TUCSON, AZ - MARCH 17: Taylor Montgomery #44 of the Northern Colorado Bears shies away from the approach of the frightfully large hand of Kawhi Leonard #15 of the San Diego State Aztecs during the second round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Earlier today, we got the news that the Spurs have made an offer to Josh Howard (AKA The Big Bug). This hardly comes as a shock considering the Spurs have been reported to be interested in every single small forward free agent out there. First it was Caron Butler, then Shane Battier, then Grant Hill, you get the idea: if they could play SF, the Spurs were interested in them. At first I thought that it was because of the seemingly impending release of Richard Jefferson via amnesty, but with RJ in training camp, the Spurs' fascination with small forwards could be deemed a bit of a head-scratcher.
While the views on Jefferson vary according to the fans, and his release has both detractors and supporters, one thing all of Spurs fandom seems to agree on is that regardless of the SF situation, the Spurs need help down low. The Memphis series seemed to highlight the fact that the Spurs had a pretty flawed front line, aside from Tim Duncan. We all had our favorites we wanted the Spurs to pursue, but there were no reports of the Spurs front office showing interest in any of the free agent bigs. Most of the guys we liked have already signed with other teams and all that's left is "plan C" type of players. It seems like PATFO dropped the ball and failed to understand what we as fans thought was the Spurs greatest need: an athletic power forward that could rebound and guard the pick and roll.
But maybe, we were looking at it all wrong. What if the Spurs were not trying to find that athletic power forward defender because they believed they already had one on the roster? I'm talking about one Kawhi Leonard.
Now, standing at only 6-7, Leonard hardly seems like big man material. Sure, his wingspan (7' 3") and standing reach (8' 10") are nice, but his slight frame would surely cause him to struggle against the most physical PFs. That is certainly true, and considering how undersized the Spurs' frontcourt is, I can understand the skepticism with which fans would approach this notion, but I think it's not as far-fectched as it might appear at first sight. There is precedence for a player with almost identical physical tools as Kawhi playing PF for one of the best defensive teams in the league. I'm talking about Luc Richard Mbah a Moute of Milwaukee.
Anyone who has watched a few Bucks games in the last couple of seasons knows that they are a great defensive team, anchored by Andrew Bogut, the best defensive center this side of Dwight Howard. They have other underrated defenders on their squad as well, but perhaps the biggest factor for their defensive success outside of Bogut is the versatile Mbah a Moute.
When considering his frame, he's listed at 6'-7", he's not the ideal candidate to guard power forwards, but with a high BBIQ and unwavering effort he manages to be effective against face-up PFs and some of the lesser talented post players. His contributions on offense come from cuts to the basket and offensive boards since his ball handling and shooting are needing improvement. That's the reason he was moved to PF from his seemingly more natural position at the 3. By reading scouting reports about Kawhi, I keep finding similarities with Mbah a Moute besides their respective physical profiles (Mbah a Moute's wingspan is 7' 0.5" and his standing reach 8' 7.5"). Kawhi's weaknesses (ball handling, three point shooting) are the same as Mbah a Moute's, while his projected strenghts (versatile defender, solid rebounder) are also eerily similar.
I'm not saying Kawhi is going to be as effective or versatile as Luc, but when you consider that Kawhi is the superior athlete, you have a very interesting case for Leonard as a jack-of-all-trades back-up PF as long as a strong defensive center is patroling the paint. Of course he could also spend some time at small forward depending on the match ups, but playing him at the 4 with either Duncan or Splitter to cover his weaknesses, could yield some good results.
Considering how slim the pickings are in terms of free agent big men, trying out Leonard in that position could be a worthy gamble. If early in the season it seems apparent that PF it's not the right position for the rookie, the type of big men that are available now will probably be available later.
That being said, it would be a pretty big risk betting on a rookie changing positions and understanding the Spurs' complicated defensive schemes right off the bat. But with most of us asking for some creative changes to the rotation, it could make sense for the Spurs to roll the dice and hope they get lucky. Just food for thought.