Outside of the omnipresent speculation regarding where Kevin Durant will end up next season, one of the most talked about story lines over the summer was LaMarcus Aldridge leaving Portland for San Antonio.
Less than two weeks into the regular season, however, the biggest name within the Spurs organization on both sides of the ball hasn’t been the 6-foot-11 marquee addition; it’s been Kawhi Leonard. The former Finals MVP is orchestrating San Antonio’s offense, while simultaneously being the linchpin on the defensive side of the ball — hawking players like Joe Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, and Durant into shooting less than 26 percent against him.
In his fifth year with the team, not only is Leonard leading the team in scoring—both in the paint and on fast breaks — he’s also leading the Spurs in field goal attempts by a significant margin (18.8 per game), and is holding the ball for 2.6 minutes per game, nearly a half-minute longer than he did last season.
Leonard is being targeted by opposing defenses so much so, in fact, that he’s watching tape of Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan for guidance on how to counter double-teams.
Nearly a year after Leonard prognosticated that he’d be looked at to lead the franchise, he is doing just that: Leonard leads the Spurs in minutes (33.3 per game) and usage (29.9 percent), sopping up 10.5 percent more of the team’s offensive possessions than Tony Parker, San Antonio’s starting point guard.
His go-to-guy role doesn’t diminish in the fourth quarter, either: Leonard leads the team in fourth-quarter field goal attempts, usage rate, and minutes.
“We’re going to him. If you want to call it that, you can call it that,” Coach Gregg Popovich said after the team’s season opener. “He’s a pretty good player, so he probably needs the ball now and then.”
In total: it’s discernible that he has been handed the keys to the team’s offense, but the question becomes has it been working?
San Antonio is 3-2, with losses on the road against Oklahoma City and Washington. The Thunder and Wizards outscored the Spurs by 10 points in the final quarter; Leonard, coincidentally, was San Antonio’s leading scorer in both games.
The start of each season gives way to inconsistencies and growing pains, which, in turn, are ironed out or worked on throughout the rest of the year.
San Antonio scored 1.04 points per possession last season before the all-star break, finishing the regular season with a 1.06 points-per-possession average; the year before, the team averaged 1.07 points per possession and improved to 1.08 by the end of the season. This year, though, the team is averaging just 0.99 points per possession, ranking in the lower half of the league in points per 100 possessions (99.1) and is tied for fourth in turnover ratio.
So, yes, the team hasn’t been as productive on the offensive side of the floor, but there’s no doubt that San Antonio is facing challenges that haven’t been prevalent in years past. For example, Popovich has perhaps never had to infuse a player like Aldridge — who logged at least 2,400 minutes in seven of the past eight seasons — into the starting lineup, and last year’s starting center, Tiago Splitter, is now in Atlanta.
Add in the fact that Parker (33 years old), Ginobili (38 years old), and Duncan (39 years old) aren’t getting any younger, and the matter is further complicated.
San Antonio’s woes on the offensive end of the floor certainly don’t fall at the feet of Leonard, who is being asked to govern offensive sets that aren’t fully flushed out yet, play alongside someone with whom he has never played before and take shots he isn’t used to taking. Speaking of shooting: His shooting percentage is exactly what it was last year — 47.9 percent — despite him attempting six more shots per game and playing nearly two more minutes. He’s also fourth among small forwards in scoring, trailing Durant, Anthony and LeBron James.
Five games into the season, it’s clear that San Antonio’s offense has plenty to get acclimated to, but Leonard hardly deserves the blame for those transitions, given his transcendent play thus far.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.