The San Antonio Spurs made some interesting changes and additions during the offseason in order to make another run at the NBA title. But the biggest reason for their success early this season has been the MVP-caliber play of Kawhi Leonard, no longer a promising, talented young player, but one of the best players in the league, period.
Leonard, the finals MVP in 2014, had a weird 2014-2015 season like the Spurs. He missed 18 games and the Spurs had a late awakening that cost them in the end, having to play as the #7 seed in the excellent series against the Los Angeles Clippers, resulting in their surprising first round exit. Leonard averaged 16.5 points and 7.2 rebounds while leading the NBA in steals with 2.3 per game. That’s very good, but not quite superstar-ish yet.
Signing LaMarcus Aldridge to a max four-year deal meant the Spurs have plans for a new face for this franchise, and probably a new player to center the offense around. But the Spurs aren’t the Portland Trail Blazers or anyone else for that matter. Aldridge isn’t pushed to the forefront of this team right away, and maybe never will. He’s an important cog, but still just a part of a developing offense system, that’s helped the Spurs go 24-5 so far this season, second in the league to the Warriors, while leading the league in defense rating and ranked third offensively.
Leonard has been extraordinary. He’s only 24, and he’s not the offensive power LeBron James or Kevin Durant are, but there’s always that sense he could be scoring a lot more on a different team. Or maybe it’s the other way around? It doesn’t matter. Leonard is averaging 21.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He’s second in the NBA when it comes to half court offense efficiency, with Stephen Curry the only one ahead of him. He’s shooting 51% from the field and 47.2% from beyond the arc.
Leonard might also be the best and most influential defensive player in the NBA. He simply obliterated Paul George in the recent matchup between two players who could be in opposite places right now if it wasn’t for a trade between the Spurs and Pacers not too long ago. This isn’t the first time Leonard singlehandedly takes the best offensive player on one team and completely takes him out of the game. It’s also rare to see a perimeter player have this much influence on a team’s defense, although with the Spurs, there’s always more to it than the heroics of just one player.
We’re still in the dark about how the Spurs and Warriors will look like when they clash, but it’s quite clear that Leonard’s ability to force an offense out of its way will be crucial in their attempt to prove to the defending NBA champions who the best team in the league is right now. Those things are determined in April, May and June, but there’s a long way before we get to that point. For now, it’s easier waiting for their first regular season meetings, which are also long overdue.