The Golden State Warriors are heading back to the NBA Finals, while the San Antonio Spurs are attempting to pick up the pieces.
At 31-6, the Golden State Warriors have the best record in the NBA. But the Warriors cannot take their foot off of the throttle as the NBA’s most consistent team is right in their rear-view mirror. Through 37 games the San Antonio Spurs are 30-7 and they are on pace for their 20th consecutive winning season. But aside from winning, it is how it has come for the Spurs as all but one season over this stretch has seen San Antonio win at least 50 games. The Spurs are a team that is full of interchangeable parts that is led by a head coach in Gregg Popovich who has consistently adjusted his coaching style which has led to five NBA Championships. And just like the last 19 seasons, the Spurs are once again in line to contend for another NBA Title.
Last summer saw the Spurs bid farewell to power forward Tim Duncan who in 19 years in San Antonio became one of the best winners in which professional sports has ever seen. There was never a season with Duncan in which the Spurs didn’t make the postseason and they were only unable to get past the first round of the NBA Playoffs four times.
It’s impossible to replace to contributions of Duncan who was a leader for the Spurs on and off of the court. But credit to Spurs general manager R.C. Buford and Popovich for going out in the off-season to sign center Pau Gasol. Gasol came to San Antonio as a six-time NBA All-Star, while he also won a pair of league titles as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers. In 17 NBA seasons, Gasol has averaged 18 points and 9.5 rebounds. Gasol knew when he came to San Antonio that he would not be the focal point of the Spurs offense, but at 36-years of age he simply wants to win another NBA Championship.
This season Gasol is averaging 12.1 points and his 7.8 rebounds lead the team. Gasol gives the Spurs another leader, while he is one of the better passing big men of the era which is evident by his 3.3 career assists average. And if Pop needs it, Gasol can still put up quality numbers as he got the Sacramento Kings for 24 points and 7 rebounds on November 16.
The summer of 2015 saw the Spurs agree to a four-year deal with power forward LaMarcus Aldridge that is worth $80 million. The 2015-2016 NBA season was an adjustment for Aldridge as he had to get acclimated with how the Spurs go about their business. But Aldridge still managed to average 18.0 points and 8.5 rebounds as he played alongside a legend in Duncan. Aldridge is averaging 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest, and like Gasol, you never know when he is going to explode for a big game.
Point guard Tony Parker and shooting guard Manu Ginobili may not have the explosiveness that they had when they were key cogs in four of the Spurs five NBA Titles, but they are still key contributors which includes providing a wealth of experience. The Spurs once again have tremendous depth which includes the likes of point guard Patty Mills and power forward David Lee. The Spurs also continue to find diamonds in the rough as youngsters such as center Dewayne Dedmon and shooting guard Jonathon Simmons are turning into quality role players off of the bench. But the epicenter of the Spurs success in recent years has been small forward Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard was the 15th overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft, but by the Indiana Pacers who immediately traded him to the San Antonio Spurs. And in each of Leonard’s six seasons with the Spurs, he has continued to improve his all-around game which was highlighted by him being named as the NBA Finals MVP in 2014, along with being selected as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year twice. This season Leonard is averaging 23.9 points which leads the Spurs. Leonard has eight, 30-point games to his credit this season which includes getting 35 points against the Warriors to begin the season that resulted in a Spurs road victory. And once you put it all together, the Spurs are once again in a familiar spot.
The Spurs are not only a model franchise for other NBA organizations, but all of professional sports. The Spurs don’t have any “me” guys on their team that are worried about how many touches that they receive on offense, and you never hear about any players in San Antonio having an issue with the way that the team is structured. The Spurs preach ball movement as rarely does a possession go by in which all five players do not touch the basketball, and defensively they rarely beat themselves. There isn’t a player on the Spurs roster who cannot score 20 points on a given night which gives their opponents something to always think about. And the scary parts about this is the Spurs have not drafted in the NBA’s Lottery since obtaining Duncan as they know how to scout and develop talent. Popovich has also become the king of knowing when to rest his players in order to keep them fresh for the stretch run in the regular season and for the playoffs as his teams are always ready to perform when the chips are pushed to the middle of the table.
