Kawhi Leonard is becoming the forgotten face of the NBA's most forgettable contender.
Thanks in no small part to the work of the third-year forward, the San Antonio Spurs have quietly claimed their spot atop the basketball world. The Spurs (46-16) have the NBA's best winning percentage (.742) and third-highest net rating (plus-7.1 points per 100 possessions).
That doesn't necessarily start and stop with Leonard, but the former San Diego State standout's fingerprints are littered across San Antonio's surge:
Meanwhile, the Spurs (46-16) have won six straight, have taken over top spot in the NBA and are 38-9 when Kawhi Leonard plays.— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) March 10, 2014
He's a Spur in the most basic sense: talented, poised and grossly underappreciated.
Yet the soft-spoken 22-year-old's value rests in the differences he brings to this attack: youth, athleticism and gridiron-ready physical gifts.
With Leonard forcing his way alongside San Antonio's decorated Big Three, the Spurs might not be done with their jewelry collection just yet.
Piggybacking on his successful-as-it-could-have-been turn defending four-time MVP LeBron James in the 2013 NBA Finals, Leonard has once again crashed the elite ranks of perimeter stoppers.
His defensive metrics, sound on the surface, need some qualifications to be fully comprehended. The stat sheet paints the picture of an above-average defender—40th overall in defensive efficiency (0.76 points allowed per possession), 31st in isolation plays (0.62) and 35th defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers (0.68), via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
What those numbers can't account for, though, is the quality of offensive player he's facing on a nightly basis. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich doesn't need to tell Leonard that he's drawing the toughest defensive assignment; that's already assumed at this point.
The proof of his defensive value is in the production. Or lack thereof, rather.
"If the Spurs need a stop, they turn to Leonard, and more often than not, the third-year player steps up defensively," Bleacher Report's David Kenyon wrote.
Leonard can play the bandage role, answering Popovich's call at the most critical times this defense needs to force an offense into an empty possession. But the swingman works best as a tourniquet, not just limiting the damage but permanently stopping it altogether.
He helped force James into a rough 19-point effort in San Antonio's 111-87 win over the Miami Heat on Mar. 6, holding the King to 6-of-18 shooting and forcing him to commit five turnovers. Kevin Durant needed 23 shots to post 24 points against Leonard's Spurs on Nov. 27.
Before dismissing these figures as byproducts of the Spurs' system, it's important to note what happens when Leonard is taken out of the picture.
James managed an efficient 18 points on 8-of-15 shooting in Miami's 113-101 win on Jan. 26, when Leonard was on the shelf. Durant exploded for 36 points on 12-of-22 shooting in the Oklahoma City Thunder's 111-105 win over the Spurs on Jan. 22, a game that saw Leonard log just 15 minutes before leaving with a fractured hand.
In other words, there's nothing the slightest bit fluky about these performances:
"Kawhi was a pest," Tim Duncan said of Leonard's work on James during the 2013 NBA Finalists' last meeting, via Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News. "He stuck his hand in there and knocked some balls away, got some steals, contested shots ... we need him to be that kind of guy."
And Leonard has been that guy since working his way back from the hand injury. The Spurs are 6-0 since his return, winning those games by an average of 13.3 points.
His defensive work isn't even only restricted to the defensive end. His tremendous length (7'3" wingspan, per DraftExpress) and game-breaking speed helps him turn stops into scores at the opposite side.
"He swoops into the passing lanes like a bird of prey searching for a meal," Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News wrote. "Only instead of snatching up some unsuspecting rodent, Leonard clamps onto the ball with those gigantic hands and speeds the other way for a dunk."
The Spurs are a top-flight defense when Leonard is on the floor (98.2 defensive rating, would be third overall) and a mediocre unit without him (102.5, would be 11th).
More importantly, Leonard is providing a similar boost at the other end.
The bar was set unfairly high for Leonard after his strong postseason showing.
Fans might have wanted a stronger statistical performance (12 points per game), but you have to remember that he still has the Big Three (Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili) flanking him on the floor. It's tough to set the stat sheet on fire when Leonard is only getting 9.4 shots a night.
Yet even with so many hands in the pot, Leonard is still finding a way to make an impact. Over his last six games, he's stuffed the box score across all categories.
Add the numbers up and they equal per-game averages of 14.8 points on 55.8 percent shooting, 6.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.7 blocks. Take his one game of James-chasing out of the equation and his scoring climbs to 15.6 points on .628/.600/.938 shooting.
Not bad for a defensive specialist, is it? Especially not one who seems more than willing to put himself inside that box.
"It's not for me to score on the team,” Leonard said earlier this season, via Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “It's not built around me for that right now. So it's pretty much the same role as last year."
The role might not have changed, but the results sure have.
His player efficiency rating (18.1) is nearly two points higher than his previous best (16.6), via Basketball-Reference.com. His field-goal percentage has seen nearly a three-point jump from last season (52.2 up from 49.4).
Popovich has a better understanding of Leonard's talents and has found better ways to take advantage of them. Leonard is the league's third most efficient scorer in isolations (1.09 points on 50 percent shooting) and the second-best finisher on post-up plays (1.18 on 59.5), via Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Leonard has never been tasked with carrying an offense. Even when he was forging his NBA path at San Diego State, he only put up 15.5 points in his sophomore (and final) season.
He isn't being asked to do so now. Not with Parker (17.8 points), Duncan (15.5) and Ginobili (12.3) threatening to end Father Time's undefeated run.
But Leonard isn't an offensive afterthought, either.
Those same physical tools that have eased his ascent as a top-shelf defender have also helped add an aerial dimension to one of the league's more grounded attacks.
They've also positioned the Spurs for yet another trek to the game's greatest summit.
Best in the Business?
There's been so much talk about the NBA's balance of power and, once again, so little of it has centered around these Spurs.
Their championship credentials are almost unrivaled.
They are one of only two teams (along with the Thunder) to have top-seven efficiency ratings at both ends of the floor. That type of two-way proficiency is only seen among the greatest of the greats.
And that's exactly what the Spurs are, even if the court of public opinion largely leaves them out of that discussion.
Leonard isn't the reason San Antonio finds itself atop the pecking order, but his presence pays major dividends at either end of the floor.
That doesn't mean he'll see the type of attention his play deserves. Things just work differently for this franchise.
But, as Leonard's older teammates can attest, the ultimate prize is something so much sweeter—and it's absolutely a possible ending to yet another overlooked rise in the Alamo City.