Let’s jump right into it.
San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard will be entering his third season this year and expectations are at an all-time professional high. For his first two seasons Leonard has been able to play off of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and what is known as the well-oiled machine that is the Spurs offense. Predicated on ball movement and making the extra pass to turn good shots into great shots, the Spurs' system was ideal as Leonard excelled in making the most of his open opportunities.
Now the tune will be changing. Gregg Popovich has said that Leonard will be getting an increased role within the offense this season. We still don’t know exactly how big of a role he will have, but we will assume that it will be greater than his role these past two seasons.
In actuality, Kawhi Leonard should have had a larger role in the Spurs offense last season. He was never trusted in crunch time to create a shot the entire season. Leonard showed flashes of his ability to create his own shot when given the chance though. A perfect example was an away game against the Chicago Bulls which saw the Spurs play without Parker, Duncan, and Ginobili. Leonard was given the green light and went 11-18 for 26 points against Luol Deng who for some reason is widely considered as an All-Star and one of the better wing defenders in the league. Leonard easily outplayed Deng and showcased his ability to attack one of the better defensive teams (sixth best defensive rating) in the league on his own.
Even in the final game of the season (Game 7 NBA Finals) Leonard was given the green light in the first half to keep the mentally and physically worn down Spurs afloat. Despite having to guard the best player on the planet on the defensive end, Leonard was able to get to the rim at will and get his shot off against any defender thrown at him.
The Spurs were an exponentially better team any time Leonard was on the court last season. It can be argued that he holds the team together just as much as Duncan or Parker. His effect on the team is the reason they are coming off a Western Conference Finals trip 2 years ago and returning from an NBA Finals trip last season. He puts them over the top with his defensive skills, ability to knock down the open shot, and the rest of his intangibles (i.e. rebounding, creating easy points). The Spurs were sorely lacking that from 2008 to 2011 and it’s no surprise what the Spurs have been able to do ever since he’s been on the roster.
So how exactly will the Spurs use him this season? It’s obvious that Leonard can create for himself, but we haven’t seen him in a playmaker role. His ability to create one-on-one is great, but we all know that isn’t Spurs basketball at its core. So can Leonard create for others? How good is his vision? Will he know the line between being too passive and too aggressive? These are things that are yet to be seen and unknown. I’m not one to believe Popovich will turn the system on its head for Leonard, but the way they integrate his abilities into the offense will be the most anticipated thing for this upcoming season.
Times have changed since the days when Parker and Ginobili were integrated into the Spurs system. Each player is different their own regard, but they seemed to have more of a playmaker ability when compared to Leonard at their respective stages in their careers. Parker, naturally being a point guard, was always a scoring threat first. Still to this day, his passing ability might not be first class, but the attention he draws opens things up for everyone on the court. Also his elite speed combined with his ball handling skills allow him to maneuver out of any tight spots that most players would dissolve in.
So what skill will set Leonard apart from being just another guy on the court? How will he make his impact felt with the offense running through him? Obviously he will not be the focal point of the offense, but this year is the first major step in that direction. Leonard has set the bar high for himself this season as he has set his personal goal to become an All-Star. Many in the league believe it’s attainable and the world has seen what he’s capable of now after being in the Finals. Spurs fans have seen this day coming now and can’t wait for Leonard to be let loose on the NBA.