The Spurs do find themselves facing some strong opposition right now from the Houston Rockets for first place in the Southwest Division as they are only a game behind San Antonio for first place. However the Spurs are currently 10th in the NBA points per game at 106 per contest which includes them connecting on nearly 48% of their shots as that happens to be the second best mark in the league. Defensively the Spurs are allowing 97.5 points per game which is second in the league and that strong defense will help them in the playoffs; especially in the fourth quarter against quality teams such as the Warriors and Rockets, or the Cleveland Cavaliers should both of these teams meet in the NBA Finals.
When the Spurs were eliminated in the Western Conference Semifinals last spring at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, you knew that they would be a team on a mission this season, and so far they have yet to disappoint as fundamental basketball continues to rule the roost in San Antonio.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Indiana Pacers
3. Toronto Raptors
4. Boston Celtics
5. Detroit Pistons
6. Atlanta Hawks
7. Chicago Bulls
8. Washington Wizards
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
(8) Washington Wizards vs. (1) Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavaliers win series 4-0)
The Washington Wizards won’t be able to derail the express that is the defending NBA Champions.
(7) Chicago Bulls vs. (2) Indiana Pacers (Pacers win series 4-2)
The Chicago Bulls will spend most of this NBA season not being on the same page which will finally catch up to them against the Indiana Pacers.
(6) Atlanta Hawks vs. (3) Toronto Raptors (Raptors win series 4-2)
The Atlanta Hawks will be tough, but the Toronto Raptors are looking to build off of their momentum from making the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
(5) Detroit Pistons vs. (4) Boston Celtics (Pistons win series (4-2)
The size advantage of the Detroit Pistons will be on display in this one as the Boston Celtics are still unable to win a playoff series under head coach Brad Stevens.
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Detroit Pistons vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavaliers win series 4-2)
The Pistons are an improving team under head coach Stan Van Gundy, but they are still not on the level of the Cavaliers.
Toronto Raptors vs Indiana Pacers (Pacers win series 4-2)
This is a rematch of a gritty first-round series from last spring, but this time around, Pacers small forward Paul George has more help around him which should be the difference.
Eastern Conference Finals
Indiana Pacers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers (Cavaliers win series 4-2)
Pacers small forward Paul George still will be unable to solve the riddle that is Cavaliers small forward LeBron James.
1. Golden State Warriors
2. San Antonio Spurs
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. Portland Trailblazers
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
6. Dallas Mavericks
7. Memphis Grizzlies
8. Utah Jazz
Western Conference Quarterfinals
(8) Utah Jazz vs. (1) Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-0)
The Utah Jazz won’t be a match for the Golden State Warriors as they will merely be happy to have their first postseason appearance since 2012.
(7) Memphis Grizzlies vs. (2) San Antonio Spurs (Spurs win series 4-1)
It’s that time of the year when you have to be weary of the San Antonio Spurs as they are simply laying in the weeds for another title run.
(6) Dallas Mavericks vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers (Clippers wins 4-3)
The Dallas Mavericks have the heart and determination, but it won’t be enough to overtake the Los Angeles Clippers.
(5) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (4) Portland Trailblazers (Trail Blazers win series 4-3)
Hands down this will be the toughest first round series in the playoffs as it can go either way.
Western Conference Semifinals
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-2)
The Blazers are an improving club, but they still aren’t on the level of the Warriors.
Los Angeles Clippers vs. San Antonio Spurs Spurs (Spurs win series 4-1)
The Clippers are a good team, but right now they have to take a backseat to the Warriors and Spurs who are clearly the two best teams in the Western Conference.
Western Conference Finals
San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win series 4-3)
The Spurs defense will slow down the Warriors, but it won’t be enough to stop them.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors (Warriors win 4-3)
The hunger of losing the NBA Finals last summer to the Cavaliers will be enough for the Warriors to get back to the top of the mountain.
