For nearly seven months, we’ve been wondering when we’d see Kawhi Leonard on a basketball court again. It appears our long walk through the wilderness is finally nearing its end.
It sounds like Leonard’s finally worked his way through the right quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him sidelined since September, and baffled Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich all the while. The 26-year-old forward spoke to reporters earlier this week for the first time in ages, saying he feels good” and “pretty healthy right now,” and that his return was “soon to come.”
Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News reported that the Spurs had closed in on debut Saturday night, on the road, against the Phoenix Suns. (One imagines that Pop had a little smile to himself at the idea of bringing back a nuclear weapon against old buddy Robert Sarver.) But ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright reported Friday that Leonard “is now targeting his return on Tuesday” against the Dallas Mavericks.
Given previous reports suggesting Leonard’s return could come “by the end of this week,” it’s a little bit of a bummer that we won’t get to see Kawhi come back in time to tangle with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and the NBA-leading Boston Celtics in Friday night’s marquee nationally televised matchup. But with the Spurs entering a back-to-back that leads into a three-game road trip capped by a visit to Toyota Center to take on the rampaging Houston Rockets, you can understand Pop, general manager R.C. Buford and the rest of the Spurs’ braintrust choosing to give him an extra few days of rest and treatment in advance of what could be some heavy lifting.
Besides, it’s not like the Spurs need to rush Leonard back. In case you’ve missed it, San Antonio has responded to losing its best player for more than a quarter of the season by doing what they’ve been doing for a quarter-century — plugging in who they do have, expecting them to do their jobs, and winning more than 60 percent of their games.
The Spurs enter Friday’s action at 17-8, good for the No. 3 spot in the West behind the Rockets and defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors. They continue to make opposing offenses miserable, ranking third in the NBA in points allowed per possession, 3-point makes allowed per game and second-chance points allowed. They’ve mitigated the loss of Leonard’s offensive punch by moving the ball and minimizing mistakes, ranking fourth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, and by leveraging their collective size and length to take care of the boards, ranking fifth in the NBA in rebounding percentage.
Their pace has remained glacial and the highlights have remained few and far between, but, as always, it’s worked. With a professionally smothering defense, a deep reserve corps featuring strong contributions from post-Achilles-tear wonder Rudy Gay, the eternally joyful Manu Ginobili and Summer League success story Bryn Forbes, and LaMarcus Aldridge leading the offensive charge in a return to All-Star form, the Spurs have weathered Leonard’s absence, remaining one of the NBA’s five best teams.
You’d be forgiven, then, for wondering if reintegrating a piece as massive as Leonard might throw a wrench, however briefly, into the operation of the Spurs’ forever whisper-quiet and smooth-running machine. Especially as it relates to Aldridge, who stumbled at times as a lower-tier option in a rough second season in San Antonio, and who — after a come-to-Jesus offseason chat with Popovich — has blossomed as the Spurs’ offensive focal point and premier finisher with Leonard on the shelf.
Aldridge’s usage rate (the share of his team’s possessions that he ends by taking a shot, drawing a foul or committing a turnover) is the highest its been since he left Portland. He’s developed a dynamic high-low chemistry with fellow titan Pau Gasol, bedeviling defenses by stretching them beyond their breaking point — both are making more than 38 percent of their 3-point tries, and combining for nearly four per game — and playing keepaway before punishing them in the post when they overextend.
They’ve worked inside and out. Among players to have used 50 such plays, Gasol ranks third and Leonard 13th in points scored per possession used as the roll/pop man in the screen game. Aldridge has remained one of the game’s premier low-block scorers, ranking eighth in points scored per post-up trip, as the Spurs, in defiance of all things modern, continue to use the post-up as a vehicle to initiate an offense more than anybody else.
Aldridge is taking about 2 1/2 more shots per 36 minutes of floor time than he did last season. He’s 45.2 frontcourt touches per game, fifth-most in the league. He’s making the most out of them, getting to the free-throw line more often than ever en route to a career-best 34.4 points per 100 possessions. How he responds to the reintroduction of Leonard could be, as The Ringer’s Danny Chau notes, “the most important development of the regular season.”
For his part, Aldridge insists he’s eager to get Kawhi back into the flow — greater good, eyes on the prize, and all that jazz.
“We want to win it all,” Aldridge said Wednesday, according to Young. “For us to go where we want to go, we have to have everyone playing good and being themselves out there. Hopefully I can continue to play at a high level when [Leonard] gets back. He can get back to being himself and we can just be that much better.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that he’s going to go out of his way to clear acres of space for Leonard to go to work.
“I’m going to continue being myself,” Aldridge continued. “I feel like Pop and the coaching staff will figure that out. I’m not on the coaching staff. That’s not my mindset. But teams [figure it out] all the time. Miami had a big three. Golden State is doing it now. So, it’s not difficult to have two or three guys being dominant out there. So, I feel like when he gets back I’m going to have easier shots and vice-versa. … It should work out.”
It should! There’s a surfeit of offensive talent between the two forwards, and big enough brains to be able to solve the problems. That said, if your concern centers on how Leonard fits in around Aldridge without disrupting what the Spurs have working right now, I would submit that it is worth remembering who and what Kawhi Leonard is.
We’re talking about a two-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA First Teamer, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and two-time top finisher in Most Valuable Player balloting — a true contender for the all-important (if impossibly ephemeral) title of best two-way player in the NBA. After a year of muttering about how he wasn’t really a No. 1 option because he was just working in the Spurs’ system, Leonard last season became the system, posting a top-10 usage rate while pulverizing opponents in the post, off the bounce from the perimeter and on hiccup-quick launches from beyond the arc.
It was Kobe-esque dominance of an offense paired with LeBron-ian efficiency, delivered alongside lockdown All-Defensive First Team bullying.
Leonard’s still not an elite playmaker, but he’s getting better. He posted a career-high assist rate last season that spiked even further in the playoffs, where he was an absolute terror when healthy against Memphis, Houston and Golden State before going down for good halfway through Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. There is a reason Popovich made everything revolve around around Kawhi last season. He’s not just a star. He’s the sun.
“I think people would like to see him play,” Popovich said earlier this week. “He’s a pretty unique dude.”
He’s also the Spurs’ best, and perhaps only, chance of standing toe-to-toe with the juggernaut Warriors and Rockets come April and May. Whatever growing pains might come with bringing him back into the fold — and it’s possible there might not be many, if Pop decides to keep running offense through Aldridge until such time as Leonard’s back in full form and fitness — will pale in comparison to the long-term benefits.
For the first quarter of the season, the NBA’s been without one of its most singularly gifted and spectacular players. That’s almost over. Kawhi Leonard’s coming back, and the Spurs — yes, the Spurs — are about to get awfully interesting.
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