For so long the San Antonio Spurs have been characterised by the output and leadership of their Big Three, but a generational change seems to have finally taken place with Kawhi Leonard stepping up as the new leader.
Move over Tim Duncan. Move Over Tony Parker. Move over Manu Ginoblli. Kawhi Leonard has snatched the mantle as the Spurs go to guy and it’s time for everyone to wake up and take notice.
Sure he won the 2014 finals MVP in the Spurs championship last season, but this year we have seen the 23 year old emerge as San Antonio’s heartbeat on both ends of the floor.
The evolving star has shown that the 2014 NBA finals were only a pre-cursor to what he is capable of.
At a glance, Leonard is in the midst of a career year with his points (16.5), rebounds (7.1), assists (2.5), steals (2.3) and even minutes (31.5) per game all having greatly increased.
But most importantly, we have also seen the lock-down defender evolve into a consistent two-way threat that has the ability to win games without the help of his legendary team-mates.
Before, we would see glimpses of Leonard’s potential, but all too often he would defer responsibility to one of the Big Three in clutch or pressure situations.
Right now Leonard is running the Spurs and taking the lion’s share of the team’s defensive and offensive burden on himself and the results are tremendous.
As of late, the Spurs have been on a tear winning 17 of their last 20 games with Leonard at the forefront averaging 19.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.9 steals during that period.
San Antonio has gone from being in the stacked Western Conference’s playoff periphery to once again being touted as a Championship contender off the back of superb play led by its new leader.
Even further illustrating Leonard’s impact is that during the 17 games that he has missed in the season the Spurs have gone 8 – 9.
Plainly put, without Leonard on the floor San Antonio doesn’t have the same offensive diversity and defensive tenacity – it’s not as good a team.
For those who have been following the Spurs you would know that legendary coach, Gregg Popovich has been heralding Leonard for a long time, even dubbing him the future face of the franchise.
It is Popovich who has begun to revolve the play around Leonard and make him the focal point of the team, rather than his legendary trio.
“He’s getting more licence,” Popovich said earlier in the season.
“When you’re a young kid, you’re going to defer to Timmy and Manu and Tony. Now it’s like, ‘to heck with those guys. The Big Three, they’re older than dirt. To hell with them. You’re the Big one. You’ve got to go do your deal.’ So, we are trying to get [him] more demonstrative in that regard.”
We can see Popovich placing more load on his new ‘Big One’ by allowing Leonard freedom to pick his shot and run the pick and rolls.
No longer are plays dictated by, or only run for one of the Big Three.
But how is Leonard adjusting to his new role as the team’s star? Well, the reigning Finals MVP seems to have grown in stature and is deservedly confident in his game.
“I’m very comfortable,” Leonard said about his new role.
“My coach has confidence in me and my teammates push me on the floor. As long as they have the confidence in me then I feel good about myself and doing the things I’m trying to do out there. “
Leonard’s evolution is testament to the selflessness of the San Antonio Spurs and their Big Three.
There is no jealousy from the Big Three about the new star taking over the reins, simply support and an understanding that to stay on top they have to evolve.
We saw the exact same thing happen in the late 90’s when David Robinson passed the torch to Tim Duncan initiating the Big Three era in San Antonio.
It just goes to prove that the Spurs dynasty is built on accepting roles and recognising that to get better you must work as a team not as an individual.
After all, when it comes down to clutch moments in this year’s playoffs don’t expect Leonard to shoulder all of the winning burden in a Byant-esque showing – you can still expect the proven pressure performers of Parker, Duncan and Ginoblli to make some incredible plays.
The Spurs aren’t about one man, they are about picking and choosing the best play for the specific moment and working as a team to get the all-important W.
Leonard may now be the leader of the team, but he is not the only player in the team and that is why his evolution does not mark the end of the Big Three era, rather a new chapter.
Written by Juan Estepa