It was long foretold by Gregg Popovich that the Spurs would one day be Kawhi Leonard’s team. As his Hall of Fame colleagues digressed, with Tim Duncan already in retirement, Kawhi has undergone the most intriguing individual evolution of any NBA star in the last five years.
These are not the San Antonio Spurs of just three years ago. The make-up of this team is markedly different, even after fitting acquisitions of players like LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, but Kawhi Leonard’s insanely growing ability is also what has changed them.
Leonard finished with a 31.2% Usage Rate this season, which is the first time a Spur averaged a Usage Rate over 30 percent since Tony Parker in 2008-09 (via NBA.com/stats). Just like his scoring and assist averages, Kawhi’s usage has increased every season since his 2011-12 rookie campaign.
Through the first four games of this first-round series against Memphis, Kawhi’s usage rate is at 32.8%, and he’s been on a complete tear.
Kawhi Leonard this series
Game 1: 32 (ties playoff career-high)
Game 2: 37 (new playoff career-high)
Game 4: 43 (new playoff career-high)
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) April 23, 2017
While the Spurs still maintain their selfless and sacrificial identity, it’s become overwhelmingly evident just how much work Kawhi Leonard has to do given his new powers.
As the leader and the best player, that’s his responsibility, and the maturation of his game gives him more credibility to do so. At the same time, Kawhi is the sole source of this team’s success, and that’s historically not the Spurs way.
Spurs' Net Rating in Games 3 & 4 with Kawhi Leonard on the floor: +7.3 (74 mins). When Kawhi was off the floor: -41.4 (27 mins)
— Paul Garcia (@PaulGarciaNBA) April 24, 2017
The Spurs are averaging 15.5 assists in the first four games of these playoffs. They haven’t averaged less than 20 assists in the postseason since 2010-11.
Things are different now in San Antonio. Kawhi is not to blame in a bad way. His ascension was planned and nurtured by Popovich himself. It’s been a necessary uprise for the franchise as Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili were inching closer towards their basketball ends. Kawhi simply tapped into a desire and willingness to expand his offensive game and turn himself into a more complete and capable weapon on the floor. He’s now being vouched for by many as the best two-way player in basketball.
These are not bad things for Kawhi or the Spurs. However, it has circumstantially contributed to the Spurs quietly resorting to their own form of hero ball.
Unless I’m underestimating just how great Kawhi is ready to be, I don’t foresee him being able to sustain this workload and practically be able to single-handedly knock off teams all the way through the NBA Finals. Being that these Spurs likely would need him to do just that in order to win a title this year, it’s fair to question if that will be their eventual downfall this postseason.
LaMarcus Aldridge has yet to break out in these playoffs, averaging a career playoff-low 15 points through the first four games. The Spurs still aren’t without their trusted skill players — Pau Gasol, Danny Green, Patty Mills, David Lee — but unlike that unstoppable group in 2014, this team can seemingly only go as far as their lone hero is able to carry them.