Kawhi Leonard’s nagging quad injury has put Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs in uncharted territory.
The last time their best player missed this much time, they lost 62 games and selected a Demon Deacon by the name of Tim Duncan with the first pick in the 1997 draft. San Antonio has won at least 50 games every season since (except for the lockout-shortened season), and this year should be no exception despite Leonard’s injury.
Popovich has his team on pace for 52 wins this year, even though his best player on both ends has been wearing a suit for all but nine games. He is down a perennial defensive player of the year candidate, yet his team defense is nearly the best in the league. With a defensive rating of 100.9 points per 100 possessions, the Spurs are second behind only the Celtics.
The defense has remained elite, but the Spurs are struggling to get buckets without Kawhi. As he developed into one of the most dangerous scoring threats in the league over the past two years, the Spurs’ trademark system of fluid ball movement devolved and eroded. The ball stuck more, and they did best when the ball stuck to Kawhi.
A scoring talent of Leonard’s caliber needs the ball in his Frisbee-sized hands. When he goes to work, his teammates either set a screen or get out of the way. It isn’t the beautiful game, but it’s effective because of Leonard’s individual ability.
The role players watched from beyond the three-point arc as Kawhi scored, and maybe kicked out if there was nothing available for him. Make no mistake, that’s what they should do when he’s on the floor. Their job is to space the floor and give him room to operate.
The problem occurs when the singular talent is removed from that equation. LaMarcus Aldridge is putting together a career year, his second as an All Star in silver and black, but he is not Kawhi Leonard.
Without him, the Spurs’ offense has become stagnant and predictable at times. They dump the ball off to Aldridge on the left block, the defense doubles, he kicks it out, the defense rotates. They run a weave action, the defense switches.
The 76ers’ excellent defense exploited this predictability on Friday night, absolutely stifling the Spurs’ attack. They never let Aldridge get comfortable in the post, and they used their length and versatility on the wings to limit penetration.
Shot clock violations and awful contested shots abounded as the below-average Spurs offense managed just 78 points in the worst scoring performance of the year. Pop said that if he were a fan in attendance, he would ask for his money back.
And yet, despite the team’s propensity to deliver an absolute stinker like that, there are nights like Sunday against the Kings when the role players execute the beautiful game, move the ball around, and find open shots for almost everyone.
Six players scored in double figures for San Antonio, and they tallied 33 assists. Missing Kawhi opens up the possibility for more ball movement, and more players get involved in the offense because they need to.
Nights like these have helped them keep their heads above water in the Western Conference. They currently sit at the third seed behind Golden State and Houston.
Can the Spurs compete with those juggernauts without Kawhi Leonard? Of course they cannot. No team missing its best player could. However, if Kawhi gets back, and gets back to 100 percent before the playoffs, the injury that kept him out might be a net benefit when it matters most.
Let’s say Leonard returns after the All-Star break, and the nagging quad tendinopathy nags him no longer. He will have fresh legs, and the role players around him will be more comfortable and capable because they were forced to play without him.
If the injury persists, however, don’t expect Popovich to risk the long term health of his MVP-caliber franchise player. Remember that in 2000, he shut Tim Duncan down for the playoffs after he injured his meniscus. Duncan wanted to play and probably could have, but Popovich prioritized his stud’s long-term health.
“He was young, a franchise player,” Popovich said. “With him, you’ve got an opportunity to win multiple championships, if you don’t screw it up. I didn’t know if [the injury] could get worse, or get chronic.”
Popovich will almost certainly apply the same logic to Kawhi, even if it means punting to next season. He will endure disappointment and frustration in short term to protect the future of the franchise. He will continue to make it incredibly difficult for opposing offenses. And as always, he will win his 50 games if nothing else.