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Kawhi Leonard’s Rise to the Top

As the Spurs make their usual march toward the post-season, Kawhi Leonard makes a simultaneous march towards stardom. The 2013-14 NBA Finals MVP has emerged down the stretch for the Spurs as not only a stopper on the defense end of the floor, but a true go-to-guy on offense and team leader for one of the most celebrated franchises of the last 20 years.

It’s easy to see why some may be skeptical about the 23-year-old Leonard becoming the leader of a team that still features Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker. You don’t have to take my word for it; Parker says the same thing to Andrew Keh of the New York Times:

“It’s going to be Kawhi’s team, anyway,” Parker said. “Timmy transitioned to Manu, Manu transitioned to me, and now it’s going to be transitioned to Kawhi. I’ll try my best to stay aggressive and be involved, but Kawhi is going to be the man.”

That’s really high praise from one of the best point guards in the league, a multiple-time NBA champion, and a guy who’s just 32 years old. Lots of Hall of Fame caliber point guards have played well into their late 30s, including Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, John Stockton, and Gary Payton. Leonard must be a real talent for Parker to be so willing to give up his role as team leader to a kid that wasn’t even alive when Michael Jordan and the Bulls won their first championship.

The Spurs are currently chasing down the Rockets for the lead in the Southwest Division, which could vault them as high as the second seed in the West. For a team that’s sat in the sixth spot for pretty much the entire season, this would be a massive jump. If you’re looking for reasons why they’ve climbed so quickly, don’t look at the traditional reasons the Spurs always sneak up on you. Sure, the usual guys have done their thing too, but Kawhi Leonard has been out-of-this-world good.

Over the last 22 games for the Spurs, Leonard is averaging 19.6 points on 54.9 percent shooting and 40.6 percent three-point shooting, to go along with 6.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals. The Spurs record in those games is 19-3, and they’re averaging a margin of victory of 14.9 points during that stretch. It’s kind of a joke how good the Spurs have been; of their 19 victories, only one has been by less than 10 points (they beat the Nuggets by nine on March 6th). Their three losses have all been close, as the largest margin of defeat they’ve suffered is seven points.

It’s been an interesting rise to the top for Kawhi Leonard. He was a relative unknown from San Diego State University, drafted 15th overall by the Pacers in 2011 and subsequently traded to the Spurs for George Hill. Hill is a good point guard and a nice player, but you can only wonder how much the Pacers are kicking themselves over that deal. A pairing of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard would be a nightmare for the rest of the NBA for the next five-plus seasons.

NBA: MAR 12 Cavaliers at Spurs

Kawhi Leonard is emerging as a leader for the Spurs.

 

Leonard came into the league as a raw player with some skills and a willingness to play defense, and he fit right into the coach Gregg Popovich’s scheme. He’s only gotten better and better on defense, finishing seventh in the NBA in defensive rating last season and currently leading the league in that stat this season. He’s also averaging 2.3 steals per game this season, which also leads the NBA. To say he’s a serious candidate for Defensive Player of the Year is an understatement; if I had a vote he’d probably get it, albeit in a close battle with DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers.

But his offense is the portion of his game that’s come on lately, and that’s what’s turning him from “really good player” to “budding superstar.” For more on how it’s happened for him, I take you back to that article from the NY Times:

“Over the past few weeks, the Spurs have been running more isolation plays for Leonard, who missed time this season with a torn ligament in his right hand. His muscular body has posed a challenge for defenders. He has found a sweet spot along the baseline, where he comfortably sinks hook shots and jump shots.

“He’s just becoming more confident in what he does,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. “It’s just feeling a little bit more natural and not forced. He understands that I trust him. We go to him a little bit more.”

Going back to their inaugural season in the NBA in 1976-1977, the San Antonio Spurs have made the playoffs all but four times. Going back to 1990, they’ve only missed the playoffs one time, and that was the 1996-1997 season that they bottomed out and landed the top overall pick in the draft, which of course they used on Tim Duncan. Since Popovich’s first full season as coach, the Spurs have averaged 57.5 wins per season in non-lockout years.

How have the Spurs done it? Over the long haul, they’ve had a lot of great players with their franchise. George Gervin, Artis Gilmore, Terry Cummings, David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Duncan, Ginobili, Parker; the list goes on and on. As the Spurs have seen the sun rise and then set on their stars, they’ve had someone ready to come in and take the reigns.

This may be the final run for the Spurs as they’re currently constructed. Duncan is 38 years old and Ginobili is 37. Even if these guys come back next season, it’s fair to wonder how much they’ll have left. But as for the future of the franchise, I’m certain they’re in good hands.

You can now add Leonard to that list. This is his team.

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