The Spurs have been good without their superstar cyborg Kawhi Leonard. When he makes his long awaited return “sooner rather than later” according to Gregg Popovich, he will take them from good to great.
LaMarcus Aldridge leads the team consistently in Kawhi’s absence, averaging 22 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. Danny Green and Kyle Anderson are having a career years, and Manu Ginobili is defying the laws of science at age 40. Rudy Gay is making a case for sixth man of the year.
Patty Mills is delivering more consistently as a starter, and Dejounte Murray is continuing to develop. Bryn Forbes and Brandon Paul are making impressive contributions off the bench. Pau Gasol has shown flashes of what made him a great player in his prime, and Joffrey Lauvergne has been a pleasant surprise when healthy.
After Wednesday’s loss to a strong, athletic Minnesota team, the Spurs are the fourth seed in the West with a 9-6 record. Even if Leonard didn’t return this year, San Antonio would probably win about 50 games en route to a respectable playoff performance.
San Antonio is a good team without Leonard, one of the best outside of the Bay Area, but good has never been the goal for Popovich’s bunch. Plenty of good teams don’t stand a chance against the Warriors, and the current version of the Spurs is one of them. Leonard’s return should transform them from a good team to a true challenger.
The Spurs showed they can beat great teams without Leonard during the playoffs last year. San Antonio won Game 6 in Houston by 39 points with Leonard on the bench, unceremoniously bouncing from the playoffs a Rockets team that was widely regarded as one of Golden State’s biggest threats.
The next round showed how much San Antonio needs Leonard if they want to make it out of the West. He scored 26 points in the first half and change of Game 1, building a 21-point lead in Oracle Arena. Then he landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot, and has not played since.
Golden State outscored the Spurs by 85 points over the rest of the series, which couldn’t have ended quickly enough for the silver and black. They were not equipped to handle a team as historically good as the Warriors without their MVP candidate, and no team would be.
The difference is that Leonard is one of the few players that gives his team an actual chance of getting past one of the best teams in basketball history. San Antonio won’t play the Warriors until February, and by then, Kawhi should be fully back in the swing of things. When he does return, he will help re-establish the Spurs in that top tier with the Warriors and Rockets.
The Spurs have managed the fifth-best defensive rating so far this year, and the two-time defensive player of the year could bring them back to the top where they were last year. Leonard will surely improve an already great defense, but the Spurs need him to get buckets. San Antonio is a middle of the road scoring team with an offensive rating of 104.1 points per 100 possessions, and last year they were seventh in the league at 108.8.
Kawhi was the sixth-highest scoring player in the fourth quarter last year, averaging 7.3 points in the period last year. The Spurs have missed him down the stretch in games this year, scoring an average of just 22 points in the fourth quarter of losses, which is third-worst in the league.
The good thing about Kawhi’s absence is that it has forced the other Spurs to grow. The offense now centers around Aldridge in the post. He’s done a fantastic job of getting to the rim, hitting mid-range shots, and passing out of double teams to create open looks outside.
Aldridge has gotten comfortable initiating the offense in Leonard’s absence. He won’t do it as much when Kawhi returns, but expect LMA to continue to establish himself in the post, especially early in the game.
That approach gets a thousand times more dangerous when you replace Anderson on the perimeter with Leonard. This isn’t a dig at Slo-Mo, a solid role player who has fluctuated between goofy and graceful as a starter this year, it’s just that Leonard is one of the best scorers in the league.
San Antonio ranks near the bottom of the barrel in terms of three-pointers attempted and made this year, and Kawhi will help that cause. He made an average of two per game last year on 38% shooting, and excelled on catch-and-shoot looks.
Anderson isn’t a major threat from beyond the arc, and Kawhi is a major threat from anywhere on the floor. Wing defenders will often be forced to choose between doubling off of a lethal weapon or allowing a confident Aldridge to go to work in the post, and neither of those options is particularly good.
Aldridge’s improved play this year will open up the floor for Kawhi when he comes back, and he should return to form as an unstoppable scoring robot. He will knock down threes, bail the team out with big shots when the offense stalls, and take over in the late stages of games like he did so many times last year.
The Spurs have started this season as a really good team with some noticeable flaws. Leonard will fill in the gaps whenever he returns to the floor, and transform San Antonio into a true contender.