to make the Spurs frightening to play against.
Last season, the forward averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game. His performances not only helped him finish third in the MVP final voting, but they also helped him finish third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.
The Spurs ended up finishing second in the Western Conference, reaching the Conference Finals through the playoffs, only to be knocked out by the eventual NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors.
Leonard increased the number of assists he made per game from 2015-16 season to 2016-17 season, meaning he has improved his skills as a playmaker, which can only mean good things for the Spurs upon his return.
His defensive skills that helped him earn third place in the Defensive Player of the Year voting will be a fine addition to a team which has managed to hold opponents to just 101.1 points per 100 possessions. This ranks as the third-best defense in the league behind only the Celtics and the Thunder.
The team has been playing fine without him because their system is able to compensate for the absence of their star, as head coach Gregg Popovich is able to create systems that cater to his players’ strengths, allowing the team to thrive as a result.
LaMarcus Aldridge has been playing fantastic in the absence of Leonard as well, averaging nearly 23 points per game on 50 percent shooting. Both Bryn Forbes and Dejounte Murray have stepped up for the Spurs too.
With the return of a superstar, plus how well the Spurs have been playing without him so far this season, the team is going to transform into a legitimate contender in the West over the next couple of games.