X-San Antonio Spurs 63-19 (2)
Last season saw the San Antonio Spurs win 67 games, but they were a team that most people were not talking about since the Golden State Warriors set an NBA single-season record for victories with 73. The Spurs were poised for another title run until they ran into the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals who knocked them out in six games. The loss to the Thunder signaled the end for power forward Tim Duncan with the San Antonio Spurs. For the last 19 seasons Duncan has been the face on Spurs franchise. With Duncan leading the way, the Spurs never missed the playoffs en route to winning five NBA Championships. But under the guidance of head coach Gregg Popovich, don’t expect the Spurs to slow down now that Duncan has retired.
In order to attempt to replace Duncan, the Spurs signed free agent center Pau Gasol. In 15 NBA seasons Gasol has averaged 18.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists as his skill set is an ideal fit for the Spurs system. Gasol is also a two-time NBA Champion and his leadership and knowledge of the game will be welcomed with open arms in San Antonio.
Gasol will team in the Spurs starting front court with small forward Kawhi Leonard and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to give San Antonio one of the toughest trios in the NBA to match up against. In each of Leonard’s five seasons with the Spurs, his numbers have improved and he is becoming one of the best two-way players in the league. Last year Leonard averaged 21.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.8 steals as he finished second in the NBA’s MVP voting. Leonard should once again be a force to be reckoned with this time around. As for Aldridge, his numbers were slightly down in his first year with the Spurs which was the result of the constant ball movement that is orchestrated in San Antonio. However you can pencil in Aldridge for another All-Star caliber season, and he should also benefit from playing alongside Gasol who is one of the better passing big men in the NBA.
Veteran point guard Tony Parker has seen his fair share of the NBA’s grind as he is set to begin his 15th season with the Spurs. And even at the age of 34, Parker isn’t showing any signs of slowing down as he is still one of better guards in the NBA when it comes to penetration. Veteran shooting guard Manu Ginobili is 39-years of age, but he will still be a vital member coming off of the bench for San Antonio, while shooting guard Danny Green is looking to bounce back after a subpar campaign last season from downtown. Power forward David Lee is set to begin his first season with the Spurs, and as he has averaged 14.2 points, along with 9.2 rebounds during his 11-year NBA career, he will be a valuable player coming off of the bench for the Spurs.
The Spurs are one of the most complete teams in the NBA, and being that they are led by Popovich, I don’t expect this team to take their eyes off of the prize as they will once again be a very formidable team when the playoffs roll around.
Y-Dallas Mavericks 49-33 (6)
The past five years have been a rough go at it for the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks do have four playoff appearances over that stretch, but they’ve been unable to advance past the first round of the NBA Playoffs. After winning the NBA Championship in 2011, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been hell bent on getting back to the promised land. And after Cuban and the Mavs were spurned several times recently in free agency, they could be ready to re-emerge as a contender in the Western Conference.
Power forward Dirk Nowitzki is set to begin his 19th season with the Mavericks and he is still playing at a quality level. Nowitzki averaged 18.3 points per contest last season and you can expect another quality campaign from him due to the talent that has been assembled around him.
In four seasons with the Golden State Warriors, small forward Harrison Barnes saw his points per game average increase, but he was still under utilized. With the Warriors, Barnes took a backseat to shooting guard Klay Thompson and point guard Steph Curry. But after the Warriors signed small forward Kevin Durant over the summer, Barnes became an afterthought there. And once Barnes hit free agency, the Mavs welcomed him with open arms to the tune of $94 million dollars over the next four years. Barnes will definitely see more shots per game and he should be able to average at least 16 points per game in Dallas.
The Mavericks also landed another player formerly with the Warriors in center Andrew Bogut. The Mavericks acquired Bogut from the Warriors over the summer, and like Barnes, he saw a dip in his production there. Bogut won’t look to be a scorer in Dallas, but what you can expect from him is a solid rebounder, while he is also a quality facilitator from the center position.
