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How Does Kawhi’s Return Affect The West?

Brandon Dill-AP Photo

In the top-heavy Western Conference, Kawhi Leonard’s return could make the Spurs a legitimate WCF threat.

Despite losing their best player in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last season, the San Antonio Spurs have enjoyed a strong start to this season, standing at 19-8, good for third in the conference. The team has been kept afloat this season thanks to the coaching of Gregg Popovich (as always), as well as the outstanding individual play of LaMarcus Aldridge. While struggling to adjust in his first two seasons in San Antonio, the veteran forward has carved out a role in Kawhi Leonard’s absence, ensuring that the team could absorb the loss of their MVP-caliber leader thus far.

All that changed December 11th as Kawhi returned to the club to take on the Dallas Mavericks. Although the Spurs fell to the lowly Mavericks 95-89, Leonard dropped 13 points on 50% shooting while grabbing 6 rebounds, and finished with a team-high +/- of +8. In the three games since his return, Leonard is working back slowly, averaging 10.7 point per game and 4.7 rebounds in 16.0 minutes, and the Spurs are 1-2 in those games. When Kawhi knocks the rust off and plays regular minutes, expect the Spurs to be a legitimate playoff threat.

You already know what Kawhi can bring to the table when he is fully healthy; he brings DPOY-caliber defense and one of the most complete offensive repertoires in the league. Kawhi was the only player in the league last season to rank top six in offensive and defensive win shares with 8.9 and 4.7, respectively. With the return of Leonard (perhaps the best two-way player in the league after LeBron James), the Spurs could make the leap to their usual perch as a perennial WCF threat. As shown by their impressive record, the Spurs were a dangerous team before Kawhi rejoined them, but now the top-heavy Western Conference could very well become a clear three-way race between the Spurs, Rockets, and Warriors.  

The Spurs already rank third in the league in defensive rating, and with Leonard’s return, it is quite possible that the Spurs could finish the year as the league’s best defensive team. The team runs a solid, fundamental-heavy offense, but they have struggled in scoring efficiently in Kawhi’s absence. This season, the Spurs have ranked 13th in the league in offensive efficiency (104.9) compared to their 7th mark last season (108.8), largely as a result of the lack of Kawhi’s efficient scoring. Last season, Kawhi was 12th in the league in true shooting percentage (and sixth among forwards), with a mark of 61.9%.

While Kawhi’s return might be most efficacious on the offensive end, the Spurs’ playoff aspirations are almost entirely dependent on their staunch defensive play. Their pre-Leonard record was certainly the result of their maintained defensive commitment; without Kawhi, they are third in the league in defensive efficiency (101.2) compared to last year’s league-best defensive mark of 100.9. Kawhi’s presence defending guards and forwards alike will certainly add a dimension of versatility to the San Antonio defense that has been missed through the first 27 games. 

The Spurs were off to a surprisingly solid start this year, and adding a player like Kawhi makes them downright scary. But the question every NBA fan should be asking now is: how do the Spurs match up with the class of the Western Conference, namely the Warriors and Spurs? While Houston and Golden State have been two of the most dominant teams in the league, the Spurs can realistically challenge both teams, come playoff time.

The matchup between the Warriors and Spurs present one of the more intriguing prospective series in the 2018 playoffs. Some of this has to do with the ‘revenge narrative’; San Antonio would seek retribution for their playoff ousting last year, notorious for Zaza Pachulia’s hard closeout that injured Leonard, virtually ending the Spurs’ playoff chances. Remember, the Spurs had a 21-point lead over the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2017 WCF before Leonard’s injury. Without their leader, the Spurs left the playoffs rather quietly, losing four consecutive games, but with their full complement of players, the Spurs will be a tough opponent.

As everyone knows, the Warriors revolutionized NBA offense with their high-octane, 3-point-heavy offensive attack, and the Spurs’ defense can be effective against it. So far this season (without Leonard), the Spurs have effectively defended the three-point line, and currently rank 7th in the league in opponents’ 3-point percentage. Last season, the Spurs allowed opponents to make 8.1 3-pointers per game, while the Warriors owned an 8-13 record when they made fewer than 10 shots from deep. The Golden State attack is still predicated on the 3-ball, they have averaged around 31 attempts per game, which led the league in 2015-16, but now ranks eighth, way behind Houston’s 43.2 attempts.


The X-Factor in a potential Spurs-Warriors matchup lies with their MVP candidates. Both are tall, athletic forwards whose careers have mirrored each other in the last few seasons, and as Kawhi settles in as a scorer, Durant has become more talented on the defensive end. In fact, this season, Durant is third in the league in blocks behind Myles Turner and Rudy Gobert with 2.2 per game. 

In fact, Durant and Leonard were quite comparable last season, finishing second (27.68) and third (27.62) in PER respectively. However, ESPN’s John Hollinger estimated that Kawhi added more wins for his team; Leonard added 21.1 compared to Durant’s 17.7. If San Antonio and Golden State do match up in the playoffs, expect Leonard and Durant’s play to even out, leaving the rest of the Spurs to deal with Curry and Co.

Much of what can be said for matching up with Golden State can also be said of Houston, as they have taken the Golden State playbook and infused it with their own up-tempo style under Mike D’Antoni. But if San Antonio plays Houston, they will most likely have Leonard, their best perimeter defender, matched up with James Harden rather than Kevin Durant. 

While neither is an envious assignment, Harden is arguably even more difficult to defend than Durant due to his limitless range and wizardry off the dribble. Currently leading the league in scoring, Harden is putting up 32.0 points per game while leading Houston’s devastating offensive attack. Against both teams, the game will be decided on the 3-point line, and on the glass; San Antonio, Houston and Golden State own a 3.6, 3.6 and 3.5 rebounding differential, respectively. Between the Spurs’ big lineup and Kawhi’s 16.3% rebounding percentage this season, Leonard might give San Antonio the edge in the matchup on the boards.

As Kawhi Leonard returns to the floor for San Antonio, it appears that the West has been reduced to a three-team race. The Oklahoma City Thunder will most likely make a run once they figure out their problems, but for now, the fate of the West belongs to the Texas teams and the Finals favorite Warriors. In the modern NBA, elite squads need a star that has the ability to take over games when necessary, like James Harden or any of the Warriors’ big four. 

Now that Kawhi is back, San Antonio can join that club (who can forget his scoring 21 of the last 25 points against Memphis in Game 4 of the WCSF last season). If Houston and Golden State meet for a series, expect fireworks and high scoring affairs, but if either team faces San Antonio, the Kawhi-led Spurs will look to show that the NBA’s second-oldest squad still has some defensive grit.

Edited by Brian Kang.

When was Kawhi Leonard selected in the 2011 NBA Draft?
Created 12/13/17
  1. Round 1, Pick 3
  2. Round 1, Pick 10
  3. Round 1, Pick 15
  4. Round 2, Pick 32

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