For the past 19 years, the San Antonio Spurs have been the NBA’s automatic contender. Basketball’s version of an atomic clock, the Spurs could be penciled in for 50 wins and a top seed in the Western Conference on an annual basis, as the team racked up five championships, six NBA Finals appearances and the respect of every franchise in sports.
The axis around which all of that success revolved was Tim Duncan, the quiet, unassuming superstar who was the ultimate teammate, always infinitely happier to be in the locker room and on the practice court than anywhere near a television camera. But with Duncan finally exiting the stage this summer, it was fair to wonder if things would finally be different for the Spurs now that their longtime leader had departed.
“He was a security blanket for everybody,” San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich said before the Spurs opened their first season in two decades without Duncan against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland Tuesday night. “He was like the center of the universe and everybody knew how to act around that.
“With that pivotal guy gone, we’ll have to wait and see who accepts that role.”
It didn’t take Popovich long to get his answer. There was already little doubt Kawhi Leonard was going to be the standard-bearer for the Spurs whenever Duncan finally decided to step away from the game, both because of his similar temperament and prodigious talent. But for anyone who questioned that, Leonard’s performance against the Warriors in Tuesday night’s stunning beat-down of the NBA’s new super power should answer all of them once and for all.
The focus on this night may have been about Kevin Durant making his much-anticipated debut with the Warriors, but it was Leonard who was the best player on the court. The two-time defending NBA defensive player of the year poured in a career-high 35 points to go with five rebounds, three assists and five steals as he constantly used his massive hands to snatch errant passes and careless ball handling by the Warriors time and time again.
It was a virtuoso performance from Leonard, a player who has managed to take significant leaps forward in each of his prior five NBA seasons. And, if Tuesday night was any indication, he’s going to do so again this year by focusing on a new facet of his game: getting to the free throw line.
Leonard averaged a career-high 21.2 points per game last season while shooting 4.6 free throws per game. Against the Warriors, however, Leonard got to the line a staggering 15 times, making all of them. And, suddenly, the possibility of Leonard going from being a guy getting to the line four or fives times per a game to one going there seven, eight times a game seems plausible.
It may have only been one game, but Leonard said he spent the summer watching film to try to get to the free throw line more, and teammate Manu Ginobili said some of his moves were “Harden-like” — referring to James Harden, the league’s best at drawing fouls, and who got to the line over 10 times per game last year.
Given Leonard is a career 83 percent foul shooter, jumping his free throw rate by three or four a game would make it possible for him to get to, or even exceed, 25 points a night this season — and that, combined with him being one of the NBA’s most dominant defensive players, would make him a clear-cut MVP candidate this season.
“Just being able to go through it last year, watching film and learning how people were guarding me, seeing where their hands are,” Leonard said after Tuesday’s game. “I’m just starting to feel it, and get a rhythm. As it keeps going, I am getting better at it.”’
Leonard keeps getting better at everything, it seems. And the result is him becoming a true two-way force the likes of which few other players around the league can match. It’s a maturation process the Spurs have seen happen over the course of the last five years, to the point where now Leonard is comfortable taking over offensively in the same manner in which he’s become the league’s most feared defender.
“He basically tells me what he wants to do now,” Popovich said after Tuesday’s win. I mean, he’ll take the ball and send the screener away. He’ll decide if he wants to go one-on-one with no screen, no pick … he is much more demonstrative, looks for his shots more. He knows he’s got a green light, and I think that’s the difference. He’s making threes or he’s driving it, and now he’s finding people on the court while people are giving him attention he’s finding people like Patty Mills for wide open shots, so he’s a tough cover. He’s just really more confident, more aggressive, more hungry to score than in the past.
The fact Leonard is so similar to Duncan — from the metronomic way he plays and acts to his aversion to any kind of media spotlight or attention — only makes his transition to the next face of the Spurs all the more fitting. Over the past 19 years, the franchise has become defined by Duncan’s relentless work ethic, his disdain for accolades and his pursuit of perfection.
And with Leonard playing like this, San Antonio will still be a force to be reckoned with. Despite the recent furor around him, LaMarcus Aldridge remains a fantastic player, as he proved with 26 points and 14 rebounds against the Warriors while terrorizing their frontline. Yes, the Spurs will struggle against athleticism at point guard and center, thanks to the age of Tony Parker and Pau Gasol at those spots, but having guys like Patty Mills and Dewayne Dedmon coming off the bench behind them will help mitigate those issues to some degree. And, in general, the institutional knowledge that’s helped create this San Antonio machine hasn’t completely walked out the door with Duncan’s departure.
That’s because his apprentice in both basketball and life, Leonard, is there to take on the mantle one of the game’s greats has left behind. Judging by what happened Tuesday night, he’s more than ready to handle it.