The San Antonio Spurs have been good without their best player for most of this season. But if he can't return before the playoffs, they're toast. If he can, every one of their opponents should be terrified.
Photo by Raj Mehta - USA TODAY Sports
If the San Antonio Spurs weren’t built to win a championship right now, several comforting developments would arise from how they’ve responded to the uncertainty surrounding Kawhi Leonard’s right quadricep.
From the preseason to today, enough Spurs cogs have taken advantage of organic opportunities to establish San Antonio as the 2017-18 season’s least killable monster. LaMarcus Aldridge has successfully shouldered a larger load than anyone expected—his usage is at peak Portland levels—while averaging the most points per 36 minutes in his career. Pau Gasol continues to truck along, Tony Parker can still draw two defenders off a high screen, and Danny Green is Danny Green.
But growth from the Spurs’ proverbial B-Team is just as much a reason to be excited about what they can accomplish. San Antonio’s nominal starting five with Kyle Anderson in Leonard’s place (alongside Parker, Green, Aldridge, and Gasol) is dominant, in part because the fourth-year forward has found ways to be efficient while eschewing the three-point line.
Meanwhile, after he shredded Las Vegas Summer League, Bryn Forbes has been a delightful, scrappy spark who’s yet to miss a game, Dejounte Murray leads the team in net rating, Davis Bertans has made 42 of his last 100 threes, and before he injured his heel, Rudy Gay seamlessly fit into an offensive system many expected him to obstruct.
All that is wonderful. Without their best player at his best for the entire year, only four teams have a better winning percentage than San Antonio. (The Spurs are 5-4 in Leonard’s nine starts.) They have the league’s second-best defense, a principled swarm that doesn’t foul, gets back on defense, forces long twos, and protects the rim. Again: Wonderful.
But given what’s at stake, the age old “next man up” adage is irrelevant here. The story of San Antonio’s recent playoffs struggle has been their absence of a higher ceiling. Turning the regular season into a slaughterhouse is all well and good with a team that out-executes, out-works, and out-smarts its opponent on a regular basis. But things change in a seven-game series, when coaches have time to whittle away at the other side’s primary weaknesses.
Reasonable minds can argue what those weaknesses are in San Antonio, but reliable shot creation is undoubtedly a recurring worry. Leonard—who, when healthy, merits inclusion in any list of the five best all around basketball players in the world—is as franchise-altering on the court as he is when unavailable. Forget about his capacity to singlehandedly disrobe the league’s most intimidating scorers, or the way he seemingly snatches every single 50-50 ball and contested rebound from the floor/air with paws wider than a butterfly net.
What makes Leonard so undeniably valuable is his ability to make difficult shots from undesirable spots on the floor whenever the defense coerces them through a calculated scheme. Stick a hand in his face on a 16-foot turnaround along the baseline? No matter. Slide a seven-footer over to meet him at the rim? No matter. The two-time All-Star doesn’t have a “bad shot” in his arsenal.
These skills make Leonard priceless, and not having him healthy for a playoff run is a death sentence. After two straight seasons finishing in the top three for MVP, we don’t know when he’ll be back or what he’ll look like after he returns. Only 36 games are left on the Spurs’ schedule, which leaves minimal time (at best) for Leonard to assimilate with players he has very little/no chemistry with, in lineups that are almost completely unfamiliar. Jutting someone of his stature back into the fold is difficult: San Antonio’s league-average offense was worse than the 30th ranked Sacramento Kings in Leonard’s stray time this year.
But they absolutely, positively need him at the peak of his powers if they’re to defeat the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors. Losing to the Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, or Oklahoma City Thunder in a first-round matchup is also conceivable if Leonard is limited in any way. Effort, knowledge, and awareness only go so far when your talent level has an unbreakable barrier.
Anderson, Forbes, Bertans, and Murray can’t deliver in a high pressure environment outside the boundaries of San Antonio’s altruistic offense. Aldridge, Parker, Gay, and Manu Ginobili aren’t the answer by themselves, either. San Antonio’s offense dies when the 32-year-old Aldridge is off the floor, and they have more road losses than the Phoenix Suns.
That leaves us with a disappointing “what if?” that calls back to last year’s Western Conference Finals, and even the previous year’s 67-win team that was upset early in a tight six-game series against the Oklahoma City Thunder after finishing the regular season with the league’s best defense (by a mile) and highest point differential. The Warriors are phenomenal and should undoubtedly be considered the favorite to win their third championship in four years, but it’d be so gratifying for the NBA as a whole to watch Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich go toe-to-toe with healthy squads at their disposal.
After stubbornly gluing themselves to two-big lineups, the Spurs have finally relented this year, playing Aldridge more at the five than beside another center. That’s a start. If Leonard is 100 percent, they can throw out like-sized units that space the floor, attack mismatches in isolation, and switch on the other end. Imagine Green, Ginobili, Leonard, Gay, and Aldridge at the same time. Or how about Green, Murray, Anderson, Gay, and Leonard at the five?
The options are endless; all the different ways these two juggernauts would adjust to matchups would create a Shangri-La for basketball strategists everywhere. The good news is we still might get there in the second round, assuming the Warriors finish with the one seed and San Antonio doesn’t suffer any more meaningful injuries but are still passed by Minnesota in the standings.
This isn’t a last hurrah for San Antonio, but it still faces several hard questions this summer. Parker is a free agent, Ginobili is 63 years old, Green and Gay can opt out of their contracts, Bertans, Anderson, and Forbes can all enter restricted free agency. A significant trade before the deadline is not inconceivable, but moving on from their most valuable asset (Murray?) for a short-term gain doesn’t feel like a smart thing to do when Leonard may not even be healthy enough to contribute.
It’s a crummy situation, but one 90 percent of the NBA’s teams would happily take. San Antonio has been competent without its 26-year-old franchise player all season long. If he manages to return and find a rhythm before the playoffs begin, this team will arguably be more feared by the Warriors than anyone else. If not, they should already start thinking about next year.