Each year, the pundits predict the official closing of the San Antonio Spurs' championship window, and every year, Gregg Popovich's team finds a way to compete.
Pop has modified his methods of madness, but by and large, the secrets to his success have remained as consistent as the team's regular-season dominance.
Over the past 16 seasons, San Antonio has horded 16 postseason tickets and 16 winning percentages above .600. More of those playoff runs have resulted in NBA titles (four) than first round exits (three).
For the last decade, Pop has relied on the strength of his Hall of Fame-bound three-headed monster: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Other supporting players have come and gone, but that superstar trio has been the heart and soul of San Antonio's sustained success.
But the Spurs are set for a changing of the guard in 2013-14. Third-year forward Kawhi Leonard is ready to crash San Antonio's superstar party, and his impact will be felt across the league.
Flashes of Greatness
Few projected stardom in Leonard's future when he entered the 2011 draft after spending two seasons with the San Diego State Aztecs.
A rugged rebounder (10.2 per game for his college career) and suffocating defender, he was largely viewed as an NBA-ready prospect who could strengthen a roster, but not the type of player capable of changing a franchise's fortune.
After Leonard landed in San Antonio via a draft-day exchange with the Indiana Pacers, Leonard's NBA niche appeared set in stone. The player who drew NBA comparisons to defensive-minded wings Gerald Wallace and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on NBADraft.net was expected to interject youth and physicality to San Antonio's aging perimeter.
Frankly, anything beyond that was found money. His offensive game clearly trailed his defensive talent (14.1 points on .448/.250/.744 shooting at San Diego State). While there were hopes that it could expand, Leonard's ceiling as a shooter was more single-family residence than high-rise.
But credit Popovich and the gym rat Leonard for dramatically increasing his offensive potential. Any concerns over his limitations as a shooter were all but wiped away over his first two seasons as a pro.
|Leonard the Shooter: Kawhi Not?|
The offensive genius of Popovich has worked wonders for Leonard's efficiency. When he hasn't fired at will from the short corner, he's used his size (6'7" 225 lbs) and strength to finish plays at the rim.
For everything that Leonard had shown through the end of his sophomore season, though, his career arc radically rose during the 2013 postseason.
Tasked with the heaviest workload of his career (36.9 minutes a night), he found a way to deliver when it mattered most. His postseason production (13.5 points and 9.0 rebounds) trumped his regular-season stats (11.9 points and 6.0 boards). His stat line saw another uptick during the 2013 NBA Finals (14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds), a notable development considering he spent the series chasing four-time MVP LeBron James.
Yet, even those numbers fail to capture Leonard's true potential. The stars are aligned for a full-fledged breakout campaign in 2013-14.
The Spurs had the chance to dramatically transform their roster this summer, but they chose to invest most of their funds in maintaining the group that led them to last season's championship bout.
Ginobili returned on a two-year, $14.5 million deal. Big man Tiago Splitter was also locked up for $36 million over the next four seasons.
Considering how this team finished last season, this approach to free agency was neither surprising nor off-base. But no player will have a bigger say in keeping San Antonio's championship window open than Leonard.
Ginobili is a part-time player at this stage of his career (23.2 minutes per game last season). The 37-year-old Duncan and 31-year-old Parker are willing participants in Pop's preservation plan. Limited minutes and more days of rest are San Antonio's best chance at keeping this prolific pair fresh for the postseason.
But that train of thought hinges on Leonard's ability to keep San Antonio in the win column during off nights for Parker and Duncan.
Leonard must be ready for further expansions to his responsibilities. Shots are going to come his way faster and more often than they ever have.
"We want him to shoot more," Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. "I want him to make me tell him it was a bad shot. I don't want to have to go to him and say, 'Hey, you're open. Shoot it.'"
It's not only the frequency of Leonard's attempts that are changing, but also the way in which he'll have to find his scoring chances. Go-to scorers don't sit in the corner waiting for an opportunity that may or may not come; they create their own looks off strong dribble drives and active involvement in the offense.
Leonard does not have showman handles, but he has weapons off the bounce. In Popovich's motion-based scheme, the former San Diego State star will have to put those on display with aggressive drives to the basket.
As Leonard told Grantland's Zach Lowe, he'll use a Parker-esque change of pace to keep defenders off balance. "People in the NBA are just as athletic as you," he said. "You have to have the chance of pace. You have to change speeds to get around people."
Leonard's penetration game is a crucial component of San Antonio's offense. Parker aside, this team lacks reliable finishers off the bounce.
Ginobili struggled with his shot all last season (42.5 field-goal percentage). Danny Green is a prototypical 3-and-D wing. Marco Belinelli is another floor spacer (career 38.7 three-point percentage) who loses effectiveness inside the arc (39.5 field-goal percentage in 2012-13). Cory Joseph and Nando de Colo are still works in progress.
Leonard's a go-to dribble move away from All-Star scoring numbers. Explosiveness is already a potent piece of his attack. You don't just stumble into double-digit rebounds from the wing or a 67.9 percent conversion rate at the rim, via Basketball-Reference.com.
Couple that with a steady three-point stroke, and the outline of a superstar begin to take shape. That outline further fills in as you bring his glasswork and suffocating defense into the equation.
It's tempting to call Leonard just the latest example of San Antonio's draft-night genius. But even the mighty Spurs haven't seen another player quite like him.
Carry On Tradition
The Spurs have found an unprecedented key to sustainability. NBA teams aren't supposed to be this good for this long, particularly not in the era of free agency.
But for everything that's changing in San Antonio's hierarchy, the hope is for everything to remain the same.
That means different things for different players. For the veterans, it's all about maintaining production in decreasing doses. For Leonard, it's taking a bigger piece of the pie and maximizing his opportunity.
Luckily, he has some incredible role models to follow. He can take poise and reliability from Duncan, confidence and leadership from Parker, and even some of the unexpected from Ginobili.
Leonard's already shown a little of everything this preseason. His 11.0 points per game rank third on the team. Ditto for the 4.5 rebounds he's tracked down a night. His strengths as a shooter (.533/.667) are once again rewriting his scouting reports.
Fit and opportunity are weighed heavily in draft reaction grades, but they get lost over the course of one's career. Failing to put Leonard's situation under that light would be an egregious error.
The fit has been perfect from the start in San Antonio. He's a team-first player with a team-first franchise.
The opportunity has been slowly but surely improving. His usage rate has climbed over his first two seasons (16.4 percent in 2012-13), and the spotlight has yet to be too bright. Projecting how a role player will translate to a starring spot is an inexact science, but betting on a furious gym rat is always a wise investment.
He's not about to get caught up in the moment now. A craftsman in the most glowing sense of the word, Leonard's on the verge of shocking the basketball world. Again.