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Paul Flannery | November 27, 2016

Sunday Shootaround: Kawhi Leonard speaks up, and the Spurs listen

Kawhi speaks, the Spurs listen

BOSTON -- Kawhi Leonard talks now. He talks to the coaches after timeouts and before the huddle. He talks to his teammates on the court, many of whom are new to San Antonio and the Spurs way of doing things. He talks on the plane and he talks in the locker room, making a point of being available to answer postgame questions.

Leonard has emerged this season a team leader. Of all the many internal developments that are taking place within the Spurs ecosystem, this may be the most important.

"He’s not just doing it by example anymore," Spurs guard Danny Green told me. "He’s leading by action."

This may not seem like a natural fit for player who is shy to the point of reticence, but it is a necessary one now that Tim Duncan has retired. The way Leonard sees it, he has the experience to voice his opinion.

"Definitely, I want to be vocal," he said. "If I see something they’re doing right, if I see something they’re doing wrong, I just want to point that out and keep getting better."

His methods are suitably subtle: a small conversation about proper spacing here, a note about pick-and-roll coverages there. Leonard is not demonstrative, flashy, or given to anything that would be in any way considered an antic. And that’s perfectly fine for the Spurs who were defined for two decades by Duncan’s steady, reserved persona.

"He’s never going to be a towel waver," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He speaks to me about things that he sees now. He comes into timeouts, if he’s not happy with what’s going on on the court. That’s all good.

"I’d rather have him do that than beat his chest and wiggle his shoulders and stare at the camera and all that other crap," Pop continued. "That doesn’t seem to make much sense. I’d rather have it the other way and work on him to be a leader in the timeouts, in the locker room, on the plane. That kind of stuff."

This is the latest step in Leonard’s remarkable evolution. Now in his sixth season and entering his athletic prime, Leonard is averaging over 25 points a game and taking on an even bigger role in the Spurs’ offense. His usage rate has spiked to over 30 percent of the team’s possessions while keeping his turnovers low, and shooting over 93 percent from the free throw line. He’s defending as he always has, smothering opposing wings and engulfing errant passes.

There’s a natural tendency to wonder how long he can keep this up. Many an emerging star has allowed their defense to take a step back when asked to step up more on the offensive end. It was one thing when Leonard was a cog in the Spurs machine, albeit a featured cog the last few years. It’s another to do so now when Duncan is no longer around to patrol the back line and hold everyone accountable. Naturally, Pop dismissed those concerns.

"He’s done it for us the entire time he’s been there," Popovich said. "At the offensive end, I think our players get less minutes than other players at those positions if I’m not mistaken. I don’t think he’s ever going to be worn out. I’m not going to play him like Latrell Sprewell. The bottom line is that he’s getting paid to do both. So get your ass out there and do both, if you want to know the truth. If you don’t want to do both then we’ll pay you $4 million."

Leonard’s backstory is one of the true wonders of this age. A mid first-round selection who arrived at the expense of Pop favorite George Hill, Leonard willed his way to the upper echelon through long hours and work with renowned skills coaches Chad Forcier and Chip Engelland. The Spurs initially wanted him to be a bigger version of Bruce Bowen. What they got was one of the best two-way forwards in the game.

"We’d be exaggerating if we said we knew what he was going to be," Pop said. "Kind of like Manu (Ginobili). Or Tony (Parker). It just worked out for us. We needed size when we made that trade. Kawhi had such size and we thought he had the foot speed to move from an inside player to the three position. So we decided to roll the bones and found out that he’s got the same attitude that Tim Duncan had. He comes early, he stays late, he wants to be great. He’s just a sponge."

This is how the Spurs do it. They find hidden gems in the draft and develop them into starters and useful rotation players. Every once in awhile a future Hall of Famer comes along. It’s scouting, it’s development, it’s players who have more to offer than meets the eye and are willing to work for it.

In his way, Leonard is the embodiment of everything the Spurs have stood for over the years. He’s a self-made player in a selfless system that needed a focal point. As it was for Duncan and as it was for Parker and Ginobili before him, it was simply his turn to take over.

Leonard’s evolution in the Spurs’ hierarchy has been so seamless that there is once again a tendency to take what he and the Spurs have accomplished for granted. That would be a mistake because while the wins and losses look the same in the standings, the methods look very different on the court.

