At 22-0 to begin the season, it seems there’s little that can stop the Golden State Warriors. Besides the ever-present risk of injury, the only well-known, concrete threat to the team is the twin-cannons of Lisa Ann (SFW, I promise). But then there’s the San Antonio Spurs who, despite getting bounced by the Clippers in the first round of last year’s playoffs, look reinvigorated thanks to the transcendent play of their 6’7 swingman, Kawhi Leonard.
Thanks to the Warriors absolutely ridiculous run of basketball over the past 18 months, Leonard – and the Spurs themselves – have been able to somewhat return to their familiar position away from the spotlight of mainstream media and fandom. Even though the Spurs winning the 2014 finals with Leonard as MVP wasn’t enough to keep them there, although it’s possible to see why, as that team endured some growing pains last year in transitioning its focus away from the aging Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan triumvirate, culminating in a first round exit in May 2015 at the hands of the dangerous-but-volatile LA Clippers.
Come December, it’s safe to say Leonard and the Spurs are finally back. The team sits second in the league at 17-4, while Leonard has cemented his spot as a top-5 player in the league. Particularly with the new additions of David West and LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs are primed for another deep playoff run.
So what’s changed since May that has made this Leonard – and therefore the Spurs – as dangerous as they’ve ever been? Essentially, he’s found the offense to match his defense – which is saying a lot for the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year.
The obvious stat first, Leonard is currently leading the league in three-point percentage at bang-on 50%, while taking four attempts a game. Sure that’s not Steph Curry territory, but it is Kyle Korver territory, who is shooting 42.9% on .6 more attempts – for a guy who shot 34.9% last year, I’d say that’s pretty damn impressive.
Beyond the threes, and the associated bump in scoring from 16.5 to 21.6, Leonard might be the most the most balanced scorer in the game. His attempts on shots closer than 10 feet, pull-ups and catch-and-shoot are 35.4, 33.1 and 29.9% respectively – compare this to someone like Paul George, who shoots an overwhelming 47.5% of his shots off the dribble. Essentially, defending Leonard has got exponentially harder when he can make you pay just as much without dribbling as he can when navigated through the low post.
On top of that, the defense is somehow even better. Last year, Leonard’s opponents shot 44.2% when he was guarding them, this year, it’s an incredible 36.1. You’d have a better shot getting a thoughtful answer from his coach Gregg Popovich than you would scoring on Leonard himself.
If Leonard keeps that defense up, it’s sure to dramatically alter the texture of any Spurs-Warriors series. His defensive prowess will essentially cancel out the offensive input of whoever he’s guarding (being either Curry, or his partner-in-crime, Klay Thompson), while the Dubs’ defensive specialist Andre Iguodala will be forced to play Leonard similarly straight-up with his newfound shooting prowess, opening up a host of one-on-one matchups across the board. So while you certainly can’t say the Spurs would be favourites against the currently undefeated Warriors, it’s certainly possible to call it a draw.
And that’s the thing, as fun as it is to see the Warriors carve their way through the league’s regular season, come playoff time we all want to see them pushed to the absolute limit in their pursuit of historic levels of greatness. Kawhi Leonard may not be the small forward we were expecting to stand in our way, but as of right now, he’s our best – if not only – hope.