The San Antonio Spurs lost yet another key member from their already thinned ranks.
Injury report: Kawhi Leonard suffered a non-displaced fracture of his right fourth metacarpal. Timeline for his return hasnt been determined— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) January 23, 2014
Incredibly, he's the third San Antonio starter to go down with an injury just this month. Tiago Splitter (sprained right shoulder) and Danny Green (broken finger) have both already been biding their time in the training room:
Tim Duncan on #Spurs losing Kawhi Leonard tonight to a broken finger: "We are dropping like flies right now." Splitter/ D. Green also out.— Jeff Caplan (@Caplan_NBA) January 23, 2014
So far, the Spurs have managed to keep quiet on the transaction front, preferring to expand Gregg Popovich's rotation instead of drumming up any trade and/or free-agent talks. That's one of the many luxuries of consistently being the smartest person in the room on draft night.
But San Antonio's hands might be tied this time around. Leonard brings something so unique to this team he now leaves a void that can't be replaced by simply looking further down the bench.
The San Antonio Stopper
There's an arms race on the wing in today's NBA.
Some teams flood their perimeter with top-shelf scoring talents, while the rest use those spots on athletic defenders to limit the former's production.
Ideally, a franchise employs someone that does both. But until someone finds a cloning device for LeBron James and Kevin Durant, teams outside of Oklahoma City and San Antonio will have to settle for one or the other.
The Spurs opted for defense with Leonard, a wise move considering Tony Parker (18.4 points) and Tim Duncan (14.5) are capable of carrying heavy offensive burdens. Leonard's still a valuable member at that end (11.6 points on 51.7 percent shooting), but he cashes his checks at the opposite side.
Leonard doesn't need to be told he'll handle the hardest defensive assignment; that's already a given, as Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News noted:
It's not just Durant. Over next seven days, Kawhi Leonard also has to guard LeBron and Harden. That's 3 of NBA's top 5 scorers. #sleepwell— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) January 22, 2014
Finding reliable defensive metrics remains a struggle even in this day of advanced statistics, but the ones we have available do a decent job of capturing Leonard's impact.
The Spurs have allowed just 98.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor this season and 100.9 without him, via NBA.com. That might not seem like a wide gap, but the first number would put the Spurs third in defensive rating while the second would drop them down to eighth. It's the difference between being elite and simply being good.
When Leonard has played his natural small forward position this season, he's held his matchup to a deceptively strong 15.7 player efficiency rating, via 82games.com.
What exactly makes that figure misleading? Remember, the average PER is 15.0. By that measure, Leonard's no better than average (actually slightly below it) as a defender.
But Leonard isn't guarding average offensive players. Just like McDonald said, Leonard's sticking to the likes of Kevin Durant (league-best 30.7 PER, via Basketball-Reference.com), LeBron James (28.9), James Harden (21.4) or whichever point-producing machine the Spurs run into on that particular night.
"(Losing Leonard) is a big loss for us," Parker said, via ESPN.com.
That's putting it lightly. The Spurs don't have another player that can fill Leonard's shoes.
Limited In-House Options
Getting torched by KD is quickly becoming an unavoidable fate for his opponents. Durant's 36-point barrage was just the latest in a long line of dominant efforts:
Kevin Durant has had games of 54, 48, 48, 46, 37, 36, & 36 so far in 2014. Happy New Year is right.— ESPN (@espn) January 23, 2014
But it did shed light on exactly how helpless the Spurs are defensively without Leonard and Green.
KD had 12 points when Leonard left the floor with three minutes remaining in the first half. He poured in 24 over the final 27 minutes, as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich searched for answers he knew he didn't have:
Manu Ginobili handled some KD duty. So, too, did Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli and even Tony Parker. The Spurs tried throwing a zone at Durant, but the three-time scoring champ continued lighting the lamp.
Leonard has the ideal size (6'7", 225 lbs.), length (7'3" wingspan) and athleticism to harass the league's scoring greats. Few players across the Association can match his measurements, and none of those specimens reside in the Alamo City.
Green's absence compounds this problem. He's the closest Leonard clone this roster has.
The Spurs are heavy at the 1 and the 5. They're wafer thin at the three spots in between.
Ginobili isn't exactly a sieve, but the 36-year-old has lost some athleticism to Father Time. Belinelli has some sieve-like tendencies that even Chicago Bulls coach, and noted defensive guru, Tom Thibodeau couldn't rid him of last season. Joseph brings a bulldog nature to the floor, but it unfortunately comes attached to a 6'3", 185-pound frame.
When the Spurs need to stop a perimeter scorer now, they're left bowing their heads in hope of some divine intervention. At least, until general manager R.C. Buford starts working the phone lines.
Finding Some Help
Make no mistake, the Spurs aren't about to break the bank. They're short on bodies now, but none of these injuries comes close to the season-ending variety.
That said, standing pat is not an option. Not when the slightest stumble can feel like a nosedive in the fully loaded Western Conference.
The Spurs could go the D-League route for short-term help, and ESPN.com's Marc Stein reports they're already exploring that route:
Hearing San Antonio, as it copes with an injury crisis, has Iowa's Othyus Jeffers in its sights for 10-day callup from @nbadleague this week— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 23, 2014
But it's not as easy as simply adding a D-League player to the fold. After guaranteeing Malcolm Thomas' contract earlier this month, the Spurs have 15 players on the roster. Someone (Thomas, Aron Baynes, Nando de Colo perhaps) would need to go before anyone could be added.
San Antonio could find a trade more appealing, as it would better protect it from a similar situation down the line. The Spurs aren't loaded with assets, but Matt Bonner's expiring contract ($3.9 million, via ShamSports.com) along with a young piece like Joseph or Jeff Ayres could bring short-term relief and long-term insurance.
Leonard's injury doesn't force the Spurs to go the trade route, but it does demand some type of response. Judging by this franchise's impeccable track record, it will figure out what call needs to be made.