It Doesn’t Matter When Kawhi Leonard Returns…Does It?

Project Spurs illustration/NBAE

The never-ending saga of Kawhi Leonard and the quadricep that never healed appears to be coming to a close.

Though the quote that grabbed everyone’s attention was Leonard reaffirming his intent to finish his career in San Antonio, the real story is his impending return.

Leonard’s injury timeline has been pushed back so many times since media day that it raises the question, does it even matter when he comes back?

As of Thursday night, the Spurs are 37-28 and the fifth seed in the Western Conference, with their upcoming schedule marked by elite teams, playoff teams, streaking teams…and the Orlando Magic.

San Antonio’s struggles without Leonard have been well documented this season. San Antonio is:

  • 18th in Offensive Rating in the NBA at 105.3
  • 13-22 versus teams over .500
  • 6-13 in games where they were tied or trailing by less than five points in the last five minutes of games
  • On pace for a 46-win season, which would be their worst winning record during a full 82-game season since the 1991-92 Spurs, that finished 47-35.

While the upcoming gauntlet could expose a normal team as a pretender instead of a contender, this San Antonio Spurs roster is far from ordinary. Even with all the cons, there are still some positives.

  • San Antonio’s Defensive Rating: 2nd in the NBA at 102.4
  • The Spurs continue to protect homecourt: 23-8 inside the friendly confines of the AT&T Center
  • Despite some questionable losses, they’re beating inferior opponents going 24-6 against teams under .500

Ideally, it absolutely matters when Leonard comes back. San Antonio needs to be as close to peak health as possible during the last 17 games of the season, especially against the competition they’re facing. And the Spurs are only two games ahead in the loss column from the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, who are tied for 9th and 10th in the West, respectively.

But if San Antonio can maintain a .500 record over the final stretch of the season, 46 wins should be enough to secure a playoff spot regardless of seeding. The last time a 46-win team failed to make the playoffs in the West was 2014, when seven teams finished with at least 50 wins or better.

For all intents and purposes, let’s establish that the Spurs make the playoffs without a doubt. Now, does it matter when Leonard comes back?

The argument of gauging a sample size of 15 to 20 games to see how this team will perform prior to the postseason is great, but in reality, we’ve already seen how this roster will fare come playoff time.

San Antonio’s roster continuity has always been an organizational strength, and this season is no different.

Last season the Spurs only had six players (Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and Patty Mills) average over 20 minutes per game. In the playoffs, that number increased to seven players once Jonathon Simmons assumed the role as Leonard’s primary backup and eventual replacement due to injury.

This season, to compensate for all the numerous maladies, 10 players are averaging over 20 minutes a game, with Bryn Forbes on the cusp of making it 11. But once the playoffs begin and teams shorten rotations to keep their best players on the floor, it’s hard to see where someone like Manu Ginobili can carve out minutes against elite competition, as apparent with Ginobili logging seven minutes against the Warriors last night.

Granted Leonard’s only played nine games this season, and possibly three of those were with him at almost peak confidence and health.

As evident by the Spurs 5-4 record with Leonard, there will be small kinks to iron out as this fully healthy roster adjusts to the addition of Rudy Gay and Murray’s role as a starter. But kinks can be worked out and a rhythm can be established against during the final stretch of the season and throughout a first or second round series in the playoffs.

The looming question is how will Leonard play alongside a rejuvenated and ball dominant Aldridge.

When it came to referencing Aldridge’s struggles last season, Gregg Popovich blamed himself for trying to change him and move him around too much.

In his shift from roving stretch forward to traditional big, Aldridge is seeing one of the best performances of his career, while being more efficient and quicker than ever.

LaMarcus Aldridge Shot Distribution

His 22.2 points per game are third highest in his career, and his 50 percent shooting from the field is tied for fourth highest. His usage rate sits at 28.4 percent, his highest since being in San Antonio. But his usage isn’t a direct result of Aldridge holding on to the ball and continuously backing down defenders into oblivion. It’s in part because Aldridge is attempting 5.3 free throws per game, the second-highest total in his career.

In addition to getting to the charity stripe more often, Aldridge is also attacking at “blinding” speed.

Aldridge is attempting 51.7 percent of his field goals when holding the ball for less than two seconds, which is the complete opposite of his superstar counterpart, Leonard, who averages 41 percent of his field goal attempts when holding the ball for six seconds or longer.

The other thing that should put any fears to ease on how KlawMarcus can coexist, is which sides of the floor they operate on.

Aldridge spends so much time on the left block because it’s where he’s most comfortable rotating into his fadeaway over his right shoulder or driving left towards the rim.

Even on the off chance that defenders get to Aldridge in time to neutralize him on the left, a few passes can find Leonard ready to catch and shoot or attack in isolation, where he favors working from the right.

As San Antonio continues to struggle, the clock on Leonard’s return and the calendar become a bigger enemy to the Spurs ability of making the playoffs.

With a record of 3-9 since the beginning of February, it’s amazing that this team is still remotely in the position to control its own destiny.

Then again, if this Spurs team is really running out of fuel and on the verge of collapse, then it really won’t matter when Leonard returns. In that case, San Antonio can shift its focus on who will represent them at the Draft Lottery.


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