And thus, after being forced out of the 2017 playoffs with a sprained ankle, and then a late-September announcement that initially broke news of another injury (and simultaneously ruled him out of the preseason), followed by 27 games of wavering uncertainty, the only assurances that he’d be back “sooner rather than later”, the long wait for Kawhi Leonard’s return is over.
The search for knowledge has its limits (something I became aware of the first time I tried to understand what quadriceps tendinopathy even was), but it certainly seems like the day has arrived for Leonard, and that he, his coach, and Spurs fans can starting seeing what this team is capable of.
That’s not to say they haven’t been terrific in the meantime. The third-place Spurs are 19-8, winners of four straight, and have made the most of Leonard’s absence by working new guys in, developing their young talent, and allowing their other star to re-establish himself as a dominant force. Now, more than a third of the way through the season, they’ll be able to flex in a conference that’s looked like a two-horse race between the Warriors and Rockets.
21-4 Houston is on the docket for Friday; tonight, it’s their other in-state rivals, the lottery-bound Mavericks, who they’ll try to beat for a third time this year. The Mavs remain sneakily better than their bad record, but their biggest story this season is about seldom-used center Nerlens Noel sneaking into the media workroom at half-time to eat a hot dog.
Which is why I continue a question-laden preview with even more queries surrounding Leonard’s re-integration to this team.
San Antonio Spurs (19-8) at Dallas Mavericks (7-20)
December 12, 2017 | 7:30 PM CT
Watch: FSSW | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)
Spurs Injuries: Kawhi Leonard (quadriceps), Danny Green (groin), Kyle Anderson (knee)
Mavericks Injuries: Dorian Finney-Smith (knee), Dennis Smith, Jr. (hip), Josh McRoberts (knee), Nerlens Noel (thumb), Seth Curry (leg)
What kind of load does Kawhi carry?
Leonard had the NBA’s 8th-highest usage rate (31.2%) last season, which always felt a bit high, especially on a Spurs team and given the role he plays defensively. How is he implemented in 2017-18, fresh off an injury and with his second banana looking the freshest he has in a Spurs jersey?
What fun new lineups are in store?
The Spurs have already been dabbling plenty in small ball, and Leonard’s all-around excellence unlocks even more combinations for Pop to play around with. With so much shooting and so much length at their disposal, it will be exciting watching this team figure out its optimal combinations.
Will Leonard and Aldridge play off each other more in 2017-18?
While Leonard improved as a playmaker last season, bumping his assists per game to 3.5, the Spurs ran surprisingly few set plays between him and Aldridge. 47 of Leonard’s total 260 assists were to the big man, which isn’t extremely low, but is lower than many other wing-big combos around the league.
If the Spurs want to keep the newly re-inked Aldridge engaged and in rhythm, rely less on Leonard’s isolation game, and force defenses into some tough situations, a bit more of a two-man game between the two stars couldn’t hurt.
Vegas odds: Spurs by 7.5.
Game Prediction: Spurs by 10.
For the Mavericks’ fans perspective, visit Mavs Moneyball.
As always, Tony must dominate Fisher.
PtR's GameThread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR's Twitter feed.