There have been times this season when many wondered what was wrong with the San Antonio Spurs? The defending champions haven't always looked the part, having entered the new year just six games above .500. This was supposed to be one of the league's juggernauts, yet we've often been left to wonder what's been missing in 2014-15.
The answer, as it turns out, was a healthy Kawhi Leonard. Now that he's back in the lineup and the Spurs have their complete collection of talent intact, we're seeing the signs of a great grizzly awakening from its winter slumber. San Antonio -- the one that left a pile of rubble en route to its fifth title a year ago -- is back.
That it happened once Leonard rejoined the lineup is no coincidence.
Leonard returned on Jan. 16 after missing roughly a month due to a hand injury. Without Leonard, San Antonio went just 7-8, dropping several spots in the Western Conference standings while the whispers of concern grew louder.
The team's numbers were ugly across the board, highlighted by a minus-1.1 net rating, per NBA.com. That's not exactly horrible -- the Knicks were outscored by 17.7 points per 100 possessions during the same period, for example -- but it's far from what you'd expect out of a championship contender.
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It was our latest reminder that the Spurs, as brilliant as they've been over the past two decades, are only a contender as long as their youngest star is healthy. When Leonard is out there and the Spurs have the whole machine humming, there aren't many teams in the league as thoroughly dominant on both sides of the floor.
In the three games since Leonard returned last week, the Spurs have posted a 3-0 record, with double-digit wins over Denver, Utah and Portland. The team is outscoring opponents by 15.4 points per 100 possessions, all despite Leonard not even playing his best yet (he's shot 42 percent from the field).
But even when Leonard isn't at his absolute best, his impact on the court is undeniable. The numbers for San Antonio with and without Leonard this year sum that up:
That's the difference between missing the playoffs and competing for a title in the West. Leonard, for all intents and purposes, is the primary difference between the Spurs finally aging and one more run at a Larry O'Brien trophy.
For a 23-year-old with an NBA Finals MVP already under his belt, Leonard doesn't always get the hype shared by his peers. However, there are few players as important to their team's title chances this season, and Leonard's recent injury only highlighted that. Now that he's healthy again, the Spurs are back to being one of the toughest opponents in the NBA.