"It's going to be Kawhi's team anyway. Like Timmy transitioned to Manu, Manu transitioned to me, now it's going to be transitioned to Kawhi. I'll try my best to be aggressive and stay involved, but Kawhi's going to be the man." -Tony Parker
Gregg Popovich, Spurs players, and Spurs fans spent years anticipating the passing of the torch from the Big 3 to budding star Kawhi Leonard. When the long-awaited
It didn't happen on June 15, 2014, when Kawhi was crowned the third-youngest Finals MVP in league history. It wasn't April 8, 2015, after his dominant play from March through April -- during which he embarrassed the 2015 eventual MVP and NBA Champions -- prompted Tony Parker's selfless proclamation. Nor was it April 24, 2015, as the Spurs dominated the Clippers to take a 2-1 series lead on the heels of Kawhi's career-high 32 points.
The day the San Antonio Spurs became Kawhi Leonard's team was May 2, 2015, after the Clippers won a thrilling, heartbreaking Game 7 to eliminate the Spurs and end their hopes for a championship repeat.
For those who may not recall, Leonard was virtually unstoppable from Games 1-4, averaging 24.8 ppg on 60% shooting from the field and 56.3% from three. However, to categorize his shooting from Games 5-7 as poor would be a massive understatement. Besides the two clutch free throws he hit with 1 second left to ice Game 5 in L.A., in the season's most crucial games, Kawhi's offensive stats fell dramatically to 14.3 ppg while shooting 29.5% and 20% from three-point land.
It appeared as if Kawhi's offensive decline, coupled with inefficiency from his teammates, sank the Spurs' ship, and the box score even seemed to agree. In reality, neither was a major factor in the series' outcome. The notion that Kawhi had to pick up the slack of his teammates was severely misguided. As the series went on, it was the rest of the Spurs who picked up his slack. The Spurs as a team from Games 1-4 scored 102 ppg while shooting 44.5% from the field and 31.8% from three. These numbers then increased from Games 5-7 to the tune of 105.3 ppg, 45.5% and 43.4%. The offense wasn't the problem.
What hurt the Spurs was Kawhi's neutral impact on the defensive end. Leonard had a total 12 blocks and steals from Games 1-4. His totals from 5-7? Zero. The advanced metrics are just as damning. Leonard's defensive rating (opponent's points allowed per 100 possessions) was 103.2 in the first four games and increased to 114.7 over the final three. The Clippers' offensive rating was 109 and Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick combined for 78 points while they had scored 77 the prior four games.
The Spurs received universal acclaim after their 2014 championship for being the architects of "The Beautiful Game," and rightfully so. However, if the Spurs hadn't made life difficult for the world's best offensive talents, such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and LeBron James, then there would be no fifth banner hanging in the rafters of the AT&T Center. The flawless offensive execution from 2014 was intoxicating, but the 2015 season provided a sobering reminder that defense wins championships.
As the Spurs embark on another quest for their sixth ring, they have added exactly the type of dominant offensive player they needed in LaMarcus Aldridge. The city will grow to love him, and vice versa, and he will surely sink many a clutch playoff bucket in a Spurs uniform. But no one that watched the 2015 playoffs will be charmed by shot making alone ever again, even if it's as tantalizing as Aldridge's.
Points can be racked up in a number of ways, but the Spurs require Kawhi's defensive impact in order to win in the playoffs. Nobody on the team comes close to replicating what he brings on that end. He is, by far, the most important Spur.
To some, Leonard's poor play down the stretch was an indication that he was simply not the Spurs' franchise player. This could not be further from the truth. When Kawhi's defense was lacking and the team came up short against the Clippers, it became evident that the Spurs are his team. Because it's not just about how far he can take the Spurs anymore; it's how far they can't go without him.