The Spurs are coasting through the regular season once again, but it would be hard to overlook the fact that something special is happening in San Antonio.
Kawhi Leonard has taken his game to another level once again, which is just what the Spurs need as they play their way towards their 20th straight playoff appearance. For the first time since the glory days of Tim Duncan’s young prime, the Spurs have an offensive superstar who is willingly taking over games while discovering his potential at the expense of the rest of the league on a nightly basis. Leonard is currently averaging 24.8 points a game, becoming the first Spurs player to average that many points since Duncan set his career-high back in the 2001-02 season.
While “superteams” continue to form around the association, Leonard has focused on becoming the Spurs’ definite leader on the court. He’s taken on the responsibility of taking over games like few players in the league are capable of doing; guiding his team to the 2nd seed in the Western Conference with a 32-9 record.
With a great coach in Gregg Popovich, Leonard has, arguably, the best and most consistent franchise in the NBA supporting him while he takes the next step in his career. He already has a loaded pedigree, including a Finals MVP award, an All-Star selection, and a pair of Defensive Player of the Year awards; making it scary to think that he still has more room to grow.
Even though he’s accomplished a lot through his 6-year NBA career, Leonard is playing like he’s ready to accordingly make himself the face of the Spurs’ franchise. With Duncan retiring during the offseason, after Father Time eventually caught up with him in his 19th season, Leonard has started to become comfortable with taking over games when needed. The Spurs didn’t have that presence throughout last year’s disappointing playoff run, but that shouldn’t be the be case this spring if Leonard continues his remarkable pace in the second half of the regular season.
Kawhi Leonard has 4 straight 30-point games.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 18, 2017
Leonard has been lighting it up for the Spurs, holding a usage percentage of 29.8, which is just slightly higher than Tim Duncan’s career-high of 29.7% through the 2003-04 season. The reason why the Spurs don’t often have a player actively carrying the majority of their team’s load, is because they favour a more efficient brand of basketball through a team system.
Even though that’s usually the case, Leonard has also been the ideal example of an efficient player; averaging 33.3 points on only 16.5 attempts in his last 4 games, with him shooting a ridiculous 66.7 FG% and 56.3 3P% while also getting to the free throw line 10.5 times a night. His numbers throughout his remarkable stretch have been great, and they’ve also served as a great sign of things to come. Even though they’d practically be impossible to maintain, they’ve shown that Leonard is capable of carrying his team on the offensive end of the floor. The Spurs are 8-4 when Leonard scores at least 30 points this season, which isn’t a favourable record compared to their usual expectations, but it gives them a weapon they can resort to if their team isn’t in sync; which has usually been the case throughout their 4 losses.
The Spurs had that privilege wtih Duncan, who would come alive on the offensive end of the floor during the playoffs. From his first postseason appearance, up until he won his 4th title, Duncan averaged a stellar 23.8 points on 50.7 FG%; earning himself 3 Finals MVP awards in the process. During the 2007 Finals, Tony Parker took over the show; averaging 24.5 points on 56.8 FG% as they swept the Cleveland Cavaliers. When the Spurs won their latest title in 2014, they arguably had their best roster in place, as Leonard earned an Finals MVP award by playing great defence on LeBron James.
Now that the Spurs don’t have nearly as good of a roster, even though their record might say otherwise, they’ve had Leonard evolve into a player capable of producing on his own. The pressure of stepping outside the Spurs’ system hasn’t seemed to bother Leonard one bit. A couple of nights ago he set a career-high with 38 points in a loss to the lowly Phoenix Suns. Instead of taking a step back the following game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Leonard responded with a 34-point showcase in a win last night.
Even though Leonard is producing at an incredible rate, becoming the first player in Spurs history to average 30 points on at least 60 FG% in a 4-game stretch, his biggest test will remain in the playoffs. He’s embraced the Spurs’ system since his days as a rookie, but now it’s his time to lead the franchise that crafted him into the player he is today.
Their playoff exit last season against the Oklahoma City Thunder marked the end of an era for the Spurs. With Duncan playing his last set of games, it was obvious that they needed another player to carry the load. The 5-time Champion wasn’t his usual self, while an aging Manu Ginobili and Parker weren’t the same supporting cast that the Big Fundamental had in his prime.
Against the Thunder, Leonard had his moments, but he also had stretches where he didn’t match Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook when it came to taking over a game on the offensive end of the floor. He averaged 28 points on 63.3 FG% in their 2 wins, but only 20.8 points on 43.2 FG% in their 4 losses as they were knocked out of the playoffs.
Leonard has proven that he can score at will, especially with him sitting right outside of the 50 FG%/40 3P%/90 FT% club for the past couple seasons. He’s reaching career-highs in points and also assists, as he becomes more comfortable becoming the center piece of their offence. Even though the Spurs continue to coast through the season, Leonard has been hard at work taking his game to the next level for when his time in the spotlight arrives. They’ll be going after their franchise’s 6th Championship in the spring, and it looks like Leonard will be more than ready to try to take them back up to the top.
All stats for this article are from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com
You can follow Bryan Meler on Twitter @BryanMelo97