How Important is Kawhi Leonard to the San Antonio Spurs?

Kawhi Leonard does everything on the court from scoring clutch baskets to defending top opponents - all while rarely cracking a smile.

Kawhi Leonard was a bit of a disappointment this season.

After averaging 13.0 points on an efficient 56.5% from the field, 8.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.6 steals in his first 14 playoff games last season, the San Diego State Aztec improved in the NBA Finals, a clash between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat. Leonard averaged a double-double with 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds with 0.9 assists and 2.0 steals in the seven-game series for the ages.

He did so while matched up primarily against LeBron James.

Most people expected Leonard to embrace a bigger role in San Antonio's offense this season because of his Finals emergence, but it did not come to pass - at least not in the first half of the season.

Leonard's statistics after his first 41 games were slightly less significant than his numbers from last season's playoff push. He averaged 11.6 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.7 steals on 51.7% shooting and 32.7% from the three-point line before suffering a broken hand and missing 14 games during January and February. The Spurs went 8-6 during that span.

When he returned, the fortunes for both Leonard and the Spurs improved. Leonard went on to average 14.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.8 steals over his final 25 games. His first game back was also the beginning of a 19-game win streak for the Spurs.

Kawhi's ProductionPoints/GameReb/GameAst/GameSteals/GameFG%3PT%
'12-'13 Regular Season11.
'12-'13 Conference Playoffs13.
'12-'13 NBA Finals14.611.
'13-'14 First Half11.
'13-'14 Second Half14.
'13-'14 First Round11.

To be fair, most of the competition the Spurs faced during their streak was rather paltry, but Leonard improved on every number from his first half production and shot at his most effective rate from beyond the three-point line ever.

His first-round production against the Dallas Mavericks took a dip, but Leonard did what he needed to do: crashed the defensive glass, took open spot-up threes, drove when Dirk Nowitzki switched onto him, and posted up Monta Ellis when the two were matched up. Leonard, early in the third quarter of Game 7 hit two jumpers over Ellis on mid-range post-ups. Leonard, who's listed at 6'7" and 225 pounds, was able to take advantage of the 6'3" Ellis, who weighs 175.

Portland's choice of defender on Leonard will be highly contextual as the series evolves if they want to keep the Spurs in check.

In Game 1, Leonard immediately drew the match-up against Wesley Matthews. Matthews, 6'5" and 200 pounds, is a bit shorter than Leonard, and he took advantage of it. Kawhi attempted two post-ups early in the first quarter. The first he converted into a potential and-one opportunity, and the second he vacated in semi-transition. Conversely, while guarding Matthews, Leonard was able to leave his assignment whenever the Blazers attempted a shot; Matthews rarely crashes for rebounds and posed no threat to do so in Game 1. Kawhi snared four rebounds in the first six minutes.

Leonard found himself facing off with the lanky small forward Nicolas Batum around the seven-minute mark in the first quarter. Leonard attempted and missed a contested pull-up jump shot from the right elbow. Leonard and Batum continued their match-up when Manu Ginobili checked in and began to check Matthews.

On the second Spurs defensive possession with Ginobili on the floor, Leonard took advantage of Batum's floor balancing responsibility on a LaMarcus Aldridge post-up during which Batum found himself at the top of the key and being responsible for defending the fastbreak rather than attempting a rebound. Leonard's versatility was immediately on display as he hit the defensive glass, took five dribbles, and nailed a pull-up jumper in transition from the left elbow.

Leonard picked up his first foul and then defended the red hot Blazers point guard Damian Lillard on an inbounds play with five minutes left in the first quarter. Leonard switched onto Lillard because Mo Williams checked into the game, giving Parker a more preferable assignment.

The mismatches Leonard can create become apparent at this juncture of the game and are what makes him interesting to watch and integral for San Antonio's success. If Lillard tries to defend Leonard, Leonard should be a primary option on the post; if Batum cross-matches with Leonard, then both Parker and Ginobili have advantages over weaker defenders in Lillard and Williams.

Sure enough, when the Spurs recognized Lillard was attempting to cover Kawhi, they immediately went to him on the post. Even with a clunky move, Leonard overpowered the smaller defender and scored like he was able to do with Ellis in round one. Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts altered his assignments and placed Batum on Leonard, affording Ginobili the luxury of Lillard's defense.

Leonard exited the first quarter with six points and four rebounds and allowing only one shot attempt to his defensive assignment on a broken play resulting in a missed corner three by Matthews.

When Leonard entered the game with 8:36 remaining in the second quarter, the Spurs held a 41-23 lead.

Leonard suffered a disappointing stretch for the next four minutes. He surrendered his first points to his assignment when Robin Lopez screened him and Matthews drove left, finishing over Tim Duncan for a lay-up, made one of two free throw attempts that he earned while in transition, and clanked a step-back corner three when faced with a mismatch against Lopez, the Blazers center. But what helps Leonard stand out even when he's being quiet or even inefficient on offense is his defensive awareness on every possession.

With a 22-point lead and a few offensive gaffes in the minute prior, Leonard switched onto Williams after a Matthews screen. Leonard denied a Lopez screen and suffocated Williams in the corner forcing him, essentially, either to drive baseline into the waiting shot blocker, Duncan, or to attempt a skip pass over Leonard, both of which were ill-advised choices. Leonard deflected the ball off of the helpless Williams and created a turnover. This type of defensive possession would be lauded in a late-game situation, but Leonard plays every possession with this type of focus.

What followed was Lopez block of a Parker lay-up, the Spurs denying a semi-transition bucket and forcing a turnover, and a Leonard-to-Parker-to-Leonard two-on-one dunk for Kawhi. Still with a 22-point lead, Leonard was hustling not only to score a transition dunk but also to stifle a potential transition basket for the Blazers.

While the game was ultimately a let-down after the amazing first round of the playoffs, watching Leonard's amorphous offense and his determined defense is like a Spurs spin-off series. If Game 1 is any indication for how the rest of the series will play out, there may not be much else to be excited about, but Leonard will always be genuinely fascinating with his role on this team, his position as an emerging stud who is still the fourth (or even fifth) offensive option in a given line-up.

If you still need proof that Leonard is going to bring it, just recall the last possession of the first half. The Spurs were up by 26 points, and there were five seconds left in the half when Lillard spun around Parker and drove toward the hoop from half court. With 2.9 seconds left, Matthews rotated from the wing to the top of the three-point arc, about 26 feet from the hoop.

Leonard broke into a sprint and stole Lillard's pass to Matthews as the first half buzzer rang to make sure the Blazers couldn't cut the deficit to 23 points.

In true Kawhi spirit, I finished watching the game, watching every possession intently. The Blazers never came within 20 points of the Spurs in the second half, but you wouldn't know that from watching Leonard. Cycling through assignments on Matthews, Batum, and Lillard, Leonard allowed two second-half shot attempts: a contested Batum jumper from the free throw line that hit only the backboard, and an errant step-back Lillard three-point attempt.

Leonard's play won't put him on the top 10 highlight reels or make him a fantasy standout any time soon. He continues to post his modest-yet-productive lines, including Game 1's 16 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 steals, but he's a basketball player, and he does everything right. He didn't walk off the court to a standing ovation after a cherry-picking breakaway dunk in a 21-point game with three minutes to play, and he's not likely to make a name for himself while trading three-point bombs with LeBron like Paul George did last season.

Instead, with that 21-point lead and three minutes left, Leonard set a pindown screen for Marco Belinelli to score his 19th point on a wide open jumper, earning himself nothing more than a subdued low five from Duncan and Ginobili as he checked out of the game.