Slowly but surely, we are witnessing the gradual evolution of the San Antonio Spurs. The pace hasn't been quick enough for some casual fans or television executives looking for fresh new angles for the same old Spurs, but there were myriad reasons for that, some planned and others unforeseen. It seems clear now though, in an ironic twist, that all eyes are indeed on Kawhi Leonard, even though he doesn't have full use of his own two eyes just yet, thanks to the conjunctivitis he's been trying to shake like some nasty, persistent shooting slump.
Leonard has been in the news of late because the Spurs didn't extend his contract before the deadline, after Leonard's agent made it clear that the fourth-year small forward and reigning Finals MVP is looking for a max contract. Monday night, he confirmed that the Spurs did explain their strategy to him, as I figured they had. The team needs to keep their cap sheet clean to chase after free agents, and once they get a recruit or two to sign on the dotted line, they can pay Leonard what he's worth by exercising his Bird rights, allowing them to exceed the cap to re-sign their own players.
I think the time is right to clear up some misconceptions about Leonard. He is the quietest, most reserved Spur on a team of guys known for not going out of their way to promote themselves. However, I think some people confuse his silence for placidity, his professionalism for timidness, and his "coachability" for being blissfully naive.
Leonard is not any of those things. We make jokes about him being a robot programmed by coach Gregg Popovich and quip about "it being self-aware" whenever we see Leonard making some new move on the court, but in truth what makes Leonard a very real prospect to be a "face of the franchise" as Pop prophesied, is Leonard's fierce competitive drive. The man is driven to be great. I've seen it first hand. Chad Forcier is supposed to be the team's developmental coach, but almost from day one Leonard has monopolized him and made Forcier his personal coach. After every practice, every shoot-around, Forcier works exclusively with Leonard on a variety of crossover dribbles, post moves, spins, feints, hesitation dribbles, jab steps, pull up jumpers, you name it. You'd think that four years in with Leonard that Forcier would look to move on to some other less-accomplished youngsters like Cory Joseph or Kyle Anderson in particular, and he may very well have specific times he works with those guys, but all I know is that every time practice or shoot-arounds are open to the media, we see Forcier working with Leonard exclusively.
The past couple of games, first at home against the Pelicans and then on the road at the Clippers were significant milestones for Leonard in their own ways. In the former, Popovich turned to him late in the fourth quarter, after "the big three" of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were benched for ineffectiveness, and called a few plays for Leonard, who almost rallied the team to a comeback win before rimming out a baseline floater at the buzzer. Two nights later Leonard had a regular season career-high 26 at Los Angeles, leading the Spurs not only in points but just as significantly, in field goal attempts (18) and minutes (37) as well. From Sam Amick's column in the USA Today:
"We ran more plays for him tonight than I ever have in his career," Popovich said afterward. "That's the plan. We've got to start giving him the ball. You know, he's the future. I don't think Timmy (Duncan) and Manu (Ginobili) are going to play any more than maybe six or seven more years. So we've got to let somebody else do something."
What was interesting afterward, however, was Leonard's response to Amick, when Pop's quote was relayed to him, saying,
"It's better to really walk it instead of just hearing them talk about it,"
Some might read that quote and interpret it in a humble, self-effacing way, meaning that Leonard was happy he was able to play up to star expectations in a big game against a fellow contender. I don't think he meant it that way at all. I read it as pointed at Pop, meaning he was happy he actually got plays called for him instead of just hearing there would be some and wondering when it would finally happen. Leonard also expounded on needing to be used to having the ball in his hands so it won't be a shock to his system when Duncan and Ginobili are no longer around, which Amick covered in a pair of Tweets.
Leonard quote not in story: "I’m just going to need that (offensive involvement) to keep moving forward to be a better player, rather than..— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) November 11, 2014
Leonard: "...when that (post-Duncan) time comes it just hits me right in the face and I don’t really know what to do or how to manage it."— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) November 11, 2014
This is a continuation of a pattern we've seen play out the past two seasons, and most significantly this past media day, when the Spurs gathered as a whole for the first time since their Riverwalk parade last June. First, Popovich was asked what his goals and expectations are for Leonard for the upcoming season. Here's what he said:
"I want to be very careful about making Kawhi into Larry Bird or Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. He's Kawhi Leonard, he's a young kid, I think he's 23 years old and I think he had a great season, he's got a great work ethic and he wants to be great. He's made huge strides every year, but I think I'm going to talk to him more about consistency now. 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 do that every night. The Duncans, Durants, Jameses, they do those things night after night after night. It's a huge responsibility and it takes a certain kind of character, and that's what I want to see him do now defensively and offensively, to bring it every night."
