The San Antonio Spurs slogged through much of the 2014-15 season.
They were 20-14 entering 2015 and went just 6-5 in February.
The NBA world has been predicting the end of the Spurs for years, but this season, more than any other, it looked as if the Spurs really were in decline.
Nope! The Spurs went 12-3 in March. They have won seven games in a row and 17 of their last 20. They’re now 51-26, their 16th straight season winning 50 or more games.
At the center of the surge has been the team’s health. Specifically, reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is finally healthy and playing the best basketball of this career. Since fully recovering from a hand injury, he has become the the Spurs’ most important player.
Since the All-Star break, Leonard is averaging 17.6 points, 52% shooting, 7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.6 steals, and 1 block per game. When Leonard is on the floor, the Spurs have a 108.5 offensive rating and a 96.8 defensive rating, which would rank third and first in the NBA, respectively, if they were sustained.
With Leonard on the court, the Spurs are outscoring their opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions. With Leonard off the floor, that number falls to 0.8 points.
Leonard’s importance was on display in the Spurs’ 107-92 demolition of the Golden State Warriors on Sunday.
He had 26 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 steals in 25 minutes. In the third quarter, he was tasked with guarding Stephen Curry, who had just gone on a 13-point explosion in two minutes.
Curry didn’t score again the rest of the quarter, and Leonard did this:
After the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr called Leonard “the best player on the floor,” while Gregg Popovich noted how confident Leonard is playing.
As the Spurs’ Big 3 of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili has aged, Leonard has become increasingly important on the offensive end while also consistently guarding the opposing team’s best player.
Ginobili describes Leonard’s importance to ESPN’s Michael Wallace:
“He’s playing with more patience. He knows the shots are going to come, so he doesn’t have to force and keep looking for his moment. We’re not dumb. We’re going to look for him. We need him to score like that. He understands that now.”
The Spurs’ system is such that no one player dominates, creating a deep roster filled with weapons, but Leonard’s importance is undeniable. The Spurs are 9-9 without Leonard and 42-17 when he plays, giving them a .711 win percentage that would have them second in the West.
Aside from the Warriors, the NBA’s Western Conference is wide open. If the Spurs stay healthy, they’re the Warriors’ top competition.
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