The San Antonio Spurs have always been more than the sum of their parts, but some parts seem to be proving more essential than others.
Reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard's 9.75-inch-long hands are one of those parts.
Unfortunately, he tore a ligament in his right paw during a Dec. 9 loss to the Utah Jazz, dealing the franchise a significant blow amid what's almost certainly its most difficult month of competition. Friday night's 97-90 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans marked the eighth game Leonard has missed on account of the injury.
Though the 23-year-old initially tried to make a go of it in back-to-back games against the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers earlier this month (after sitting two contests out), the ailment appears to be more serious than initially believed.
In turn, San Antonio has lost six of its last eight games without Leonard and six of its last seven overall.
With Tony Parker seeing limited action this month (hamstring injury) and reserve point guard Patty Mills only recently cleared by doctors to return from offseason shoulder surgery, Leonard's predicament comes at a particularly bad time. The Spurs are just 6-9 so far in December and 18-13 for the season.
They find themselves clinging to seventh place in the Western Conference standings and in danger of sinking further given the severity of Leonard's condition.
"It's a pain thing," head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters on Thursday. "He can't move his hand. He can't catch and dribble and that kind of stuff. Medically, they don't think he can hurt it any more, so that's good. So it's just a matter of can he get used to the hand. It's stiff and doesn't work like your hand works."
At the moment, there's no timetable for the fourth-year pro's return. Nor has there been any news that could be construed as particularly good.
"One of the doctors said he's been doing hands for 40 years and it's the first time he's ever seen this injury," Popovich told media earlier this month. "It's a little bit unique."
Unique stuff is usually a good thing, but probably not when it comes to injuries.
This season was supposed to be a continuation of June's coming-out party, proof the young swingman could maintain an elite level of play over the course of an entire season. After totaling a combined 71 points and 28 rebounds through the last three Finals meetings with the Miami Heat, heightened expectations were inevitable.
The only real question entering the 2014-15 campaign was whether the two-way talent could carry this team with greater regularity. Even the teams that eschew hero-ball the most need a little superstardom from time to time.
"I'm probably going to talk to him more about consistency now," Popovich told reporters at the team's media day on Sept. 26. "He's reached a certain level, and if you look at those last three games [of the Finals] he played, they were pretty special.
"But to be in that top echelon of players in our league, it's a huge responsibility to have to come and do that every night. The Duncans, the Durants, the Jameses and all those kinds of guys do it night after night after night, and it's a huge responsibility."
Though he's so far had just 22 appearances in which to cultivate a more aggressive approach, there are certainly some signs of progress.
Leonard is averaging 15.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 steals in 32.2 minutes per contest—all on pace to be career highs. He's also looking for his offense more assertively, attempting 12.3 field goals and 4.1 free throws per game.
Having played 29.1 minutes and taken 9.8 shots per contest a season ago, the additional playing time and touches have had a lot to do with that evolution. The results haven't been as astonishing as Jimmy Butler's emergence with the Chicago Bulls this season, but there are some important differences between the two restricted free-agents-to-be.
Butler is tallying 40.1 minutes while attempting 14.4 field goals and 8.1 free throws per contest. So the gap between his and Leonard's production might have more to do with coaches and playbooks than individual skill or ability.
As Leonard continues to adopt increased responsibility, the numbers will follow. But he does have to get healthy first—and stay that way.
And even if he doesn't start putting up 20-plus points per game in short order, the totality of his contributions remains a non-negotiable prerequisite to this organization's hopes of securing its first set of back-to-back titles. His penchant for disrupting opposing offenses is particularly valuable.
According to NBA.com, San Antonio allows opponents just 94.4 points per 100 possessions when Leonard's on the floor, an absolutely ridiculous improvement over the 106.2 points it concedes without him. His 12.1 net rating (the difference between points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) is easily the best on the roster. Sixth man Manu Ginobili comes in second with an 8.9 net rating.
For what it's worth, Leonard actually has the edge over Butler in terms of both defensive rating (102.4) and net rating (5.6)—a reminder that sheer production rarely captures the full scope of a player's impact.
Danny Green has become something of a three-and-D ace in his own right, and reserve swingmen like Ginobili and Marco Belinelli are certainly capable of absorbing Leonard's minutes. But no one in this rotation can fill his shoes.
As ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson observed after the Finals in June:
Leonard is the player who seems to tip the scale in making this Spurs squad the best in the organization's history. Even with past players such as Mario Elie, Sean Elliott, Robert Horry and Stephen Jackson, the Spurs have never had a player like Leonard on any of their championship rosters. Leonard turned the Big Three into a Fab Four. It makes them the one Spurs squad that could beat the other championship squads in franchise history if they were to mythically play each other in the Finals. Kawhi completes them.
So it should come as no surprise that these Spurs are woefully incomplete at the moment.
This organization isn't one to panic, but that might change if Leonard's pain becomes a long-term problem. Heralded for its depth and unselfish play, San Antonio's roster can probably tread water without getting squeezed from the playoff conversation.
Repeating last season's historically successful finish is an entirely different story. The Spurs' next postseason march will be a short one unless Leonard is back in the fold.