For most of this season, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs haven’t really looked like defending champions at all. They haven’t been terrible, still well over .500 at 27-16 and sitting in the seventh playoff spot in the Western Conference. But this is the Spurs, a team that typically dominates the regular season without even trying, and this season’s results have been nowhere near their usual excellent standards.
Injuries have been the paramount reason for San Antonio’s mini-struggles during the first half of the season, as the Spurs have been without some key ingredients to their finely crafted team chemistry. Three starters, Tiago Splitter, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard have all missed more than a dozen games, which has made it difficult for this team to string together any kind of continuous win streak or develop much consistency.
Injuries aren’t necessarily a surprise for a team as old as San Antonio, but coach Gregg Popovich has historically gone to great pains to keep his players healthy, because when your brand of basketball relies on impeccable ball movement and precise timing, continuity is your most valuable tool. That showed big-time in December, when the Spurs went 8-10 without key contributors.
Since the holiday season, however, Splitter seems to have gotten past his nagging injury, Parker has returned, and apparently most important, Leonard is back at full-strength after tearing a ligament in his shooting hand. It’s no coincidence that Leonard has played in four games since his return and that the Spurs have won all of them. While no one on San Antonio’s roster can directly duplicate what Parker and Splitter do, each of them has a direct backup to fill in for them: Patty Mills and Cory Joseph at the point, with Boris Diaw and even Aron Baynes down low.
There is no such backup for Leonard. The Spurs have been sliding Danny Green from shooting guard to small forward in Leonard’s absence and spelling him with the likes of Marco Belinelli and the now-former-Spur Austin Daye. Obviously, this trio of NBA journeymen has not been able to replicate the diverse production of a budding superstar. Green and Belinelli stretch the floor well on offense, but that’s about it, and on defense, neither of them sniffs the type of impact that Leonard can make as one of the best wing defenders in the league. Given his physical gifts, technical skills, and mental competitiveness, Leonard is simply a unique wing player who cannot be replaced by just anyone.
That’s why the Spurs are just 9-9 in games without Leonard, and 18-7 in games when he’s played. They’re a +13 when Leonard plays, with a 108 offensive rating and 95 on defense, versus a virtually deadlocked 102.6 and 103 on offense and defense, respectively, when he doesn’t. Those numbers support what we already know about Leonard’s importance to this team, and in a way, they emphasize it even more. Leonard hasn’t even played up to full-strength yet, as he’s shooting just 45% from the field, and yet just his sheer presence as already helped the Spurs run off four-straight wins since his return.