The San Antonio Spurs shouldn't have a higher level, let alone be marching toward it.
After 15 consecutive 50-win seasons, 17 straight playoff berths and four NBA titles since 1999, Gregg Popovich's team should be past the point of surprises. Greatness has been expected for some time, and it's been delivered with the same regularity as snail mail.
Yet, even amid these lofty expectations—which we never remember to set before the All-Star break—the Spurs have us scratching our heads once again: Where did they even find room to raise the bar?
If San Antonio sweeps the final three games on its schedule, it would set franchise records for wins in a season (64) and winning percentage (.780). There are so many different reasons as to why this team can still find ways to up the ante, but perhaps none are bigger than third-year swingman Kawhi Leonard.
A disruptive defensive presence and efficient contributor at the opposite end, the former San Diego State standout is a coach's dream. Well, Popovich's dream, more specifically.
Despite the 22-year-old's spotlight-ready game, he seems more than content flying under the radar. The Spurs have a way of finding these rare NBA birds: superstar talents with no interest in superstar perks. Leonard, who came via a draft-day swap in 2011, didn't have to learn the Spurs way—he brought it with him to the Alamo City.
"To put it plainly, he was perfect," wrote 48 Minutes of Hell's Andrew A. McNeill. "Leonard’s quiet demeanor, both on court and off, meshed with exactly how the Spurs as an organization like to go about their business. Leonard worked hard and stayed out of trouble."
He has the first-one-in-last-one-out drive of someone fighting for a roster spot, but the talent to lead a team.
Putting those two pieces together usually has special results, and Leonard is no exception. He's one of only four NBA regulars under the age of 23 with a player efficiency rating above 19.0 (19.2) and the only one in that group on a playoff-bound team.
Players his age aren't supposed to make this kind of impact, especially not for a team with realistic championship plans. Remember, he was never seen as a game-changing prospect. He was something of a safe pick, someone who definitely wouldn't hurt a team but might not lift its ceiling.
Maybe that would have been the case had Leonard not packed a Spurs-ian work ethic in his luggage. He's not one to rest on his laurels, though.
"He has a great capacity to absorb things and he works hard," Coach Popovich told CBS Sports' Zach Harper. "He comes early to practice; he stays after. Our development guys work with him constantly and he wears them out. He really wants to be good and he's got some talents to work with, so that's a good combination."
Developmental coaches are assessed on their ability to bring players along. The more effective time they can spend in the gym, the more job security—and, potentially, more zeroes on the paycheck—they'll have.
And Leonard is wearing them out.
"What makes me be so confident about [Leonard] is that he wants it so badly," Popovich told ESPN.com's Rick Reilly.
It's more than just desire.
There are the chiseled 230 pounds on his 6'7" frame. The freakish 7'3" wingspan, as noted by DraftExpress.com, that keeps perimeter scorers tossing and turning at night. Or those baseball mitts at the end of each arm:
Combine the tools with the motivation and you're left with one of the premier perimeter defenders in the NBA. Maybe even the best:
I have a gigantic amount of respect for Andre Iguodala and Paul George, but give me one guy to D up on the perimeter, it’s Kawhi Leonard.— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) April 11, 2014
The Spurs don't have a lot of wrinkles in their defensive game plan. Thanks to Leonard, they don't need them.
He's past the point of being told he'll get the toughest assignment. That's understood heading into every contest.
His floor presence has meant the difference between San Antonio having an elite defense (97.4 defensive rating when he's in the game, which would be second-best in the league) or one that's slightly above average (102.1 when he sits, would rank ninth).
Considering his playing time often coincides with that of the other team's top offensive player, those statistics are nothing short of staggering.
Defense has a lot to do with effort, but intelligence plays just as big a role. Luckily, Leonard has both in droves.
He crowds shooters on the catch, cutting off their airways and leaving no view of the basket. He'll leave more room against drivers, forcing players into the lanes he wants them to take. He knows where his teammates will be at any given time and understands where and when help is available if he needs it.
He doesn't usually need it.
"Kawhi's starting to really get a kick out of being a stopper,” Popovich told Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News (subscription required). “He's understanding what he can do, and he's become more and more demonstrative in that respect."
Leonard's pick-and-roll coverage is some of the best in the business (0.62 points per possession, 10th-fewest in the league) according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Overall, he's allowed the 34th-fewest points per possession (0.77 on 35.7 percent shooting)—numbers, again, that grow even more impressive considering the caliber of assignment he's taking.
But he's more than a lockdown defender. So much more:
His scoring numbers don't jump off the page (12.7 PPG), but his shooting marks might (.522/.376/.805 slash line). He's still a few rungs from the top of San Antonio's offensive ladder, but he'll continue to inch his way up during postseason play.
"We want to up his minutes,” Popovich told McCarney. “He’s going to play more minutes (in the playoffs) than Tim Duncan does probably, more minutes than Manu Ginobili probably."
Leonard looks more than ready for as many minutes as he can get.
Not only has he emerged as one of the game's top rebounding wings (7.8 per 36 minutes), he's also done damage as an isolation scorer (1.08 points per possession, sixth overall) and down on the offensive block (1.15 points per possession on post-up plays, third-best in the NBA).
If there's a play to made, Leonard will do whatever's needed to make it.
48 Minutes of Hell's Matthew Tynan detailed Leonard's impact:
Whether it’s the loud noise he creates on defense, the rebound-ripping prowess he has around the glass or the deft touch he’s developed from mid-range and around the basket, his impact is as substantial as any of the current cornerstones that run things for the Spurs.
With an increased workload come playoff time, he'll have even more chances to put his paws all over the stat sheet. Some nights will show better than others in the box score, but his fingerprints will be all over San Antonio's playoff run.
The Spurs shouldn't be growing anymore—Tony Parker will turn 32 next month, while Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are already on the wrong side of 35—but they are.
Leonard is the reason that process continues. With top-shelf defensive ability and an always-expanding offensive arsenal, it's hard to say where the forward—or the Spurs—will stop.