The summer of 2015 saw the Mavericks sign shooting guard Wesley Matthews, but he spent his first season in Dallas attempting to get back on track after he ruptured his Achilles tendon in the previous season as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. However Matthews is now healthy and he should able to contribute as a solid wing player; especially at the defensive end of the floor.
In 65 games with the Mavericks last season, point guard Deron Williams showed flashes of what made him a three-time NBA All-Star. And even at the age of 32, if Williams is once again motivated, it will be a huge plus for the Mavericks.
Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle is one of the best in the business when it comes to dealing with different personalities while getting the most out of his team. And the Mavericks could be set up to have a very productive NBA campaign.
Y-Memphis Grizzlies 46-36 (7)
The past six NBA seasons have seen the Memphis Grizzlies be the little engine that could of the Western Conference. The Grizzlies have made the playoffs in each of the last six years, and although that they have been unable to advance to the NBA Finals, they continue to be a tough out in the postseason. But things are once again changing for the Memphis Grizzlies as after compiling a 147-99 record over the last three years, Dave Joerger was fired as the team’s head coach.
Joerger was replaced in Memphis by Dave Fizdale who has spent the last 14 years as an assistant coach in the NBA; most notably as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat for the last nine seasons. Fizdale has inherited a veteran team that he must find a way to keep healthy for the riggers of the long haul that is the regular season in the NBA.
A broken foot forced center Marc Gasol to miss 26 games last year, along with the playoffs. Gasol is a catalyst for the Grizzlies at both ends of the floor as he is an all-around player. In 2013, Gasol was the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, while in each of the last four seasons, he has averaged nearly 4 assists per contest. Gasol has good court vision which can see him pass the basketball from the top of the key as well as in the post equally which always keeps an opposing defense on its toes.
Like Gasol, power forward Zach Randolph has been a recent fixture for Grizzlies basketball. In seven seasons in Memphis, Randolph has averaged 17.2 rebounds and 10.5 rebounds as along with Gasol, they give the Grizzlies one of the better front courts in the NBA. But at the age of 35, Randolph has 15 years worth of mileage on his legs from playing in the NBA. Fizdale understands that and he is looking to preserve Randolph which will see him come off of the bench this year, but he can still be extremely effective in that role.
Point guard Mike Conley Jr. has spent his entire nine-year NBA career with the Grizzlies and this past summer saw him become a very rich man as he signed a five-year, $153 million deal to stay in Memphis as it was one of the largest contracts in league history. For Conley’s career he has averaged 13.6 points and 5.6 assists, and now the pressure is going to be on him to increase those statistics due to the lucrative deal that he agreed to.
In two years with the Dallas Mavericks, a bad knee kept small forward Chandler Parsons from reaching his full potential. But if Parsons is healthy, he could have a big impact in Memphis due to his shooting ability which compliments the playing style of Gasol, and Conley’s ability to penetrate into the paint.
Small forward Vince Carter is 39-years of age, and although that he isn’t able to crank it up and thrown down thunderous dunks as often as he once did, he is still brings a tremendous skill set to the table, along with a plethora of NBA experience. And along with guard Tony Allen who is still a solid defender, Carter adds to the Grizzlies depth off of their bench.
The Grizzlies will be a work in progress as the season goes along, but once the postseason rolls around, they will once again be a tough out.
Houston Rockets 40-42
The past NBA season saw the Houston Rockets wilt under the lofty expectations that were thrust onto them. The Rockets made the Western Conference Finals in 2015 and there was hope within the organization that they could build off of that. But after a 4-7 start, the Rockets decided to part with head coach McHale. McHale would be replaced by J.B. Bickerstaff who was able to get the Rockets to the playoffs, but they could never rekindle the magic from the previous season.
The Rockets have now turned to Mike D’Antoni to be their next head coach. In 12 seasons in the NBA as the head coach of the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, and Los Angeles Lakers, D’Antoni has a record of 455-426. D’Antoni has six playoff appearances to his credit as his teams have been known to very offensive oriented. The Rockets scored 106.5 points per contest last season which was fourth in the NBA, but they surrendered 106.4 points game which was 25th in the league. And being that D’Antoni is now running the show in Houston, you can expect that trend to continue.
