For over the past 18 years, the San Antonio Spurs have been the model of consistency around the NBA, going to the playoffs all those years, never losing less than 50 games for over 15 straight years, and winning 5 NBA championships in the process, tied with the Lakers for the most during that stretch. However, the very foundations of that dynasty is nearing an end, with this possibly being Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili’s final season, and Tony Parker no longer the same effective player he was. Gregg Popovich will likely stay there to coach a couple of more years, as well as other important role players that will either stay or come this off-season, but there’s no denying that a new day is approaching the Spurs after next season.
The centerpiece of this rebuilding process that will take place is Kawhi Leonard, who’s entering his fifth year in the league with an already impressive resume, with two trips to the NBA Finals, a victory in one of them to go along being named the Finals MVP (the third youngest player ever to win the prestigious award), and a Defensive Player of the Year honor for the 2015 season, the first perimeter defender to win the award in over 11 years. He has also just received a fifth year contract extension worth of $90 million that virtually guarantees his importance for the future. Everything from now on will run through him, from the way they play defense, to the spacing of the floor that will form the basis of their offense.
The question that has been lingering on everyone’s mind for over the past years however, is can Kawhi Leonard truly be the leader the Spurs really need for the beginning of a new dynasty. The Spurs certainly think he can by giving him that contract, and they’ve had a four year body of work to look at that echoes the same sentiments. On the other hand, this will be Leonard’s first season where he will be the real center of attention; his minutes will likely increase, along with the possibility of a big leap coming in terms of workload. Mentally he seems ready, but physically there are uncertainties. This should not be that big of an issue nevertheless, as Popovich is known for being a master in controlling player’s minutes all throughout his coaching pedigree, and Leonard will be no exception, but there’s no doubt his minutes will increase in order to maximize his potential.
His productivity on offense has not only been a question mark for the skeptics, but also those that praise him. His defensive acumen has never been in question; he is an excellent defender that has gone toe to toe in many occasions with players like Lebron James and Kevin Durant and has had his way with them at times, most notably in the 2014 NBA playoffs. Offensively, however, he has had his struggles, but has been improving every season since starting in the league, averaging a career high 16 points per game for the 2015 NBA season. If past performance is an indicator, this will be the year Leonard excels on the offensive side of the ball, and it is vital for him to do so, as many players for the Spurs can no longer perform at the same level they once did on that side; players like Leonard need to step up this coming season or they will under perform early on.
The most glaring deficiency in his game, however, is psychologically. He has not been a very good player under very intense pressure, often folding when needed most. A missed free throw on game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals and a defensive breakdown by his part where crucial mistakes that cost the Spurs a chance to win a championship. They wound up winning the next year, and Leonard’s performance was a huge factor for it, exorcising some of his demons, but this year in another pressurized situation, he missed two free throws that would’ve sealed a victory against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the regular season, a game they also wound up losing. Time after time again he has failed in these moments, and they have had an impact on many Spurs games. This weakness on his game is not something that should be very worrisome however. He has proven to be a winner after all, despite his struggles, and there were also many times in which he has also shown he can handle the spotlight. The ability to perform clutch is not something one naturally develops, it’s something that an athlete gets better at as they learn from their mistakes, and Leonard has long ways to go for him to fix these mental errors he commits at times.
Regardless of what happens with the Spurs during the next few days of free agency, whether they sign LaMarcus Aldridge or not, or Manu Ginobili decides to call it a career, it is great news that they have Kawhi Leonard almost* locked up for the next five years, as he will surely be the new centerpiece in another possible Spurs dynasty. It takes countless of hours in order to perfect a craft, and what Leonard has been able to do despite all the adversity he has faced throughout his life is something worth admiring, from losing his father at a very early age to having difficulties playing offense. If there’s anyone that can take the reigns of a franchise who prides itself for its consistency, is a player like Leonard, very private, calm, and elusive when talking to the media, but always the first one at the facilities working hard to reach his goals for the betterment of the team. He is definitely going to improve his game for the next coming years, and the Spurs will not miss a beat with him leading the way.
*He has yet to officially sign the contract as the Spurs want to focus on signing Aldridge first, but him and the Spurs have already agreed on it.