Spurs redefine franchise player through Kawhi Leonard’s breakthrough season

Kawhi vs Mavericks

Measuring success has become a tricky proposition for those tasked with evaluating the San Antonio Spurs. There is a distinct possibility this iteration of Gregg Popovich’s team is superior to the last, but odds of reaching the same heights—a mere seconds away from an NBA championship—are stacked against them, if only because the bar has been set so high.

A year ago, seeing Tim Duncan slumped at the podium following a heartbreaking Game 7 loss in the NBA Finals, it was fair to ask what more, if anything, the Spurs had left to give.

The simplest answer was Kawhi Leonard, whose 14.5 points and 11.1 rebounds in the NBA Finals against LeBron James offered the promise of unbound potential with enough immediate production for the Spurs to utilize in what remains of this particular era. The consensus was if the Spurs were to keep pace in an ever-improving Western Conference, they would need Leonard to use his Finals debut as a springboard towards a breakthrough season that would more than offset any concessions his elder teammates made to Father Time.

But what would “The Leap” look like on a team that places so little value on jumping, so to speak? In the Spurs motion-heavy, equal opportunistic offense, Leonard was never going to command the responsibilities or usage required to show significant growth by conventional means.

Over the summer, Popovich would design a few outlets for Leonard’s burgeoning offensive repertoire, but there was never going to be a reinvention of the system or player. Indeed, standing out on the Spurs can be difficult considering that on any given night the team is as likely to be led in scoring by the likes of Boris Diaw, Danny Green, or Patty Mills as it is by either Tony Parker or Duncan.

Given these conditions, and our natural inclination to measure progress via per game statistics and prominence within an offense, how then can we determine the moment Leonard breaks through into the star the Spurs need him to be? Will we immediately recognize it when it happens? And, more to the point, is it happening right now?

If we’re trying to find the exact moment that Leonard taps into the full reservoir of his potential, we must first have some idea of what it is we’re looking for and the context it would appear in.

There is an assertion that other teams bring more talent to the table than a Spurs team that relies on superior execution, which ignores the fact that San Antonio boasted two top-10 caliber players in Parker and Duncan a year ago. This is a team that still very much acknowledges and leans on the importance of star players, even as their individual brilliance is hidden behind the “whole is greater than the sum of their parts” narrative.

Always ahead of the curve, the Spurs were among the first teams to actively identify, seek, and prevent the most valuable shots in basketball. Once their system reaches a certain point of refinement, the team became less about individual stars and more about how their talents were used to achieve the team’s overarching philosophical goals; assimilating and magnifying a player’s unique strengths while simultaneously muting the statistical value of their individual contributions.

Evaluating star players on a Spurs team that places restrictions on minutes (remarkably finishing with the best record despite no one averaging more than 30 minutes per game) and force-fed touches then has to be based on how that player furthers the team’s philosophical bent on playing the right way.

In a vacuum outside of the Spurs system, it can be brutally difficult to pin a favorable player comparison to Kawhi Leonard. He broke into the league NBA-ready on the strength of solid, but not explosive athleticism and an unexpectedly healthy three-point shot from the corners.

In some respects, Leonard functions as a hybrid of Shawn Marion and Loul Deng. Like Marion, Leonard excels as a versatile defender that can guard four positions from either forward spot while providing meaningful production without consuming a lot of on-court resources.

Like Deng, Leonard’s ability to create some self-sustaining offense, mostly in the form of pull-up jumpers and post-ups over smaller defenders, is enough to fill-in some playmaking gaps in an offense. However, the lack of free throws, explosiveness, and playmaking prevent him from anchoring one for extended stretches.

Through three regular seasons, the skill set hasn’t expanded much beyond what we’ve already seen for some time already (though it has sharpened some). Yet, the expectations and his play have risen precipitously.

Some see Leonard and project a future star, despite a game that traditionally screams role player/playoff x-factor. Where does this connection come from? Perhaps it’s because on a subconscious level, we recognize that Leonard’s greatest basketball attributes remind us of two stars much closer to home.

Like Duncan, perhaps Leonard’s greatest strength is his ability to quickly process and assimilate an enormous amount of information and channel it usefully through an economical skill set, as opposed to a bevy of moves or explosive athleticism. This is a very long-winded way of saying he simply knows how to play the game. 

My favorite comparison, if you’ll allow me some time to explain myself before jumping to conclusions, is with Manu Ginobili. Obviously, Leonard lacks the elite playmaking and scoring bursts from Ginobili’s prime. And stylistically, the whole thing falls apart. But what has often set Ginobili apart from other stars is his ability and willingness to take on the secondary functions and dirty work of role players and infusing it with star talent.

In Ginobili’s early days in the league, it was tough to sell the concept of a star player who lacked overwhelming output in at least one facet of the game. In Europe, 14-16 points to go with seven rebounds, five or six assists, and a couple of steals and charges drawn might be an MVP performance, but in the NBA it was only enough to garner appreciation from the home crowd and the most hardcore of fans.

In this vein, Leonard fails to produce overwhelming numbers in any one area, but he is actively present in all of them, save for assists. His improvement continues to bolster the Spurs, fortifying their rank amongst the NBA’s three or four legitimate contenders, but not in a conventional way.

Kawhi Leonard has become the master of the unscripted play, breaking the fourth wall of Popovich’s X’s and O’s dry board to infuse chaos into the proceedings. Perhaps no player in the NBA is better at lurking in a crowd only to jump the passing lane at the top of the key for an easy dunk. And few have Popovich’s permission to opportunistically crash the offensive boards as Leonard does, a trust given because Leonard’s calculated gambles rarely feel like risks, given his success rate.

His ability to create extra possessions, to slow an opponent’s thought process for even a few fractions of a second if only because they have to account for his presence at all times, breaks beyond the simple notions of an X-factor or role player.

Given the evolution the Spurs have taken, it was always going to be difficult to measure Leonard’s progress by primitive means. Leonard isn’t an All-Star, and given that at such an early point in his career his minutes are already curbed near the 30-minute mark while the Western Conference teems with a deep pool of talent at the forward positions, he might never be. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t breaking out.

Leonard’s function and skill set within the Spurs base actions may scream role player, but it’s his ability to provide the unaccountable plays that brings Leonard to the forefront of what gives the Spurs that final, necessary edge.

In the moments after the Spurs won their last championship, Tim Duncan embraced LeBron James, thanking him and assuring him that the league would be his one day.

Should Leonard fulfill his promise, Duncan could find himself once again in confetti and champagne this June, embracing a small forward whose entire career is ahead of him. The league is no longer Duncan’s to give, but with Leonard, he can leave his team in good hands.