San Antonio Spurs Season Preview: The Meteoric Rise Of Kawhi Leonard

May 16, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) celebrates after a play during the fourth quarter in game six of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Spurs defeated the Warriors 94-82. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports


For the San Antonio Spurs, the 2013 NBA Finals won’t be one to remember. A team has never been so close to winning the NBA Finals, only to lose. Yes, they had a game seven, but game six will be the game to haunt them. Of all the memorable things that will come out of that series, LeBron James’ remarkable performance will be remembered. Ray Allen’s deafening three to send the game to overtime will be remembered, and Miami fans running out, only to attempt to come back will be remembered. “Potential Finals MVP?” Danny Green might be remembered. One that might not be remembered? Kawhi Leonard’s breakout series. Leonard was everywhere for San Antonio on both sides of the ball. His defense on LeBron was something to applaud, and while the free-throw missed late will be a dent in his overall offensive performance, Leonard looked like a star player.

Moving to the 2013 season, how can Leonard expand on that? Other than the addition of Marco Belinelli, the subtraction of Gary Neal, and the draft picks of Livio-Jean Charles and Deshaun Thomas, the Spurs are coming back with most of the same players. Leonard’s 2012 regular season numbers: 11.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals, while shooting 49% from the floor, 37% from three, and 82% from the free-throw line. Along with those numbers, Leonard finished with 6.2 win shares. The numbers are impressive for Leonard, but can they improve? If Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili take secondary roles on the offense and Tony Parker takes a step up as an offensive leader, can Leonard’s numbers take another leap? The numbers suggest that he might be ready for an increase in his offensive role.

While he may not seem like a prolific shooter, Leonard is a very good offensive player. Hoopdata.com breaks down the court into different shooting locations (At the rim, 3-9 feet, 10-15 feet, and 16-23 feet), and Leonard was above-average at every location. Part of this is Leonard’s role as the third, sometimes fourth, offensive options, but most of the credit should go to Leonard for thriving in the opportunities he receives. Most of his shot attempts are of the jump shot variety, but where Leonard thrived is off-the-ball offense. Last season, Leonard finished with 67% on cut plays, good for 1.32 PPP. Leonard also offered San Antonio a strong offensive rebounder. When Leonard got offensive rebounds, he put-back and finished on 62% of his field goal attempts, good for a 1.14 PPP. When you combine these numbers to Leonard’s above-average three-point shooting, Leonard is an optimal offensive player for a player like Tony Parker.

On the defensive end, Leonard is great as an overall defensive talent. Not only does he fit everything San Antonio wants from a team defender, but he also doubles as a great solo defender. Per 82games.com, San Antonio was four points better with Leonard on the floor. Not only that, but Leonard held opposing shooting guards to a PER of 14.0 and an independent field goal percentage of just 21%. And small forwards didn’t fare much better, shooting 24% from the field with a PER of 12.6. His size, speed, and defensive I.Q. are all exceptional, and his 1.7 steals show that he’s smart at picking his spots in the passing lanes. He’ll be an excellent defensive player for years to come, and his offensive numbers push Leonard into the discussion as one of the better two-way players in the league.

The question looming into for the Spurs is how Leonard can continue to maximize his role. Like the Spurs do, they’ll probably continue to slowly bring Leonard along into a larger role, as Duncan and Ginobili continue to decline, and in that case, the Spurs could be right back in the race to represent the West in the NBA Finals for the second straight season.