In an era of small, they’ve doubled down on big. Having perfected pace-and-space, they’ve become a mid-range monster thanks to the additions of LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol. While the offense still hums along, there are visible cracks in the foundation. Without Duncan, their starters have not played the level of defense we’ve been accustomed to seeing.

Their salvation defensively to this point has come from an unlikely cast of characters making up their reserve unit that includes Patty Mills, Jonathon Simmons, David Lee, Davis Bertans, and the ageless Manu Ginobili. It is different and in a way change has been a little refreshing, even if it’s daunting to consider life without Timmy.

"It’s very different, a new look, a new locker room," Green said. "Not just without him but with all the new faces. We have a lot of new guys. We took it for granted the last three or four years that everybody knew where to be, knew where to go. Now it’s different. We have to actually talk it out, communicate with each other.

"One thing that Tim was great at that we took for granted, that everybody in our league took for granted, was how great he was for us defensively," Green added. "We’re still finding our way, blocking shots, playing pick and roll defense, rebounding. Tim did all those things for us regardless of how well he shot the ball. And he was a great passing big too. Those two things were big keys that we’re missing right now."

Even with all that, the Spurs are on a winning streak that reached nine in a row after beating the Wizards on Saturday. They are once again flying under the radar in classic Spurs fashion.

No discussion of contenders is complete without the Spurs, yet few place them alongside Golden State, Cleveland, and even the Clippers in the initial conversation. There are questions about their ability to match up athletically with the top teams and concerns about their defense that’s slipped from its elite perch. Still, they keep winning games.

As Celtics coach Brad Stevens put it: "They sleep, they eat, they go through your stuff and then they execute you to death and leave your arena successful."

The Spurs can’t be ignored, but they are far from a finished product. They’re not rebuilding, obviously, but they are retooling for life in a post Duncan world. Popovich has always taken the long view with the regular season. He uses the 82 games to experiment with lineups and personnel. Since he keeps his starters’ minutes in the low 30s, role players get chances to prove themselves. And there a lot of new roles to flesh out.

On Wednesday, Parker ran the show down the stretch in a win over Charlotte. On Friday it was his understudy Mills who received the crunch-time minutes. Bertans has been terrific with his shooting and athleticism. Lee has been resurrected as a backup big who brings rebounds, points, and energy. Against the Celtics, Pop benched his entire starting five after they fell behind by double digits. His second group stabilized the game and played a key role in the fourth quarter. The one constant throughout was Leonard.

"It’s not really developed yet, but tonight they were good," Popovich said. "Bertans was amazing. He and David Lee were super. Patty Mills off the bench was solid. Kawhi is Kawhi. We start to take him for granted."

The result was another win in somebody else’s building and another monster performance from their taciturn superstar. It’s just like old times for the Spurs, even if it all feels so new.

The ListConsumable NBA thoughts

It’s Thanksgiving weekend, so let’s celebrate the cornucopia of goodness the league has provided for us this season.

A new CBA is coming: Labor peace has been a fragile thing in the NBA since the ‘90s, but we appear to be heading toward a brand new day of harmony in the relationship between management and players. That fresh outlook couldn’t come at a better time because the league is basking in television money and positive press. All the while, the NFL gets raked for bad ratings and MLB seems headed toward its own labor precipice. With freakish young stars, juggernaut teams, and the best player of his generation still going strong, the NBA is poised to enter a new golden era at just the right moment.

Unicorns aplenty: The word of the year is Unicorn, a mythical 7-foot beast that shoots threes and can do everything else that big men are supposed to do on a court. Look around and you’ll find Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid and honorary pegasus Giannis Antetokounmpo. These guys are the future of the league and they haven’t come close to realizing their full potential yet. There is no limit to what these guys can do. The only barrier is their organization’s imagination.

Super teams are fun: Let’s be honest about something: the Warriors are the worst supervillains since Paste Pot Pete took on the Fantastic Four (look it up, true believers). They’re just not that evil, but they are really fun to watch when not laying waste to your favorite team. Love them or hate them, we have to acknowledge the Warriors, and the NBA is always stronger when there’s a team that attracts this much attention. The parity alternative is nice in theory but deadly dull in practice. The only thing the NBA can’t ever be is boring.

