The sustained success of the San Antonio Spurs is essentially unparalleled in American professional sports. They've made the playoffs in all 16 seasons of Tim Duncan's career and have finished in the top half of the notoriously difficult Western Conference 14 of the last 15 seasons. The Spurs have done it by mining international turf for both stars and essential role players. They've done by killing the draft. They've done it by spending smart in free agency instead of spending big.
Perhaps most impressively of all, they've done it on their own terms. San Antonio owes no small part of its incredible run to a culture that weeds out hundreds of players who would otherwise be considered valuable around the league. No one represents the Spurs' emphasis on character and fundamentals quite like the team's next star, Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard broke out in the NBA Finals last season as a 21-year-old in only his second year in the league. He went toe-to-toe with the best player of his generation, LeBron James, and more than held his own on both ends of the court. While that type of assignment would be a daunting task physically and mentally for anyone else, Leonard never seemed off-kilter.
"Kawhi has never spoken to me," coach Gregg Popovich said during the Finals, "so I don't really know what his level of confidence is."
The Spurs would fall to Miami in a heartbreaking Game 7, but don't think the added exposure turned Leonard into a willing celebrity. His typically stone-faced demeanor was on full display at this year's Media Day:
And the most Kawhi exchange ever. Q: Do anything fun this summer? A: No— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) September 30, 2013
You don't have to wonder why Popovich and Spurs brass love Leonard so much. They're far from the only ones.
Leonard's versatile and tenacious defense combined with his ability to impact games offensively without hogging the ball has made him a favorite of savvy basketball fans the last two seasons. He's become the prototypical "three-and-D" player before turning 22 years old, but that might not be enough moving forward. As Duncan and Manu Ginobili head for the twilight of their careers, Leonard's role will only become more expansive. If the Spurs are going to keep the dynasty rolling forward, Leonard is as critical to the team's success as any one player.
Leonard has fit in seamlessly in San Antonio because he knows what he's good at and sticks to it. Leonard was third on the Spurs in points per game last season with the eighth-highest usage rate on the team among those that played regular minutes. He ended just 16.4 percent of San Antonio's offensive possessions last season, which ranked 245th in the league. Efficiency is one of his greatest strengths.
To the point: Leonard took more attempts at the rim last season than any other spot on the floor and converted an impressive 68 percent of his 240 attempts, according to Baskeball Reference. He also hit 52 three-pointers from the corners and did it at a 43 percent clip, according to the NBA's media-only stats site.
What Leonard is really good at, though, is defense. Blessed with mutant-like hands and a 7'3 wingspan, Leonard is specially equipped to be a great defender. He's capitalized on those attributes by becoming a young master of footwork, timing and anticipation within the Spurs' scheme. The Spurs' defense went from allowing an average of 101.1 points per 100 possessions without Leonard on the floor to surrendering just 96.8 with him, according to the NBA's media-only stats site. Leonard was a major reason why James' shooting percentage dipped from 56 percent in the regular season to 44.7 percent in the Finals. It gained him national attention he might not have been looking for but definitely deserved.
What makes all of this so remarkable is that Leonard wasn't even alive when Michael Jordan won his first championship. Now 22 years old, Leonard will be expected to continue to make strides in his game. His field goal percentage, three-point percentage and PER each remained identical from his rookie season to his second year. There's certainly something to be said about playing within one's self, but eventually the Spurs will need Leonard to bite off more responsibility.
San Antonio has no reason to doubt Leonard will continue to grow. Dynasties don't survive without a fresh supply of reinforcements, and Leonard plays with the look and feel of what's made the Spurs so great for almost two decades. Remember: just because Kawhi Leonard moves in silence doesn't mean he isn't making noise.