COMMENTARY | It's always tough to deal with your team's exit from the playoffs. It's even tougher when it comes in a Game 7. And it's even tougher than that when it comes in a Game 7 of the NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
But along with the extra-large helping of heartbreak, San Antonio Spurs fans left with a little parting gift at the conclusion of that series: They saw the future of the franchise -- Kawhi Leonard -- blossom into a legitimate baller.
Forget that he missed two crucial free throws that could have sealed the series in Game 6 (seriously, it will help if you try and erase it from your memory), Leonard had a coming-out party in last year's playoffs. From the regular season to the postseason, Kawhi increased his points per game from 11.9 to 13.5, his field-goal percentage from 49.4 to 54.5, and his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) from 16.4 to 18.9. He averaged a double-double in the playoffs and guarded LeBron James better than many mortal beings are capable of, all in his second season.
So the 2013-2014 campaign was set to be the "Year of Kawhi." He was going to make a statement on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, and begin his reign as San Antonio's newest favorite resident.
So after a quarter of the season has passed, how is the "Year of Kawhi" going?
Well, the Spurs are in second place in the West, Tim Duncan recently became the oldest player to have a 20-point and 20-rebound game, Manu Ginobli is playing like the old-Manu Ginobli, and Marco Belinelli is putting on a clinic from behind the arc. So I would say, overall, it's going pretty well.
And Kawhi? He's averaging a quiet 11.8 points, 6 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game.
His performance isn't getting the buzz that his other teammates' is getting, and that may cause some people to think he is not living up to his billing.
But as I mentioned in my piece on Tiago Splitter, to truly see the effect a Spurs player has on his team, you have to look deeper than the box score. Karachi's Player Efficiency Rating has jumped from 16.4 last season to 18.6 this season, and the Spurs are +10 when he is on the court. His assist and steal numbers are also up from his previous two seasons. I don't care what player you are talking about, this is an improvement you want to see.
Something else needs to be taken into consideration when judging how Kawhi Leonard's season is going: The Spurs have been blowing teams out on a regular basis. As anyone who has been paying attention will have noticed, the starters usually have ice on their knees for a good portion of the fourth quarter. In Leonard's case, he's averaging more than three less minutes per game compared to last season.
Another reason many fans and analysts are so "meh" about Kawhi's season so far is because they are falling victim to an unfair comparison of another player in his third season who also had breakout performance in the playoffs against the Heat last year: Paul George.
George has had a meteoric rise in his ability and clout since the 2012-2013 season, and solidified his "superstar" status already this year. But to compare his situation with Kawhi Leonard's would show a lack of understanding of how the Spurs work.
Gregg Popovich doesn't run an offense that caters to padding stats. His offense moves the ball around (the Spurs are first in the league in assists with 25.3 per game), pounds the rock (they are second in FG% while in the paint), and excels in efficiency (they are fourth in the league in points per 100 possessions).
Kawhi Leonard is a big reason why the Spurs remain a dangerous machine charging through the west. In fact, his game perfectly embodies the entire San Antonio Spurs organization. He's quiet, efficient, and consistent. He isn't going to make "SportsCenter's" top plays, but instead beat you soundly, quickly, and often. And best of all, people are going to forget about him until he forcefully reminds people of his ability in the postseason.
Yeah, he's definitely a San Antonio Spur.
Stats are provided by NBA.com/stats.
Stephen Shepperd is a San Antonio Spurs contributor and can be followed @ShepperdStephen.
- Sports & Recreation
- San Antonio Spurs
- Kawhi Leonard
- LeBron James