And then Leonard responded, when appraised of what his coach said:
"In the beginning of the regular season last year we were blowing teams out by 20 points and I wasn't even playing that much, so, in the Finals I'm playing 35 minutes a game, so I'm on the floor more and able to score the ball more and get more rebounds so I'm going to have to get consistent minutes to play at a consistent pace ... I've been trying to do that since I've been here, but it's on him to get me more involved in the offense. That's what I go by. Like I said, if I see extra minutes on the floor, it'll lead to more points and rebounds."
Leonard responded in a particularly guarded manner when asked about it finally being his time to have plays called for him:
"We'll see what happens. My role was supposed to expand last year and we played pretty much the same basketball that we did the year before, so we'll see this year what Pop has."
To be fair to Popovich, there were extenuating circumstances for why past plans to get Leonard more involved in the offense were curtailed. He missed 24 games with a knee injury in 2012-13 and 16 more with a broken finger last season, with both ailments occurring relatively early on in the season, in times when teams are typically forming their rotations and identities. Once Leonard got back into the lineup he was playing catch up for minutes and opportunities to some extent.
Also, no matter how selfless Duncan, Ginobili and Parker happen to be, we can't just ignore that they're all future Hall-of-Famers with healthy egos of their own and their natural inclination is to trust themselves --or each other-- before other teammates. All three are playing fewer minutes than usual stars do. They're already on a deeper team than just about anybody, filled with guys who can score like Danny Green, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, etc. Shots are scarce for everyone and the Spurs don't really call that many "plays" in their free flowing, motion offense. In a way, Leonard's versatility and all-around game have worked against him in his quest to take on more responsibility. If he can score a couple of buckets of open court steals and coast-to-coast slams, a couple more off offensive rebounds, maybe one leak out in transition and a pair of corner threes when the ball swings to him in the half court offense, that's 14-16 points right there. Who needs a play called for him when you can score that many just as a role player?
Now, to be fair to Leonard, he never asked Pop to say all those nice, flattering things about him time and time again. He never asked his coach to label him as the next face of the franchise or to tell reporters that he was going to call more plays for him. Popovich did that of his own accord. Leonard is a proud young man and has shown repeatedly, that he believes in himself and his skills. He seems less impressed with himself than anybody, and while that's a quality his coach no doubt loves about him, it also means he will never appreciate the suggestion that he's not giving his best whenever he steps out on the court. Leonard is quite adamant about that. He believes he'd be every bit the metronome that Duncan is if he had the steady minutes, shots and plays run for him and he will refute any suggestion otherwise, even it comes from almighty Popovich himself. That's why he bristles whenever he hears talk of plays being run for him. Don't spit on Leonard and expect him to tell you it's raining.
Maybe the real answer is more complex. Maybe Popovich, who knows his players far better than we ever will and is a mastermind when it comes to reading people, has been planning it this way all along, using the carrot of having plays called for him to push Leonard further. Maybe he wanted to see how this kid from Riverside would react to being told one thing and then receiving another. Would he be disappointed and pout and be a wallflower, or worse, a distraction? Or would he show the "moral fiber" Pop looks for in his players? Would he fight through the anger and make things happen in the games even without the ball? Would he make it obvious to even the most casual viewer in the gym that he's the best guy on the floor and hey, what's that old coach thinking by not calling plays for him? Remember in "Champions Revealed" Duncan, Ginobili and Parker all spoke of needing to push past the expectations and roles the Popovich had set for them, to show that they were more than the box they were put in. This could all be one long psychological test for Leonard.
Or maybe Pop was just waiting for Leonard to develop to the point where "needing plays called for me," isn't synonymous with "I'm shooting the ball no matter what." The win over the Clippers was the best passing game of Leonard's career. He repeatedly found people on the move, including Ginobili with a backdoor layup with 32 seconds left in the 4th that ended up being the team's winning bucket. Once he masters creating for others, he really will be unstoppable.
Popovich praised Leonard after the Clippers game, saying:
"(Leonard) has never said one thing to me or asked me one thing about 'Pop, why don't we ... ?' Or 'Pop, why don't you ... ?' or, 'Pop, can I ... ?'" Popovich said. "He just is unbelievably coachable and does whatever we ask him to do. He's a coach's dream, very honestly."
Just don't confuse coachability with being meek. Even if he won't say so, Leonard wants the ball and it's obvious that he thinks he's ready.