The LeBron era has been better than we acknowledge: Four MVPs, back-to-back titles in Miami, and six straight Finals appearances weren’t enough. It took winning a third championship after trailing 3-1 for everyone to appreciate just how special James has been to the game. LeBron may never match Michael Jordan’s ring count, but like Jordan, he has so thoroughly dominated his era that everyone else is tied for second. Savor this now because it won’t be long until we’re all looking for the next LeBron the way we waited for a MJ successor.

This year’s draft might be really, really good: We’ve been down this road many times in the past and we always seem to get it wrong. Hyped drafts wind up looking worse in retrospect and there are hidden gems scattered throughout weak ones. What makes this year’s pack of prospects so interesting is that there are at least five players in the running for the top pick and all are freshmen. Per DraftExpress, 13 of the top 16 players are first-year college players with one sophomore and a pair of international teenagers in the mix. That’s an awful lot of young talent to pick through over the next few months as teams inevitably fall back from the pack.

ICYMIor In Case You Missed It

Say WhatRamblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

"My desire to win here is the same. I go out there and play. I don’t care what the record is. I just go out there and play. I have to lead this team and make sure my guys are always happy and high energy. I don’t care what people say about our team. They’re not in our locker room seeing us, not part of our group. That’s all white noise." -- New Orleans forward Anthony Davis to the Vertical’s Shams Charania.

Reaction: That’s been AD’s refrain since he came into the league. He desperately wants to make it work in New Orleans and doesn’t really like it when people bring up the inevitable questions about his future. The good news is the Pels are starting to get it together since Jrue Holiday returned.

"Oh, no question (it’s) better now than ever. Like I’m saying, we both have matured so much, and our communication is amazing right now, so sometimes it takes time. That's what (happened) with me and (Blake Griffin), and there's nothing like it right now. We are having some of the most fun that we've had in our time together. -- Clipper guard Chris Paul to USA Today’s Sam Amick.

Reaction: You never know when things will click. That it’s taken the Clippers this long to reach their potential is a reminder that patience is a noble virtue in the NBA. Let’s assume they continue to roll and stay healthy (both strong assumptions, granted). If they can do both we will finally once and for all reckon with this incredibly strange 6-year run.

"What can I say about Mike Conley? He’s just getting closer and closer to the guy I want him to be; the killer I want him to be. I’m really proud of his openness to it and trying to adapt to what I want him to be." -- Memphis coach David Fizdale.

Reaction: Every generation has a player like Conley: underappreciated by everyone except those who watch him play every night. Conley is the best player in the league to never make an All-Star team and that should change this season if he can continue thriving in his expanded role in new coach David Fizdale’s offense.

"He’s a great player already. I didn’t do anything magical. He's just, he's playing great, he's being aggressive when he catches the ball in the post, getting to the free throw line, a big post threat for us." -- Cavs coach Ty Lue on Kevin Love.

Reaction: After dropping 40 on the Blazers, including 34 in the first quarter, Love is averaging a shade under 22 points a game. He’s also getting 10 rebounds a night, meaning he is once again a 20-10 player as he was in Minnesota. One of Lue’s big maneuvers after taking over the head job was to fully integrate Love into the team’s offensive structure. Love is no longer a forgotten man in the corner and the Cavs now have a true Big Three.

"Now the challenge — like we've been saying all the time — is to bring that same mindset and effort on the road. We have four on the road, all against good teams. All against teams that are .500 or better. It's going to be a really tough week." -- Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy after a win over the Clippers.

Reaction: The Pistons have steadied themselves after losing eight of 10 and are hovering around .500 without point guard Reggie Jackson. That’s a minor accomplishment considering how much Jackson means to their offense, but also an indication that Detroit wasn’t as solid as we suspected. Friday’s win over the Clippers was their finest performance with six players in double figures. They’ll need that balance on the road.

Vine Of The Weekfurther explanation unnecessary

The dunk contest has started early.

Designer: Josh Laincz | Producer: Tom Ziller | Editor: Tom Ziller

About the Author

After covering everything from 8-man football in Idaho to city politics in Boston, Paul came to SB Nation in 2013 to write about the NBA. He developed the Sunday Shootaround column and profiled players such as Damian Lillard, Draymond Green, and Isaiah Thomas. When not in arenas, he can usually be found running somewhere.

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