When you think of Rockets shooting guard James Harden, you think of instant offense. Harden is always in the MVP discussion as he is one of the best scorers in the NBA. Harden averaged 29 points per contest last season, and in D’Antoni’s “fun and gun” offense, you can expect him to be off to the races. Harden averaged 7.5 assists last year, and you can expect him to play the point guard position more this season which should be very interesting.
But aside from Harden, the Rockets don’t have any other players that can step up and put the team on their back. Small forward Trevor Ariza is a solid defender, and guard Patrick Beverly plays with tremendous heart, but will that be enough to make the Rockets a playoff team for a fifth consecutive year?
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is a huge proponent of analytics to build his team from which hasn’t been produced as many wins lately and it will once again be put to the test this season. Seven of the Rockets first eight games will be on the road which includes two meetings with the Dallas Mavericks, along with games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and San Antonio Spurs which won’t be a picnic.
New Orleans Pelicans 38-44
In 2015, it appeared as if the New Orleans Pelicans were destined for greatness until they shot themselves in the foot. The Pelicans made the playoffs for the first time in three years and they appeared ready for an upswing under head coach Monty Williams. But surprisingly, Williams was fired by the Pelicans and replaced with Alvin Gentry. Under Gentry, the Pelicans got off to a slow start last season with a record of 1-11 and they were unable to recover as they only managed to win 30 games. The Pelicans were also done in by injuries with their best player in center Anthony Davis missing 21 games. But as a new NBA season is set to begin, will the Pelicans be able to pick up their production in the Western Conference?
Any chance that the Pelicans have for a turnaround begins with Davis. Davis is one of the NBA’s rising stars and he will be the MVP of the league at some point. If Davis is healthy, you can pencil him in to average at least 22 points and 10.5 rebounds per contest while he makes the players that are around him better due to the attention that he receives. Last year Gentry had Davis take more perimeter shots, but if he concentrates on his post game, there won’t be too many defenders in the NBA that will be able to stop him.
The Pelicans will definitely miss the contributions of point guard Jrue Holiday who has stepped away from the basketball team to care for his wife as she deals with a brain tumor, and although that it won’t be easy, New Orleans will have to find a way to replace his production as he averaged 16.8 points and 6 rebounds last season.
With Holiday away from the team, Tyreke Evans should see more time at point guard this year, and getting the basketball to Davis early and often should be his main priority.
Shooting guard Buddy Hield was the Pelicans first-round past June and he should have an immediate impact. Hield comes to the NBA as a very decorated player which included him being the Naismith Player of the Year as the nation’s top men’s basketball player during the previous college basketball season as he averaged 25 points per game in helping the Oklahoma Sooners reach the Final Four this past April. Hield is one of the players that can heat up from behind the three-point line rather quickly and playing alongside Davis should see them help each other.
The Pelicans should be a little bit better than last year, but being that the Southwest Division is one of the toughest in the NBA, they will be fighting an uphill battle as far as making the postseason in the spring.
As we’re in the midst of the holiday season, the action in the NBA is heating up. With roughly one-third of the regular season in the NBA complete, the San Antonio Spurs find themselves with a record of 24-5, but they are actually flying under the radar with all of the attention around the league being focused on the Golden State Warriors and their torrid 26-1 start. However the lack of attention is something that is not affecting the Spurs as far as what their ultimate goal is which is to win another NBA Championship.
Since 1998, the Spurs have been the most consistent winner in the NBA as they have won at least 50 games in all but one year which was the lockout shortened campaign of 1999 where they went 37-13. The Spurs success has revolved around their head coach Gregg Popovich and power forward Tim Duncan who have been cornerstones of the franchise. Popovich has been the architect of one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history which could not have been possible without the mindset of Duncan.
