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Is Kawhi Leonard's return the reason for the Spurs' recent improvement?

In The Bonus is back! The Pounding the Rock staff talks about Kawhi Leonard's impact since returning from injury, the minutes distribution in the crowded backcourt, failed predictions, least favorite teams and Tim Duncan's All-Star case.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

1 - Since Kawhi Leonard's return the Spurs have won five of their last six. Has his impact been that big or has a soft schedule inflated the team's win record and Kawhi's numbers?

Michael Erler: I don't know how any reasonable person could argue he hasn't had a huge impact. He's been the clear best player in five of his games back if not all six. The schedule has been relatively soft, the loss at Chicago and the close win over Milwaukee weren't at all encouraging and the Spurs can't seem to resemble the team they were last year for any sustained stretch, but that has little to do with Leonard. He's improved some from last year, but that improvement can't compensate for so many guys playing worse, and therein lies the problem.

Bruno Passos: Soft schedule or not, two of those wins (LA and Utah) came against teams that tripped them up earlier in the year, and the Portland game had Leonard's giant fingerprints all over it. Especially given the aggressiveness he's brought since coming back, I think the impact is real.

Jesus Gomez: Let's put it this way: I'm glad Leonard came back when he did because it allowed him to have a few great performances early on to build up his confidence. I don't think Leonard is going to average 10 rebounds a game the rest of the way. That being said, the team is not playing well and without Leonard, who knows if they would have taken advantage of the easy stretch.

Chris Itz: I've gone back and forth on Kawhi a half dozen times, but after these past six games I think that maybe, just maybe Kawhi can be a first option. The schedule has helped, but I've been impressed with Whi  and his court vision seems to be getting better.

2 - The backcourt is crowded at the moment. What will happen once Belinelli returns? Who loses minutes?

Erler: My guess is Belinelli, in all likelihood, but you never know with Pop. The last two games he's barely played Patty Mills, even with Belinelli out, and there were games before that where Joseph was the odd man out. Right now Tony Parker is getting a lot of minutes so he can get in shape and work on his stamina after his long layoff, but it's not like his playing time has been commensurate with the quality of his play to any degree. He's been mostly average or worse. I'm actually gonna write about this soon.

Passos: I'd be happy if they reeled in Manu's a bit and see if that helps Marco build up some confidence. Capping Ginobili at, say, 24 minutes could reap dividends for the 37-year-old's back.

Gomez: Pop will have to make a tough decision because no one deserves to have their minutes reduced severely. I think they are going to be extra careful and keep Belinelli out until he's absolutely healthy and re-incoporate him slowly. So Belinelli will get fewer minutes than he used to for a while, I think.

Itz: I have high hopes for Beli returning to the knock-down shooter that he was last season as open looks come, but he's not going to see the minutes he saw last season. My guess is that Pop will keep us guessing with the minute distribution off the bench.

3 - Will Tim Duncan make the All-Star team? Should he?

Erler: I think he will and I think he should. Coaches love him, coaches love the Spurs, and DeMarcus Cousins has missed just enough games and reverted to some bad habits just enough since Mike Malone got fired that people can have an excuse to leave him off. Besides, it would just be unseemly if the defending champs had no representatives in the All-Star Game. To be honest, I think Leonard would be a savvy pick from the coaches, if they're really paying attention. Nobody has impacted Spurs games more than him, and he's played seven more games than Durant. If you leave KD off, then the West team would have no real small forwards on it, so why not pick Leonard and throw Cousins a bone too? The only drawback here is that this is likely Duncan's last year and it would be kind of gross for him to not be recognized as an All-Star just for the career he's had. He was certainly more deserving than Kobe.

Passos: In the case of an All-Star bid, I don't really like the idea of qualifying Duncan's excellent year by adding "for/at his age", which I think is what many people are doing. We'd all like Timmy's legacy to get padded with another ASG nod, but it's just as fine for the love to come through some All-Defensive Team recognition and let someone like DeMarcus Cousins go crazy in New York.

Gomez: I was going to say that no, Tim Duncan didn't deserve to get to the All-Star game and then I checked some advanced stats, which absolutely love him. Ultimately, I don't think he will make it but there's a case to be made that if he does, it won't just be a lifetime achievement award.

Itz: About a month ago I went through the entire history of the league since the introduction of the all-star game in 1951 and I found that no team has ever won a championship without an all-star. You have to admit that accomplishing something that hasn't been done in the 64 years that the all-star game has been around would be pretty sweet and a testament to the team-over-self approach that has come to define the Spurs. So I'm kind of rooting against Timmy making the squad, but he deserves a spot with the season he's having.

4 - We are around the middle point of the season. What prediction you made earlier in the year has been completely wrong?

Erler: Besides Kevin McHale being the first coach fired? I'm STILL sticking to my guns that the Rockets will miss the playoffs. Not Portland though. I don't think both the Suns and the Pelicans will make the playoffs. Monty Williams is just too shaky. Then again, the Suns have the toughest schedule left in the league. I just think Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer are all too much of a drain on their offense. Too many low-efficiency guys.

Passos: I predicted Houston not making the playoffs -- which, to be fair, is a better bad prediction than one I made last year, involving O.J. Mayo becoming a top-five scorer in the league.

Gomez: I predicted the Knicks and Nets were going to make the playoffs over the Bucks and Hornets. Like everyone else, I didn't see Milwaukee coming and felt the Hornets had taken a step back in the offseason after losing McRoberts. That last part sort of happened and the Nets could still claim the eighth spot but I have no idea why I thought the Knicks were going to be anything other than a complete disaster.

Itz: I don't know that I had a preseason prediction that has gone well off of my mark this far into the season. I was down on the Cavs, but they look to be rounding into form with the return of LBJ and their new acquisitions. I guess I expected the Rockets and Mavericks to be worse than they are and the Warriors are a surprise.

5 - Everyone has their must-watch league pass teams. What's your must-avoid, least favorite team to watch?

Erler: Besides the Rockets? Honestly I'm kind of a basketball snob. I don't much care about about style of play or anything like that. I gravitate toward watching good teams and avoiding bad teams. I won't watch any Eastern team outside of the top five and maybe Charlotte because I'm stubborn. I keep telling myself I should watch Orlando because I like their players, but I can't bring myself to do it. I kind of hate-watch OKC, the way I hate listen to "First Take." I have many issues.

Passos: The Nuggets are one Jusuf Nurkic away from topping my list, but I think I'd say the Pacers. Roy Hibbert's verticality can't make up for no Lance Stephenson, Paul George and a bottom-five offense. The Rockets also frustrate me, mostly because the way they use Harden reminds me of playing someone in Street Fighter who hits the same button over and over again. And beats me.

Gomez: It's the Lakers for me, even before Kobe went down. They have so little going for them. It's a shame because they could have let Jeremy Lin run high pick and rolls with Ed Davis in the Tyson Chandler role but chose not to. At least that would have been more fun than the barrage of mid-range jumpers they have launched all season.

Itz: How can it not be the Knicks? The Lakers at least had a compelling player in Kobe to watch and may be on their way to becoming the least watchable team, but the Knicks just used a three-game win-streak to pull into a tie with Philly for the worst record in the East.