The injury bug has swept the league over the course of the 2013-14 season, and after escaping scot-free prior to the new year, the San Antonio Spurs are suddenly feeling the effects.
First fell Tiago Splitter, the team's budding defensive anchor. Despite sharing the low post with Tim Duncan, Splitter was arguably the squad's top rim protector.
However, San Antonio remained strong defensively along the perimeter, at least until both Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green—the squad's top defensive aces—succumbed to hand-related injuries.
Green suffered a non-displaced fracture of the left index finger on January 12, and his timetable was set for four weeks, per ESPN. Leonard exited the Spurs' January 22 contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder with a non-displaced fracture of his shooting hand and is expected to be sidelined for a similar duration.
With the team's top defensive weapons out of the picture for the time being, the city of San Antonio has collectively tensed up. The state of the Spurs' defense is in significant jeopardy.
Before we can break down what San Antonio will lack thanks to the ill-timed injuries to its brightest defensive stars, we first must pinpoint what exactly these two bring to the table.
Offensively, Green's three-point shot makes him a valuable contributor, though his consistency has been criticized on occasion. Similarly, Leonard had emerged as a legitimate threat from beyond the arc, though his 2013-14 campaign has left much to be desired on the shooting front.
The crux of their collective contribution, this season, lies on the defensive end, where each excels in numerous facets.
Green—often regarded as Leonard's perimeter sidekick—actually posts the superior defensive rating, per the NBA's media site. Clocking in at 95.0 points allowed per 100 possessions, Green's rating is second only to Tiago Splitter on the team.
He has proven to be a consistent on-ball stopper, using his 6'10'' wingspan to alter opponents' shots and prevent them from getting an extra step. His quick feet have also been essential in preventing talented competitors from scoring.
While Leonard is constantly relied upon as a defensive answer to the league's most talented wings, Green is often asked to stop the league's more talented guards from dominating.
In last season's playoffs, his second-round defensive assignment was switched to the talented Stephen Curry after the emerging star wrought havoc against the Spurs early on.
Once Green was re-assigned, Curry began to cool down, a consequence of Green's innate ability to hamper even the league's most versatile guards.
When Green has been crouched and ready with those long arms, quick feet, and textbook defensive stance, Curry has hit just one of 15 shots against him in Games 2 and 3 while not faring much better against the likes of Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. Slowing the scorer who was the runaway people's choice for playoff MVP just a few days ago isn't easy, but they're doing it.
Green also exhibits strong awareness and is among the team's most valued help defenders.
His vigilance and long arms have made him a valuable rotating shot-blocker, and his overall ability to read situations has been crucial in giving the team a defensive backbone.
Not to mention, his hustle and determination to chase down opponents in transition makes up for his own shortcomings on the fast break.
Or this crucial play against the reigning MVP in last year's NBA Finals:
As a whole, Green is a valuable help defender and on-ball stopper, and his absence will trouble the Spurs as they prepare for a tiring road trip against numerous talented guards.
However, he is only the second-most important perimeter defensive weapon. Leonard is still the leading man despite what the stats might suggest.
While Green is often given tough assignments, his matchups are generally position-based.
Leonard, on the other hand, normally finds himself on the opponent's best player, regardless of the position.
This leaves the team's budding small forward with a wide range of matchups, including superstars like Kevin Durant and LeBron James.
Because he is often asked to oppose taller players, Leonard has become an excellent post defender in addition to his prowess along the perimeter.
Due to his varied placement on the court, he has also become an expert in reading—and disrupting—passing lanes. Against the San Diego State product, opponents would not dare to heave the ball across the court or throw a weak lob.
His vision belies his age, and his ability to see plays occurring while they are still developing has made him especially good at penetrating these passing lanes.
As a result of his ability to intercept these passes, Leonard has become the team's top transition player. His ability to finish effortlessly only adds to his value as a defense-to-offense playmaker.
This shouldn't distract from his on-ball skills. Like Green, he can disrupt an opponent along the perimeter or be an obstacle in the paint. His 7'3'' wingspan makes him an effective shot-blocker.
However, his ability to interfere with cross-court passes is what makes him unique, and that's what will truly be missed. In the few games that the Spurs have had to play without him, they have shown an overall ineptitude when it comes to challenging these cross-court passes that often lead to open three-pointers.
Overall, these two are talented, versatile defenders.
Since both Leonard and Green excel in a number of areas, the Spurs will be forced to make adjustments to the entire defensive set until they return.
The biggest impact will be felt in the coming weeks, when the team is forced to compete without its stellar wing defenders.
Leonard and Green bring tenacity and lockdown abilities that are unparalleled.
The Spurs' quick fix came in the form of a D-League superstar. Othyus Jeffers racked up a handful of accolades during his time in the NBA's minor league, and his noteworthy defensive aptitude has earned him a handful of call-ups.
As impressive as his defense might be, common sense implies that he'll only manage playing time in rare situations, leaving Green and Leonard's minutes to be swallowed up by the likes of Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Cory Joseph.
Of that list, only Joseph stands out as a stellar defender, though he is only a point guard. Just 6'3'', Joseph might be able to read passing lanes like his injured teammates, but he'll be limited to bringing energy to the squad. His relatively small stature prevents him from taking over Leonard's defensive assignments.
While the team experimented with Joseph on Kevin Durant after Leonard was injured, it proved to be a rather futile attempt. It served as a testament to the defensive crisis that the team now faces.
Man, Kevin Durant can really light up 6-foot-1 Cory Joseph.— Skip Bayless (@RealSkipBayless) January 23, 2014
Especially without Splitter, the Spurs lack the overall defensive strength necessary to keep opponents in check. Tim Duncan remains the sole defensive stud left in the primary rotation.
For any other squad, losing the nucleus of the defense might cause an immediate collapse. But even the mild-mannered Spurs might slowly see their dominance dwindle until both Green and Leonard can return.
How Does This Impact the Team's Title Chances?
As difficult as these next two weeks will be without their defensive aces, the Spurs are blessed that neither injury is too significant, given the other, more serious afflictions that numerous stars have endured.
That said, one has to wonder how this short stretch will impact the team in the long run. Even though their return dates have been set only a month away, these injuries could have other consequences that will linger on.
How will Leonard and Green play when they return? Leonard hurt his shooting hand, and this setback could potentially exacerbate his shooting struggles.
And from a confidence standpoint, these injuries could have negative consequences on each player. It's always unsettling when you're forced to utilize a recently injured part of your body. Just ask Derrick Rose.
The other obvious impact will be on the team's record, since the Spurs will inevitably fall short more often without their two defensive studs.
But, they'll have little issue making the playoffs and rarely put too much focus on seeding anyway.
The most significant consequence is perhaps the hardest to decipher. The Spurs have a number of quality defenders, though they really only possess a quartet of individuals who can be deemed "above average."
Unfortunately, three of the four are injured, with the only healthy defensive superstar being the 37-year-old Duncan.
As the sole leader on that end, Duncan now carries enormous weight on his shoulders, something that no team should wish for an aging veteran.
The Spurs are quick to put a heavy focus on resting, but if Duncan is the only legitimate stud, it will become increasingly harder to minimize his usage, making it more likely that his body begins to break down prior to the postseason.
A month without Green and Leonard will be a major setback for the Spurs, one that could have unfortunate consequences that last longer than their absences.