The Spurs made Duncan the first overall pick of the 1997 NBA Draft and it is a move that they have not regretted. Duncan is a 15-time NBA All-Star, but more importantly, he has helped the Spurs win five NBA Titles along with being a three-time NBA Finals MVP. But what has set Duncan apart is his unselfishness. When Duncan first joined the Spurs, he relied on the guidance of longtime center David Robinson as the duo led San Antonio to their first NBA Championship in 1999. But by 2003, Duncan had become the face of the Spurs as he helped them win another NBA Title. The Spurs would win the NBA Championship once more in 2005, and by the time that they won their fourth title in 2007, the team was shifting to rely more on the talents of point guard Tony Parker. The Spurs would win their fifth NBA Title in 2014, and by this time they were nowhere close to resembling the philosophy that they possessed when Duncan first joined the team in 1997. The Spurs have been the ultimate example of team basketball as they are a totally unselfish squad which relies on finding the open man regardless of the name on the back of his jersey. This mantra begins with Duncan due to his selflessness in taking a lesser role with the team as he is solely concentrating on winning. This makes Popovich’s job as the Spurs head coach that much easier as if Duncan is able to survive without the basketball going through him on the majority of possessions while also willing to take a chewing out from his head coach, everyone else on the team can and has to fall in line.
After losing in the first round of the NBA Playoffs last spring, the Spurs did something that they normally don’t do which is to dip into free agency. The Spurs would sign power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to a four-year, $80 million contract. Aldridge spent the first nine years of his NBA career with the Portland Trailblazers where he was the franchise’s second all-time leading scorer along with being a four-time All-Star. But all the personal accolades aside, Aldridge was only able to get past the first round of the NBA Playoffs once during his time in Portland, and now at the age of 30, he wants to win a title. Enter Duncan who took less money with the Spurs which enabled the front office in San Antonio to bring in Aldridge as they are looking to transition once again; just like they did when Robinson passed the torch to Duncan.
For his NBA career, Aldridge is averaging 19.3 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Aldridge’s offensive numbers are slightly down this season he is averaging 16.1 points per game, but his rebounds have increased as he is tallying 8.8 boards per contest. Aldridge’s numbers are down slightly down due to the Spurs deep rotation along with Popovich’s philosophy of keeping his players fresh for the stretch run of the regular season. But whereas Aldridge’s points per game might be down, his efficiency has gone up as he is shooting nearly 48% from the field which comes from playing with Parker.
Parker is a wizard when it comes to penetration as he forces a defense to collapse on him. Parker might be the best point guard that is currently in the NBA to run a pick and roll play with and Aldridge is benefitting from this as he has consistently found himself shooting open jump shots.
Parker is in his 15th NBA season (all with the Spurs) and he might be the most underrated point guard of this era which fits the mode of the Spurs. Parker was an afterthought when the Spurs drafted him in the first round of the 2001 NBA Draft, but he quickly made a name for himself in the 2003 NBA Finals where the New Jersey Nets and point guard Jason Kidd had no answer for him. Parker has had to sit back and see most people praise the likes of Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul before him, but he has been one of the best winners of this era of basketball which is evident by his four NBA Titles. For his NBA career, Parker has averaged 16.8 points and 5.9 assists and he would average more points on another team, but like Duncan, he has bought into the “team first” philosophy of Popovich in San Antonio.
Along with Duncan and Parker, shooting guard Manu Ginobili has been apart of the majority of the Spurs recent success as the trio has been the franchise’s core for over a decade. But these elder statesmen have now taken a backseat for both Aldrige and small forward Kawhi Leonard.
The Spurs acquired Leonard in 2011 after he was drafted by the Indiana Pacers and he quickly blossomed into one of the better wing players in the NBA. Leonard’s numbers have increased in each season with the highlight coming in 2014 when he was named as the NBA Finals MVP. This season Leonard is leading the Spurs in scoring at 21 points per game and like Aldrige, he received a hefty contract from San Antonio over the summer as he agreed to a five-year, $90 million contract.
But aside from the individual players that the Spurs have, they are coming up big in some important individual categories. This season the Spurs are third in the NBA in three-point field goal percentage as they are shooting nearly 38% per game, second in field-goal percentage (48%), second in points scored (102), first in points allowed (88.9), and fifth in rebounds (46.2). The Spurs begin to click in the spring, but this season they’ve done it at the start.
