Kawhi Leonard Is Most Important Piece to San Antonio Spurs' Puzzle

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Kawhi Leonard Is Most Important Piece to San Antonio Spurs' Puzzle
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Leonard repeatedly sacrifices his body to gain control a loose ball, which is one of many reasons he is so important to the Spurs.

Kawhi Leonard played a significant role in the San Antonio Spurs near-championship during the 2013 NBA Finals, frustrating LeBron James and the Miami Heat for seven long games.

Known for swarming defense, physical rebounding and a quietly effective offensive impact, the San Diego State product is one of the more underappreciated players in the league.

And Leonard is also the most important piece to the Spurs' basic, fundamentally driven puzzle.

In early March, San Antonio knocked out the Heat by 24 points, and Leonard appeared to regain the form he showcased during last year's playoffs. Leonard is practically irreplaceable on defense, especially because his defensive versatility is largely unmatched on the floor.

Yes, longtime point guard Tony Parker is undeniably the key offensive component when the postseason finally arrives. But without Leonard, the Spurs would only have fleeting, unrealistic dreams of reaching the finals for the second consecutive season.

 

Quiet, Consistent Offensive Impact

D. Clarke Evans/Getty Images
Leonard doesn't demand extra attention, but he hovers around double digits on a nightly basis.

Leonard is having the most efficient year of his short career during the 2013-14 campaign.

As of this writing and according to his per-36-minute chart on Basketball-Reference.com, Leonard is averaging 15.0 points on 52.2 percent shooting from the field—both of which are career-high marks—while bringing down 1.4 offensive rebounds per game.

Strange though it sounds, Leonard is one of the more versatile players the Spurs have. With a strong ability to drive the lane, take a reliable mid-range jumper and shoot a decent three-pointer, the opposition must always account for him.

But the swingman isn't Parker, Tim Duncan or even Manu Ginobili. Leonard patiently waits for an opportunity, picks his spots wisely and attacks the rim—or spots up.

Between posting up or penetrating into the lane, Leonard finds ways to get near the basket. According to NBA.com, the 6'7" forward takes 42.5 percent of his total shots within eight feet, finding the bottom of the net on 67.5 percent of such attempts.

Plus, dunking is a relatively high-percentage shot, and Leonard is pretty good at those, too.

Leonard's most reliable mid-range jumper comes either from right side, connecting on 30 of 64 shots anywhere between eight and 24 feet. This shot is often a result of Parker flowing left off a pick-and-roll set, leaving the forgotten man ample room and an open look.

Since his return from injury, Leonard has been a much-improved outside shooter, too.

After hitting just 33 of his first 101 three-point attempts, Leonard has drilled 14 out of 27 from behind the arc. Are his contributions from deep replaceable? Certainly, considering San Antonio has no fewer than six players who can catch fire from distance.

But Leonard is the only Spur who can effectively play in the three main offensive styles, and his quiet nature and consistent production behind the Big Three allow him to remain unnoticed.

 

Transitioning Defense to Offense

When San Antonio needs a spark, Leonard often energizes the Spurs by making a fantastic play on defense and quickly attacking the rim.

Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News perfectly summarized Leonard's prowess in the steals department, saying:

Kawhi Leonard’s signature play comes...when he swoops into the passing lanes like a bird of prey searching for a meal. 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. 

Aided by his monstrous hands, he enters passing lanes opponents think are safe and turns a defensive possession into a potential bucket at the other end. Leonard snatches those lazy passes or poorly executed tosses, immediately becoming an offensive threat.

Leonard's impact on both sides of the court cannot be overstated. According to ESPN and Bleacher Report contributor Matthew Tynan, San Antonio has "outscored opponents by 110 points when Leonard is on the floor" during its current 10-game winning streak.

Defensively, he continually thinks one pass or one move ahead, and Leonard isn't afraid to lead a fast break when he capitalizes on a turnover, either.

And when a Spurs small forward is capable of doing the latter, the offensive powerhouse has yet another weapon to add to the dangerous arsenal.

 

Unmatched Ability to Disrupt and Contain

With Leonard on the floor, the Spurs are 42-9. And that's no accident, because he keeps scorers from doing what they do best: score.

Disruption is the key to Leonard's game, refusing to allow uncontested looks throughout the game and frustrating his man with both physical and gritty defense. This season, Leonard is averaging career highs with 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per outing.

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Against Miami, Leonard epitomized disruption by diving onto the floor, knocking the ball away from LeBron twice and forcing James to commit a turnover.

Note: A video is not currently available, but SB Nation's Pounding the Rock made a GIF of the play. It is the final picture on the recap.

Leonard is not going to completely lock down the league's best scorers, but that disruption leads to containment. For instance, LeBron still scored 19 points on March 6, but Leonard was an integral factor in holding King James to a porous 1-of-13 performance outside the paint.

Additionally, there just aren't many players capable of blocking two shots and grabbing two steals during the fourth quarter of a tightly contested game. However, Leonard's defense helped seal a win over the Orlando Magic.

Despite the competition being subpar, Leonard made the defensive plays that lifted San Antonio to a win. Parker may be the necessary game manager on offense, but if defense truly does win championships, Leonard will be the driving force behind the Spurs' fifth championship.

Because without him, San Antonio is missing the most important piece in an NBA title-worthy puzzle.

 

Note: Stats taken from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Accurate as of March 19, 2014, pre-San Antonio vs. Los Angeles Lakers.

Follow Bleacher Report NBA Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.

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