MIAMI – The shy, reticent California kid responsible for transforming the San Antonio Spurs, delivering a gassed dynasty its second wind, had come to the franchise with brazen strength, a stout spirit and a flawed shot. Hours after the NBA draft three years ago, the Spurs hurried Kawhi Leonard through his "Welcome to the NBA" news conference and out onto the practice court with shooting coach Chip Engelland.
As the clock lurched toward midnight on July 1, Engelland worked to change Leonard's release point, reshaping his shot and retraining his mind to trust what suddenly felt so awkward. Time was running out together, and soon the Spurs would leave a 20-year-old to administer his own reclamation. No coaches, no calls, no contact.
"He had come in, worked with Chip for three days and then – the lockout happened," Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday night. "There was intention in the [shooting] prescription given him. It was not just drill work."
Five months passed, the lockout ended and it didn't take long for the Spurs to realize Leonard had dutifully done the work asked of him and returned a different basketball player. In the Spurs' wildest dreams, they imagined Leonard as a relentless rebounder and a determined defender. Yet once Leonard developed a shot, he had a chance to be a star. Most of all, the Spurs had a chance to retool the Big Three, supplement the supporting cast and make a run again.
Leonard had 29 points, two steals and two blocked shots in a telltale 111-92 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Leonard did a magnificent job on LeBron James, holding him to 22 points and playing a part in disrupting him into seven turnovers. No one could see this Spurs resurgence coming on Tuesday night, the way no one could see Leonard becoming this kind of a star, this kind of a franchise-changer in the winter of Tim Duncan's and Manu Ginobili's careers.
Leonard is the reason the Spurs are chasing championships again. He changed everything for the Spurs. He gave them size and strength and athleticism to partner with his calculating, cunning basketball mind. Eventually, he gave them a startling offensive game to go with his stifling defense. Against Oklahoma City and Miami, he gave them a defender for Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Yes, Kawhi Leonard gave the Spurs a chance again.
"You could've never predicted this," Buford said.
No one ever saw him coming on draft night three years ago. Before that draft, Leonard had to slow down his workout schedule with an Achilles and ankle injury, forcing him to skip a late June session with the Milwaukee Bucks. Between the poor shooting and those injury doubts, there was an uneasiness of teams on draft night. This gave the Spurs a chance.
Around 3 o'clock on draft day in 2011, Buford called Leonard's agent, Brian Elfus, in his New York hotel room. San Antonio had done a thorough job of scouting and researching Leonard, but this was the first time Elfus had heard directly from Buford on him. He had been projected too high of a draft pick for the Spurs to be able to bring him into town for a workout.
"How's he feeling?" Buford asked Elfus. The agent informed Buford that he had taken Leonard to a specialist in the city that day, and his Achilles and ankle had fully checked out. Buford had history with Elfus, the Spurs had a solid doctor's physical on Leonard and soon Buford was back shopping guard George Hill for a lottery pick.
The Spurs had a small list of players in the 2011 draft that they were willing to trade Hill to obtain. As the top part of the lottery passed, the Spurs expected the Utah Jazz to select Leonard at No. 12, only the Jazz passed on him for Alec Burks. Leonard kept falling. They were sure he'd go 13 or 14, but the Morris twins were selected back-to-back. Somehow, Leonard made it to the Pacers at No. 15. Somehow, they had him. The Pacers desperately needed a veteran guard, and had long valued Hill. The Spurs so adored Hill, had become so fond of him, and Buford and Gregg Popovich loved the idea – if they had to trade him – of sending Hill back to his hometown of Indianapolis.
"The next time I heard from the Spurs," Elfus said Tuesday night, "they called me as Kawhi was walking across the podium."
The Spurs made the trade, and this would be one more franchise-changing moment that never felt that way in the moment. Buford drafted Ginobili with the 57th pick, and he became a Hall of Famer. They drafted Tony Parker with the 28th pick and hoped he could become a starting guard. He turned out to be an All-Star and an NBA Finals MVP.
Buford and Popovich are two of the greatest roster builders in NBA history, because they're forever finding the perfect blend of talent – the shooters and passers to make the system go, to make a symphony out of squeaking sneakers. They rummage through the bargain bins and Goodwill, finding the missing parts and reboot them as Spurs. They see a lottery pick dropping on draft night and make a play that changes everything for the franchise.
Leonard had been sluggish in Games 1 and 2 of these Finals, and Popovich pushed him to come out fiercely on Tuesday night. He had done it a year ago against Miami. They needed it again now. Within minutes, Leonard had made Game 3 his own. Within the night, the Spurs had a 2-1 series lead and regained home-court advantage. As it turns out, Leonard is the perfect Spur: relentlessly dedicated to his craft, and painfully private.
"He doesn't talk much," the Spurs' Tiago Splitter said. "But he plays great."
The beauty of the brains running these Spurs is that they forever see the possibilities, forever use imagination when evaluating talent and making the hard choices of player procurement. San Diego State coach Steve Fisher kept telling scout George Felton that Leonard was a "gym rat," and Engelland had evaluated Leonard in the predraft process and insisted to Buford he could fix Leonard's shot, that it wasn't so wayward. The kid had pride, immersed himself in the process and validated the draft-night gamble that turned a fading dynasty into a back-to-back NBA Finalist. Two victories from a fifth NBA title, the two victories the Spurs let slip away a year ago to Miami.
Here was R.C. Buford, the NBA's Executive of the Year, standing in a corridor of AmericanAirlines Arena, drinking a water, pounding a cup of almonds and considering the resurrection of a contender with the rapid ascent of a kid who proved his trustworthiness out of sight three years ago, but never out of mind.
"It's easy to make changes when you're in the gym every day, when you're in practice," Buford said Tuesday night. "But the trust of going out and doing it yourself, well, that's what we didn't know. He had come back, and you could see it. It was different. We knew he had done his work."
Three years later, Leonard had been the best player on the floor in Game 3 of these NBA Finals, had made LeBron James uncomfortable. Perhaps only the imagination and ingenuity of these San Antonio Spurs could've ever considered the possibilities of Kawhi Leonard. Out of nowhere, out of a free-fall, the kid changed everything. From Duncan to Parker, Ginobili to Popovich, this kid could make them champions again. Almost there, again. Almost.