And with a record of 24-5, the remarkable start of the Spurs can no longer be overlooked in spite of the fact of what the Warriors are doing. The Western Conference is not as strong as it has been for nearly the last 15 years and it appears that things could come down to the Warriors and Spurs in May during the NBA Playoffs as they’ve each set the gold standard this season. The Warriors were able to win the NBA Championship last season, but they avoided having to face the Spurs in the postseason due to the fact that San Antonio was eliminated by the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round. We’re not quite at Christmas, but you can see the writing on wall as this NBA season will be determined by either the sharp-shooting of the Warriors or the overall execution of the Spurs. But just like the Spurs typically are, they won’t be an easy out for the Warriors or anyone else in the NBA Playoffs.
Heading into the 2011 NBA Draft, small forward Kawhi Leonard was a bit of a sleeper prospect. After being as named Mr. Basketball for the State of California in 2009, Leonard attended San Diego State University. In Leonard’s two years at San Diego State, he was a two-time, First-team, All-Mountain West Conference player and he helped the school reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for the first time in school history in 2011. Leonard would leave San Diego State after his sophomore year in 2011 and he would be the 15th overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft by the Indiania Pacers. The Pacers would immediately trade Leonard to the San Antonio Spurs in what is rapidly becoming one of the biggest trade robberies in NBA history.
Leonard is now in his fifth season with the Spurs and in each year his play has improved. So far this NBA season, Leonard is averaging 21 points and he is on a talented Spurs team that is once again in contention for an NBA Championship. Also in the process of what Leonard is doing, he is becoming the new face of the Spurs franchise in San Antonio.
The moment that Leonard began to become a household name was during the 2014 NBA Finals. After missing pair of free throws late in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals that would have given the Spurs the championship, Leonard was at the center of a team that stormed back in 2014. In the 2014 NBA Finals, Leonard averaged 17.8 points on 61% shooting and on the defensive end of the floor, his length gave then Miami Heat small forward LeBron James problems. The Spurs would defeat the Heat in five games and Leonard’s contributions would lead him to being named as the NBA Finals MVP. Last year, Leonard was named as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year as he led the league in steals with 2.3 per game. The Spurs saw enough of Leonard that this past summer they gave him a five-year, $90 million extension and this season he is living up to his end of the deal.
So far this NBA season, Leonard is leading the Spurs in points at 21 per game which is also a career-high for him including beginning the campaign by pouring in 32 points versus the Oklahoma City Thunder. Leonard is also averaging 7.5 rebounds per contest along with 1.8 steals. Leonard’s ability as a two-way player should see him get plenty of consideration for the NBA All-Star Game in February which would be his first appearance in the contest and he’s also helping to keep the Spurs machine going.
Since 1999, the Spurs have won five NBA Championships which is tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the most titles over that stretch. The Spurs core over this era has been power forward Tim Duncan, point guard Tony Parker, and shooting guard Manu Ginobili. But with Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili all in their mid-to-late 30’s, the Spurs are building towards the future while also maintaining their status as title contenders which is helped by Leonard’s emergence. And it’s scary good for the Spurs while being frightening for the rest of the NBA that Leonard is only 24-years of age and he will only get better on both ends of the floor.
At 6’7″, Leonard can slash to the basket while he is turning into a solid perimeter shooter as he is knocking down 50% percent of his three-point shots this season. And Leonard’s length and defensive skills are needed in the Western Conference due to the fact that the Spurs have to clash with All-Star caliber wing players in Thunder small forward Kevin Durant, Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden, and Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry if they are to get back to the NBA Finals and win another championship which is their ultimate goal. On another team Leonard could average more points per game, but being that Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich believes in utilizing all 12 players on the team along with sharing the basketball, you’re not going to see one player in San Antonio that averages 30 points per game.
But with players such as Duncan and Ginobili more than likely retiring soon, the Spurs are still in good hands with Leonard at the center of things.