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Spurs 50 for 50, Number 6: Kawhi Leonard

You knew it was coming.

2013 NBA Finals - San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

This year the Spurs are celebrating their 50th season in San Antonio. There have been many highs and a few lows. One trademark of the San Antonio Spurs has been their culture and consistency. The keys to those qualities lie in their players. Always noted for development as well as being ahead of the curve on scouting international players, the Spurs way has made them one of the most successful organizations of all time. As we look back on the Silver and Black, we recognize the top 50 players in franchise history. Each day, we will move up the countdown.

Number 6: Kawhi Leonard


OK, liste—


Look, it’s possible that it’s still too soon for some fans to unpack Kawhi Leonard as a Spur, much less wax emotional about the undeniable highs and singular moments he made possible between 2011 and 2017, which now feel buried away in not only our collective memories but in the #TBT highlight packages the team may share on social media or in the arena. What shared joy there was in rewatching Leonard snatch a young Ben McLemore’s soul multiple times at half court, come into his own in the Finals by matching up with LeBron James, or single-handedly taking on the Warriors at the peak of their powers for one fleetingly glorious half of playoff basketball, is mostly gone.

And that makes sense for all the reasons we needn’t rehash in detail here. Leonard’s season-long standoff in 2017-18, which culminated in his offseason trade to Toronto, was a sea change for the franchise, a gut punch that’s left the Spurs staggering to this day. It would’ve soured any fanbase on a guy, but in San Antonio’s drama-averse, value-heavy climate, the affront stung even more.

Still, there’s a whole generation of Spurs fandom that enjoyed the team’s last great run through Leonard’s arc, from a draft night trade that breathed new life into the organization, to an early, and prophetic 2012 quote from his coach proclaiming him the future of the franchise, to each postseason, in which Leonard seemed to tease his next stage of growth by taking his game to a new level, upgrading his offensive toolkit to match the already dominant defensive side of the ball. All of that, collectively — the team’s brilliance in going after him; his rise from tentative but talented starter to superstar; the subdued, seemingly monastic demeanor that came with it — only fed into people’s image of Spurs exceptionalism. Look at these jumps:

  • 2011-12 regular season and playoffs: from 7.9 ppg and 5.1 rpg to 8.6/5.6
  • 2012-13: from 11.9/6 to 13.5/9
  • 2013-14: 12.8/6.2 to 14.3/6.7
  • 2014-15: 16.5/7.2 to 20.3/7.4
  • 2015-16: 21.2 to 22.5
  • 2016-17: 25.5 and 3.5 assists per game to 27.7 and 4.6

In his abridged tenure in San Antonio, Leonard provided no shortage of playoff moments. 2017 included a big series against Memphis and a fun back-and-forth with James Harden later on, in which he followed up the go-ahead three-pointer with an incredible block, pinning Harden’s layup against the backboard.

His two-way play throughout the 2014 title run helped make him a household name, and his putback dunk against the Heat is one of the series’ most lasting images.

For my money, nothing beats this play in Game 6 against the Thunder, whose combination of talent and athleticism had an air of inevitability, partially due to the scars of the 2013 Finals and a 2012 exit at their hands, plus the fact that the Spurs were simply the older, creakier group. So when Russell Westbrook galloped down the floor on a 3-on-2 break in overtime and caught a lead pass with a chance to give OKC the late lead, everything seemed in jeopardy. Then Leonard, in one fluid, perfectly timed motion, pawed Westbrook’s mortal attempt in a manner few athletes could replicate and casually pushed the ball the other way.

To watch Leonard through those years was to be constantly shocked at what would come next from an objectively unlikely rising star — whether it was a behind-the-back dunk on a 1-on-2 break or a bold new move in the mid-range — only to see none of that emotion reflected on his face as he jogged back the other way. The robot jokes wrote themselves, as did the narratives anointing him the next Tim Duncan. Maybe it’s that same detachment that made it easy to disprove those expectations when the time came.

The boos will continue to rain down on Leonard as he returns to San Antonio in the years to come, a place where he was for a meaningful stretch of our lives a major bright spot. Part of me hopes that some reconciliation on both sides will eventually follow.

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