How the Spurs found a way without Kawhi Leonard

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4896/" data-ylk="slk:Kawhi Leonard">Kawhi Leonard</a> is expected to soon return to the Spurs’ lineup. (AP)
Kawhi Leonard is expected to soon return to the Spurs’ lineup. (AP)

SAN ANTONIO — Danny Green stepped out of the training room last Friday following the San Antonio Spurs’ biggest Kawhi-less win of the season, ready to flex for the ’gram. Not because Manu Ginobili beat the Boston Celtics with rafter-scrapping rainbow three-pointer over Al Horford, or because the Spurs continue to defy what teams are supposed to do when their best player — a perennial MVP candidate, no less — is sidelined. No, Green wanted to take a picture to post on Instagram with the handful of teammates who showed up wearing their best flannel shirts to the game.

Patty Mills, Pau Gasol, Brandon Paul and Derrick White were all ready and waiting. Green was growing impatient and nudged Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge to hurry up and get dressed at their locker-room stalls because the Spurs had a plane to catch to Phoenix. He went back in the training room for a few minutes to let Aldridge button his shirt and poked his head out once again for Gay.

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“What, man? I’m right here,” Gay said as he slipped on his red and black flannel shirt. “Give me five seconds. I’m always ready for a picture — ’cause I look good.”

Gay is looking even better these days in San Antonio. Longing for the chance to feel relevant again, Gay took a significant pay cut last summer for the chance to join an organization in which a player’s strengths are magnified and flaws masked by a system that has been humming without interruption for two solid decades. Even questionable fashion choices (lumberjack attire) and decisions (you sure you wanted to tuck that shirt in, Gasol?) are no longer ridiculed when wins come with regularity. They can be celebrated with “Flanny Fridays” — as Gay referred to the flannel-shirt festivities. Green posted the photo later that night with the hashtag “#flannygang.”


A post shared by Danny Green (@greenranger14) on Dec 8, 2017 at 10:13pm PST

Playing alongside Kawhi Leonard was also part of the appeal for Gay when he decided to come to San Antonio. But that opportunity hasn’t yet been afforded to Gay, who has served as part of the hole-filling spackle to help the franchise function in the absence of its franchise player. The ways in which Gay can contribute to a team beyond scoring are being recognized and appreciated like they never would have in previous stops, where losing made them easier to ignore.

“It’s a situation where, you have to pay a lot of attention to detail and it’s a winning mentality. That’s something I was away from, for so long, you kind of create bad habits. I’ve had to re-teach myself. And I’ve had to continue to do it every day,” Gay told Yahoo Sports. “It’s great. Everybody helps each other. Everybody is held accountable. Everybody is on the same page. Everybody has one thing in mind, and that’s win. I wanted to be a part of that.”

The Spurs will soon welcome back Leonard from one of the more peculiar injuries — a right quadriceps ailment whose origins and treatment haven’t been clearly explained. What San Antonio has done without Leonard — a 19-8 record that’s good for third in the Western Conference — proves it is the one organization that doesn’t have an indispensable player in the regular season. Most of those wins also came with Tony Parker dealing with a ruptured right quadriceps sustained during the conference semifinals last season against Houston. The Spurs also have gone 33-12 without Leonard the past two seasons combined, a stunning 60-win pace.

“Whoever is not there is not there. We don’t worry about him or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much of the business as we can,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “When he gets there, he gets there. We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights, it doesn’t work out real well. Other nights, it looks really good, but I think down the stretch, it’ll help us.”

Popovich offered a hint as to how the Spurs refuse to crumble in the face of adversity during one of his must-watch, in-game television interviews last month. The Spurs had rallied from a 23-point deficit to eventually beat Oklahoma City, and Popovich said it was because of “an attitude change from ‘poor me’ to ‘screw you.’”

That is what the Spurs are and have been for some time. The culture Popovich has established is why veterans like David West in 2015 and now Gay left significant money on the table to join the fold, why Duncan held on until he was 40, Ginobili has done the same and Parker is begging to follow. Players and coaches speak of “The System” when it’s actually a long-preached philosophy that involves sacrificing for the good of the team, trust and instilling confidence. Believing in what you have allows role players to take the occasional star turns and the really talented players like Leonard to ascend to unexpected heights among the league’s best.

“First of all, guys understand the system of what we’re trying to do here, and executing their role. Guys are not trying to do too much, or too little,” Mills told Yahoo Sports. “We’re getting good wins, and even when we do lose, they tend to be mistakes that we can fix. When [Leonard] comes back, we’re obviously going to have to adjust, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. But so far this season, it’s been a team effort. Obviously, [Aldridge] has been carrying a huge part of the weight, but everybody else complements and understands what they need to do, so it’s a good way to feel for sure.”

David Robinson retired in 2003 and the Spurs went on to win two of the next four championships. Tim Duncan retired and the Spurs went on to have just their seventh 60-win season in franchise history. Popovich has been the common thread for this sustained greatness, given his ability to innovate, adjust and be open to change. His flexibility in regard to Aldridge, bending the offense to make the All-Star big man feel more comfortable and empowered, has been essential to the Spurs maintaining without Leonard. Aldridge, the Spurs’ first major free-agent signing who had grown unhappy with how he was utilized his first two seasons, has restored his standing as one of the league’s best big men — all from a spirited heart-to-heart conversation with the demanding coach who wouldn’t let stubborn pride get in the way of winning. Getting over yourself isn’t just for players.

Ginobili was one of the first players to challenge Popovich’s sensibilities, but the coach eventually learned to accept what his 16-year guard has always told him, “This is what I do.” Though his once out-of-control drives appear to be slow-motion replays and he conserves his energy for when it counts, Ginobili is one of the rare perimeter players to play into his 40s and remain effective. His teammates call him “grandpa juice” for the life Ginobili injects into the game at an advanced age. Ginobili is playing more minutes now than he did in his final two seasons in his 30s — a spike in playing time that will change once Leonard returns. But he has already provided motivation for Gay.

“I have a little bit of a rejuvenation, because I understand I have a 40-year-old teammate. I feel like I have a couple more good years in this system,” Gay told Yahoo Sports with a laugh. “It’s just the knowledge in the room. Pau Gasol was my vet when I was a rookie. Manu, Tony, all these guys have been through some battles. Being around them, I feel like I’m still learning. It’s fun.”

Mills had been rejected by Portland before arriving in San Antonio, and it wasn’t long before he was hitting big shots in the NBA Finals and earning a $50 million contract last summer. The Spurs haven’t been waiting for Leonard to save them now because they know they’ll really need him healthy in the postseason. They were able to ruin the Rockets in a close-out game without Leonard but stood no chance against Golden State, which outscored them by 87 points for the remainder of the series after Leonard hobbled off the floor in the second half of Game 1 of the conference finals with an ankle injury.

“We felt like we were undermanned,” Mills told Yahoo Sports. “Hopefully, we can get back to that spot and we want to be healthy and have another crack at it. As competitors and athletes, we try to find something to fuel the fire and that one is a quite easy one.”

The Spurs believe that series against the Warriors would’ve at least been more compelling and possibly had a more favorable outcome with a healthy Leonard. That might sound crazy, but so does snow in South Texas, which happened last week. Leonard has missed too many games to have a chance at winning MVP, but the Spurs have set him up to help threaten Houston and Golden State in the West. One of the more unique stars in terms of demeanor and playing style, Leonard is the ax the Spurs will have to wield in order to chop down other elite teams in the postseason. Maybe those flannel shirts were in anticipation that they will soon start swinging for something even greater.

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