Can San Antonio Spurs Be True Title Contenders While Entering Kawhi Leonard Era?

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterOctober 2, 2013

Jun 15, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during practice before game five of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at the AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

I'll bet there are some royal families out there that haven't figured out how to solve the age-old problem of succession as well as the San Antonio Spurs have.

The NBA's long-time model franchise has set itself up beautifully for the foreseeable future. Tim Duncan, now entering his 17th season as a pro, has already passed the torch as the Spurs' most important player to Tony Parker, who, in due time, will hand off that title to Kawhi Leonard.

Or, at least, that's how Gregg Popovich sees it. As San Antonio's sideline stalwart recently told Hoopsworld's Yannis Koutroupis:

“I think Kawhi is the new [Tony] Parker, [Manu] Ginobili, [Tim] Duncan kind of guy. He’s going to take over as the star of the show as time goes on. Timmy and Manu have obviously figured out a way to continue to play very well and be at the top of their games at their age. Tony is still young enough to be the star that he is, but he’ll get older too and that’s where Kawhi comes in. He’s been phenomenal. He’s improved more quickly than any player we’ve ever had because his mindset is such that he wants to be great and he has all the reasons to be so we have to put him in the position where he can be a great player.”

Pop has every reason to be excited about Leonard's future, as does every Spurs supporter. The stud out of San Diego State turned all of 22 this past June, mere days after concluding an NBA Finals series in which he matched up with LeBron James about as well as anyone has in quite some time. Leonard averaged 14.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals in that seven-game see-saw battle against the Miami Heat, all while jamming up James and pushing through pain stemming from tendinitis in his knees.

Apr 24, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks with Kawhi Leonard (2) during game two of the first round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Los Angeles Lakers at AT&T Center. The spurs won 102-91. Mandatory Credit:
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The mild-mannered swingman is healthy now and has been hard at work expanding and improving his game since his knees returned to normal. Leonard should enjoy an expanded role for the Spurs in 2013-14, perhaps one similar to the jump from late-season starter to impressive role player that he underwent between his rookie and sophomore seasons.

But, it would appear as though Leonard still has a ways to go before he's established himself as "The Man" in San Antonio, and that's okay. Heck, that might even be for the best.

After all, the Spurs' Big 3 is still intact and effective. Duncan just put together a renaissance of a season in which he averaged 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.7 blocks. That performance from the slimmer, trimmer Duncan landed the future Hall of Famer a seventh-place finish in MVP balloting.

At the age of 37, no less.

Duncan is under contract for two more years, as is Ginobili, who re-upped with the Spurs for $14.5 million this past summer. Manu has all but ceded his spot as San Antonio's third banana to Leonard already, but he remains a crucial cog in the team's machinery off the bench.

Though Leonard has essentially stepped in for one of the Spurs' staple stars, he'll have to wait his turn behind Parker before he can comfortably claim San Antonio as his town—not that he'd be so brash about it.

Parker, for his part, is coming off one of the finest campaigns of his illustrious career. The 31-year-old Frenchman poured in 22.2 points (on 52.2 percent shooting) and chipped in 8.3 assists in just under 33 minutes per game in 2012-13. If not for a spate of injuries that cost him 16 games during the regular season and hobbled him during the Finals, Parker probably would've finished higher than sixth in the MVP race and may well have been able to secure the Spurs' fifth title, or at least put that championship beyond the reach of a miraculous Ray Allen three-pointer.

Jun 16, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs shooting guard Manu Ginobili (20) talks to Tony Parker (9) as Tim Duncan (21) and Kawhi Leonard (2) listen in against the Miami Heat during the first quarter of game five in the 2013 NBA Finals at the
Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Parker will need more help than ever before to lead San Antonio back to the brink of a title. He spent much of this summer lifting the French national team to its first-ever European basketball championship at EuroBasket 2013.

This, after hobbling along into June in the NBA and after committing himself to Les Bleus over the previous two summers as well. It's gotten to the point where Parker doesn't think he'll suit up for his home country at next year's FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain. As he said at Spurs media day (via Dan McCarney of Spurs Nation):

I’m not going to say definitive, but I’ll say 95 percent I won’t play. I think I owe it to the Spurs, I owe it to (Gregg Popovich) and R.C. (Buford) because they’ve been so supportive of me playing with the national team. They know how much it means to me. So in my mind, I feel like I owe it to them to rest and make sure I stay strong when I play for the Spurs.

Parker, though, doesn't think that his latest (and most successful) foray into international waters will have any adverse affects on his performance for the Spurs this season:

I feel great. I’m so excited to start with the Spurs and try to win a championship. I get another opportunity to get Timmy out with another championship. So I’m ready to go. I love basketball. I’m very passionate about it. The way I play, I’ll be fine.

...I’m ready to play, I’m ready to go and be ready for the team. Obviously we’re going to be smart at the same time and make sure we go gradually to make sure I’m 100 percent…for the first game against Memphis.

Parker needn't feel the pressure to carry the weight of the Spurs' world on his shoulders alone; he still has Timmy and Manu to lean on. His current support staff also includes Danny Green, who can heat up from deep at the drop of a hat, and Marco Belinelli, a wily Italian with a Ginobili-esque streak of his own.

And, of course, there's Kawhi, whose workload figures to increase more than that of any other Spur this season.

Sep 30, 2013; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dribbles in front of a green screen during media day at Spurs Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

This group should be plenty capable of contending in the Western Conference, right alongside (if not ahead) of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Memphis Grizzlies, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. That won't likely change much in the years to come, even as Duncan and Ginobili dance with retirement and Parker cruises toward the twilight of his own career.

Because, before you know it, Kawhi Leonard will be an All-Star and an All-NBA performer. Soon enough, he'll be wearing the crown that's been passed down so smoothly from David Robinson to Duncan to Parker.

And he'll not just wear it, but carry it onward and upward, just as his San Antonio predecessors have.


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