Gregg Popovich is a pretty accomplished coach, but Kawhi Leonard may be his greatest work yet.
First, a brief recap of the legendary coach’s historic resume. He’s won five NBA championships, been named Coach of the Year thrice and with his 1,090-485 record, he is 302.5 games over .500, second only to Phil Jackson’s 335. It’s reasonable to project him passing Jackson sometime next season as the all-time leader.
Popovich has also coached one of the greatest players in history: Tim Duncan. Together, they ran off an unmatched string of 17 straight 50-win seasons — 19 if you count the strike-shortened season where they only played 50 games but won the NBA championship.
Duncan and Popovich composed the model player/coach tandem, and many wondered if the coach would even stay on after his star pupil left.
Certainly, all they achieved together was great, but let’s bear one thing in mind: Duncan was destined for it. He earned his “Big Fundamental” moniker before he ever played an NBA game. He was the No. 1 pick in the draft. And he was there with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal before him and LeBron James after him as players whom we knew would be franchise players and all-time greats.
Most coaches would have thrived with Duncan. That’s in stark contrast with Leonard.
When the Spurs swapped George Hill in the 2011 draft for the No. 15 pick, that wasn’t the case. It’s not that hoops heads panned the trade; in fact, most thought it was a good move. But that was because of the totality of the trade and what the Spurs gave up and got back, which included a pick they used on Cory Joseph in the deal, too (and another they used on Davis Bertans).
Folks liked the deal, but nobody was predicting that the future of the franchise was Leonard.
DraftExpress projected at the time:
The top ranked wing on our Big Board, Kawhi Leonard’s stock is based primarily on his physical attributes, defensive abilities, and upside, so it’s not a huge surprise that he doesn’t fare very well from a purely statistical standpoint. His profile strongly indicates that he’s destined to play a complimentary role in the NBA, at least in his first few seasons.
And let’s be real, if GMs viewed him as a potential franchise player at the time, he wouldn’t have been there for the picking at No. 15.
Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins describes what happened next: “When the Spurs acquired Leonard out of SDSU in 2011, through a draft-day trade with the Pacers, they flew him to San Antonio for a meeting with coach Gregg Popovich. ‘He was as serious as a heart attack,’ Popovich recalls. Needless to say, they hit it off, and Leonard slid comfortably into the Spurs’ hardwood monastery.”
That just begs, “When Gregg Popovich thinks you’re serious” memes.
It was a perfect fit between coach and rookie, and the perfect mentor was there in Duncan. Rumor has it that once the two had such a laugh together they almost smiled.
Sometimes we confuse lack of emotion with lack of caring, and that wasn’t the case with Kawhi, much as it was with Duncan. He dedicated himself to his craft:
“He wants the greatness badly,” Popovich says. “He doesn’t give a damn about the stardom.” You won’t find him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You probably won’t catch him in a photo shoot, on a red carpet or at an awards ceremony, even if he is the guest of honor. Check that—especially if he is the guest of honor. “He loves the game,” Popovich continues. “He ignores the rest of it.”
What Pop received was a valuable, hard-working lump of clay with tremendous potential. And what he did with that is help Leonard become the best possible player he could be, and one who has forced his way into “best player” conversation. Year by year, Leonard has improved, and Pop has been there to help him along. And not just any coach could do that. He learned to speak Leonard’s language, says Jenkins:
When Kawhi makes a mistake, he’s almost apologetic,” Popovich says. “He doesn’t want to disappoint anybody. There are times he does something well, and I have to tell him, ‘That was super. That was fantastic. That was a helluva job. You can smile now. You can feel great about yourself.’
Popovich has a history of getting the most out of his players. Guys like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who had undeniable talents but also had flaws. Popovich turned them into future Hall of Famers by helping them fill in the holes and utilizing them in a way that gave them the best opportunity to succeed.
Guys like Danny Green and Boris Diaw saw their careers salvaged under his tutelage. Other guys like Patty Mills and Joseph have real NBA careers that may have never happened had they not played with Mr. Grumpy Interview. A huge key to Popovich’s success has always been player development, but Leonard is his opus.
Popovich has coaxed greatness out of his protege’s raw potential, first molding him into the greatest wing defender since Scottie Pippen (and maybe even better than that). Leonard is now the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Alongside that, the coach and player nurtured Kawhi’s offensive acumen as well. When Leonard won Finals MVP, his numbers weren’t spectacular, but they weren’t bad at 17.8 points, 6.4 boards and 2.0 assists per game. He won more for his defense on LeBron James, but he topped 20 points in each of the last three games, suggesting that more than defense might be lurking there. This was no Bruce Bowen. It still took a couple of more years for him to prove that.
Over his career, Leonard keeps improving his offense, one skill at a time, one year at a time. And as he’s done that, Popovich has entrusted him with more touches, and Leonard has rewarded that faith by becoming an increasingly dangerous scorer. Last season, adding a consistent three-point shot (44.3 percent) made him a 20-point scorer:
It was enough to earn Leonard a second-place finish in the MVP voting. But there was still a hesitancy to include him as one of the truly elite players because he didn’t seem to have the “that guy” mentality or ability. Could he pick up a team by the scruff of its neck and carry it forward?
On opening night, it sure looked like that’s the next step for Leonard, and he’s taking it with a Kawhi-sized leap. The Golden State Warriors were trying to get back into the game, but Leonard ended that with a sequence of plays that shut down everything:
It was a remarkable series of events for Leonard on a remarkable night. He scored a career-high 35 points with a 63.4 true shooting percentage. On the court with Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant — the last three MVP winners — it was “The Klaw” who looked like the best player on the court, dominating on both sides of it.
There can be little question now that he is among the elite in the league. If you still doubt that, you just haven’t been paying attention. But unlike Duncan, who was going to be a franchise great wherever he went, with Leonard maybe not every coach would know how to speak to him, or more importantly, how to hear a man who barely talks. This is Pop’s doing as well.
He saw greatness in that lump of clay. And in the Spurs’ first regular-season game without their greatest franchise player in two decades, the future was there, ready to carry on the tradition in the image of both Pop and Duncan.