On May 14, 2017, the San Antonio Spurs found themselves playing in the Western Conference Finals for the 12th time in franchise history. And although that the Golden State Warriors had home-court advantage heading into the series, there were some people who believed that the Spurs would win due to their championship pedigree as they’ve won the NBA Title five times since 1999. During the regular season the Spurs had defeated the Warriors and they kept that momentum going as they built a 25-point lead in the third quarter before the wheels began to fall off.
In the Spurs victory over the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals, small forward Kawhi Leonard suffered an ankle injury. Leonard was able to rehab and was on the floor when the Spurs began their playoff series with the Warriors began. And in Game 1, Leonard was having a huge impact with 26 points and 8 rebounds. But things would change in the third quarter when after Leonard attempted a jump shot, he came down on the foot of Warriors center Zaza Pachulia. There are those who will claim that Pachulia purposely did this, but either way the series immediately changed as the Warriors smelled blood in the water and rallied to defeat a Spurs team in the first game that was not the same without Leonard. Leonard would miss the rest of the series due to the injury and the Warriors took advantage of it en route to securing the series sweep. The Warriors would keep their momentum going as they won their second NBA Championship in a three-year span, while the Spurs were only left to ponder what could have been if Leonard had not gotten injured.
Coming into this NBA season it was expected that the Spurs would once again be one of the league’s best teams with a healthy Leonard leading the way. However that has not been the case as Leonard has only played in nine games this season due to a lingering quad injury. There has also been a disconnect between Leonard’s representatives and the Spurs in regards to his rehab which has led to some outside of the organization to wonder if Leonard is seeking to get out of San Antonio. But whatever is going on in San Antonio, the Spurs are not the well oiled machine that we have been accustomed to seeing.
With a record of 35-23, the Spurs are on pace to make the playoffs for the 21st consecutive year. And although that the Spurs currently have the third best record in the Western Conference, there isn’t the same feel around this team in regards to them being dangerous in the postseason due to the Leonard injury. This is the time of year when the Spurs begin to get their sea legs in order to make a deep playoff run, but that is not the case this season.
The gap between the Warriors and Rockets in regards to the other teams in the Western Conference is large, and it’s getting bigger in each passing day. The Spurs are trailing the Rockets by 8.5 games for first place in the Southwest Division, while they are trailing the Warriors by 9.5 games. The Spurs put up a fight versus the Warriors in their 122-105 loss on Saturday night, but their is a lingering hole on this team without Leonard as he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA. Leonard’s ability to get the basket keeps opponents honest, while his defense can slow down the likes of Rockets point guard James Harden and Warriors small forward Kevin Durant.
At the NBA’s trade deadline last week, the Spurs didn’t make any moves as the only roster upgrade that they need to make is to have a healthy Leonard available. In seven seasons with the Spurs, Leonard is averaging 16.3 points per contest, but he averaged a career-high 25.5 points per contest last season as he finished third in the NBA MVP voting. Leonard was also named NBA Finals MVP in 2014 and he has become the perfect player to carry the torch for the Spurs franchise following the retirement of Tim Duncan in 2016.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is a master motivator and he knows how to make adjustments. On several occasions following the Spurs first NBA Title in 1999, Popovich has adjusted his coaching style and the system that his team runs in order to stay ahead of the curve in the league, and most importantly he listens to his players. Last summer power forward LaMarcus Aldridge sought a trade out of San Antonio which was a first for Popovich as no player had ever asked him for that. However Popovich was able to listen to Aldridge’s concerns in order to hash things out. Aldrige has responded by having one of his best seasons in the NBA as he’s averaging 22.4 points and 8.4 rebounds. And if there are any issues between Leonard and the Spurs organization, I would have no doubt that Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford would find a way to work things out.
But in the interim for the Spurs, they are simply trying to stay afloat, and they’ve found a way to do so as they are still the third best team in the Western Conference without Leonard. However without Leonard, summer will come early on the River Walk in San Antonio.