The NBA is locked in the waves of a whirlpool, forever spinning slowly, painfully, towards the end of a bizarrely inevitable yet stretching season.
The dry decks of the Cavalier frigate and the Warrior trireme are biding their time, watching 28 other galleons fight and claw to be the last ship to fall inevitably into the abyss. Only, there’s one relentless watercraft with a black and silver sail that doesn’t seem to see the futility in their efforts. Captained by a man revered and championed by a first mate with a calm demeanor but potent abilities, the Spurs vessel is adamant in their insurrection.
The chapter is new but the narrative is the same, the San Antonio Spurs endure. This time it wasn’t that they were too old, nor that their best days were behind them. This time, their dismissal was hammered assertively due to the loss of legend Tim Duncan, combined with the insurmountable challenges levied by the league’s daunting elite.
The most successful franchise in pro sports over the last 20 years still can’t get an inch. Duncan departing is a tough loss to swallow but his protégé and the franchises esteemed replacement is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and MVP best man.
Duncan, along with long retired David Robinson started as two rowers muscling San Antonio forward but the Spurs have evolved. With the additions of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili they launched a steam boat and the franchise grew bigger, tinkered longer, and found new ways to span the gap. The Spurs are a machine and the engine is humming to the tune of a 32-9 record early in 2017.
Team success is paramount in the MVP bid and yet Leonard, the team’s clear front man, can’t even get a mention. The 32-9 mark is good for second in the NBA!
Some of you reading this may believe Leonard is overvalued, or a product of the system he’s in, but squash those thoughts and be better for it. The fruits of Leonard’s labors are undeniable. Not unlike Tom Brady, Steve Nash, or current James Harden it’s the results yielded that matter, not whether you think those same results could be produced elsewhere.
Regrettably, it’s not just the fans who turn their backs, Leonard’s peers have denied him at every turn. Remember Kevin Durant in 2014? Following the Spurs 2014 championship Durant took to Twitter and said, “No. He doing work like this because of the system. Put Paul George on the Spurs what would happen?”
Something about Leonard’s humble nature and quiet but rock solid work ethic has rubbed the community the wrong way. An insight into perhaps a much larger societal flaw that leads people into loathing those who seem to be too clean, or too kind, demonstrating foundational skepticism and assuming skeletons are behind every curtain. Hollywood has preconditioned us to love flawed personalities, and as writers will claim realistic* characters. This is a mistake, not all characters need a visible crux to be entertaining or worthy of praise.
See Tim Tebow and the violent opposition he received solely because the media sang his praises. The morality, decency, and humble nature of certain players is praiseworthy. Yet it’s the loud, bold, and often arrogant spotlight seekers the masses seem to flock to. Leonard’s path isn’t for everyone, but it’s bizarre how resolute some are in downplaying what he brings to the table because of it.
This week on the True Hoop podcast Brian Windhorst said:
“Not everyone in the NBA feels the same way about Kawhi – there’s some people frustrated Kawhi has gotten as much love as he has – it’s not just LeBron actually. There’s other top players who feel the same way.”
Why is anyone opposed to Leonard getting love as a basketball player? He’s 25 years old and has a championship ring, a Finals MVP award, two defensive player of the year awards, a runner up placing in the MVP race, and has made the All-NBA or All-Defense team on four occasions. Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only two who can claim a resume checking both the Finals MVP and Defensive Player of the Year boxes. If Leonard was a different man he could Facebook Live his own rendition of Kanye West’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing but Leonard isn’t about that instaface life.
Leonard is a widely regarded defensive leviathan that sinks even the best offensive heroes to new depreciating depths, we know this to be true, even in a year where analytics say something is funky. But legitimate and fair questions arose last season about Leonard’s ability or lack thereof to carry an offense. Leonard should’ve settled those criticisms then but many were still suspect heading into this season. When the engine smoked and the tires were stuck in the mud, could Leonard rise above and find meaningful offensive possessions where none should exist? It was Leonard’s mission this season and he chose to accept it.
Leonard is averaging 24.8 PPG a career high, he has a true shooting percentage (TS%) of .626. He has given you more volume while also increasing his efficiency for the second straight year.
Of qualified players only Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, and Klay Thompson score more point per touch. For a stat the seems to favor spot up shooters and off-ball players Leonard sits above known snipers like J.J. Redick, Kevin Durant, Anthony Morrow, Eric Gordon, Carmelo Anthony, etc.
Kawhi Leonard is scoring from everywhere. There’s a false notion he’s just waiting for an open look to fire but that’s off-base, he’s absolutely forcing the issue. Only 47.39 percent of his shots are assisted by a teammate. Durant widely regarded as the best scorer in the game is assisted on 60.16 percent of his scores. It’s not a knock on Durant but it does shed light on who is reaping the greatest rewards within their relative system.
This week Leonard became the first ever Spur to score 30 or more points on 60 percent or better shooting in four straight games. His 12th 30 plus scoring outburst of the season on Tuesday night places him seventh for such outings across the league. That places him above Steph Curry, LeBron James, and Durant just for context.
Leonard and the Spurs have little in general to remorse over this season. The Spurs are 1-0 vs. the Warriors, in a game where Leonard led all scorers with 35 points. They have yet to play Cleveland but Leonard has been big in feature matchups. Including two face-offs against Jimmy Butler who is also enjoying a career year. Butler is averaging 24.8 PPG on 45 percent shooting on the season but he has averaged 16 PPG and 36 percent shooting vs. San Antonio. Don’t underestimate the Claw.
James Holas, another writer at Press Basketball talked about the lessons to be learned from Sun Tzu in regards to Russell Westbrook. A fitting pairing, but for the Spurs and Leonard look to Moliere who said, “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”
The water is choppy, the chart is unclear, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. The rhetoric surrounding both the Warriors and Cavaliers is hard earned and understandable but don’t count out Leonard and don’t count out the Spurs. If the weather was to turn and one team was to ascend from the whirlpool swinging around broadside for a battle with the Warriors and Cavaliers – I wouldn’t bet against Leonard and his Spurs.