Trusting Kawhi

The San Antonio Spurs made a fateful trade during the 2011 NBA Draft. Point guard George Hill was a favorite of coach Gregg Popovich and many Spurs players, but General Manager R.C. Buford knew his roster badly needed a young, talented small forward. He got one. He sent Hill to the Pacers in exchange for San Diego State’s Kawhi Leonard, the 15th selection in the draft. That just might be the best trade the Spurs have ever accomplished. After all, four years later it’s not a stretch to say that Leonard is San Antonio’s finest player.

Leonard is arguably the third-best small forward in the league right now especially since Paul George has been playing mostly power forward. Only LeBron James and Kevin Durant are ahead of him in terms of efficient production, with even Carmelo Anthony trailing Leonard in Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP). There may be no single guy carrying such a balanced team, but Leonard has averaged 33 minutes while nobody else has cracked 30. The 22 points and 7 rebounds per contest don’t hurt, either.

LaMarcus Aldridge arrived in the offseason, and he is probably Leonard’s biggest challenger for best player on the roster. Over the last two seasons with the Blazers, Aldridge scored 23 points and hauled down 10 rebounds per contest while playing above-average if not all-world defense. November 11 was a homecoming of sorts for Aldridge as the Spurs visited his old stomping grounds in Portland, and he celebrated by scoring a team high 23 points in the 113-101 victory. Naturally, Leonard was right behind him with 20. Aldridge has a smaller burden in San Antonio, but the power forward gives the Spurs another reason to feel optimistic about their title hopes. Regardless, his Player Efficiency Rating on the young season ranks 90th in the league. Leonard boasts a PER that is 17th overall and he would place higher if bench players were excluded. 

Tim Duncan has been the face of the Spurs for years. He has five championships to show for it, not to mention more than 26,000 career points. His averages of 14 points and 9 rebounds last year are impressive for a guy who began his career in 1997. No one is immune to declining over time, and part of that decline has coincided with Leonard’s rise to stardom. Duncan still helps his team every night and is a marvel in many ways, but that doesn’t change the fact that his most dominant regular season was probably back in 2001-02.

The only other Spurs in the conversation are Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Both have become heroes in the San Antonio area for their playoff heroics, but neither poses a serious challenge to Leonard at this point in time. Parker still starts at point guard for the Spurs and can score in double digits on any given night. However, thanks in part to the strong bench play of Patty Mills he doesn’t exceed 30 minutes on many nights anymore. His numbers are also down compared to last campaign’s 14 points and 5 assists. Ginobili can still be an effective shooting guard, but he is 38 and Popovich uses him off the bench behind Danny Green to keep him fresh.

A team’s scoring leader is not necessarily its strongest player, but in the Spurs’ case I believe they are one and the same. For one, nobody else has eclipsed 17 points or 4 assists per game.

Leonard also contributes to team success in many ways. He’s a good shooter from deep, and 38% this season is right in line with his career numbers. Leonard is also leading the team in inside scoring, averaging a point per possession from the post which puts him in the NBA’s top 20. He’s no assists leader, but with such an effective post game it makes sense that he tries to score as much as possible. Even last season, the Spurs were 10 points better per 100 possessions with Leonard on the court compared to without.

Popovich admitted: “We’re going to him. If you want to call it that, you can call it that.”

Leonard has been transcendent on defense as well. Through his first eight games, Leonard accumulated 10 blocks and 15 steals. What’s more, opponents are already shooting 8.5% worse than average when guarded by Leonard. From the perimeter, it’s 20.5% lower. This may seem like a small sample size, but Leonard has been a plus defender before. For instance, he hounded shooters into a 5% poorer field goal percentage overall during the 2013-14 campaign.

In August, Leonard raised some eyebrows when he announced his desire to win MVP of the regular season. While there is plenty of competition for that award around the league, he already earned Finals MVP in 2014 and so far is clearly establishing himself as the best Spur. His scoring average is up, as is his importance to the team’s offense: Leonard’s 26.8% usage rate is up from 23% last season as his turnovers have fallen. Add to that his reliable defensive work and you have the best hope for the present and future in San Antonio.

photo via llananba