One of the many trademarks of the San Antonio Spurs has been their deep bench and willingness to use everybody in the rotation. But coach Gregg Popovich’s ability to use every player available on his bench isn’t meant for the playoffs. Pop has mastered how to use all 15 guys to get through the grind of an 82-game season. As we near the playoffs, the challenge for Popovich becomes making sure his best players are rested and healthy, while also conditioned to play extended playoff minutes.
And that particular challenge is being given to Kawhi Leonard.
The third year forward out of San Diego State is averaging new career highs this season, in just 29 minutes per game. Leonard’s exponential improvement has even drawn the praise of the national media, with Charles Barkley proclaiming that Kawhi is a top-10 or 15 player in the league, after last Thursday night’s 16 point, 16 rebound performance against the Mavericks.
Only 17 other players average Leonard’s season splits of at least 12 points and six rebounds per game, while maintaining a 50% field goal percentage. And out of those 18, Leonard is 17th in minutes played, only beating out the Nuggets Kenneth Faried. When those statistics are adjusted per 36 minutes, Leonard’s averages increase to over 15 points and over seven rebounds, joining the likes of Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka and Dwight Howard.
But if those statistics don’t justify Leonard’s impact enough, his numbers since returning from injury will. In the 25 games played since returning from a broken hand, Kawhi is averaging 14.7 points and 6.5 rebounds, all while maintaining his great 54% field goal percentage, and shooting a blistering 44% (!) from beyond the arch. And that’s with him barely averaging 30 minutes a game. When adjusted to Per 36, Leonard’s late season flourish comes out to a solid 17 and 7 a night.
So what does all this mean for the playoffs? If Popovich’s word holds true, Leonard’s numbers will only continue to steadily increase with his minutes. The shortened rotations, plus the Spurs reliance on Kawhi to anchor their defense for 40 minutes a night, will only help him fill the stat sheet. Barring foul trouble and/or injury, it’s well within the realm of possibility that Leonard ends up averaging a double-double during this playoff run. After all, Leonard’s 14.5 points and 11.1 rebounds averaged during seven games on the NBA’s biggest stage last season, was just a glimpse of his dominance.
Walter White’s first victim was Krazy 8 (Shut up, Emilio doesn’t count.) Fitting that Kawhisenberg’s first victim will be the 8th seeded Dallas Mavericks.