Kawhi Leonard is a consensus top-5 player in the NBA. The 15th overall pick in the 2011 draft has become the best player on the Spurs roster, already having multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards along with a Finals MVP trophy.
After suffering a mysterious quad injury during training camp, he made his first appearance this season Tuesday night in a loss at Dallas. While he was clearly not in game shape, he still managed to show flashes of his old self during his limited minutes.
The Spurs were able to exceed expectations without Leonard, going an impressive 19-8 led by LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay. Leonard is going to see a lot of time with the ball, which will assuredly change the roles for various players on the team, likely leading to a stretch of games with offensive confusion. With this, coach Pop will have to figure out how to balance the talent on the Spurs roster.
LaMarcus Aldridge was in trade talks during the offseason, and reportedly had a talk with coach Gregg Popovich about his involvement with the offense. Without Leonard, Aldridge has become the center of the offense, which has lead to success for the Spurs. This will definitely change with Leonard’s return, as Kawhi will become the primary ball handler. Pop has never played iso-ball with anyone as much as he has with Kawhi so it will be interesting to see how he balances the requests of Aldridge and the talent of Leonard.
Tony Parker will be glad to see Kawhi back. The French point guard is recovering from rupturing his left quadriceps tendon. While Parker is the leader of initiating the offense, Kawhi has taken away some of his touches in the past.
Parker has been playing on limited minutes due to his injury, and Leonard returning only means less responsibility for him while he recovers. In the long term, Leonard will continue to lighten the load for Parker, helping initiate the offense and giving more minutes to Patty Mills or Dejounte Murray.
Pau Gasol will likely lose a lot of his offensive responsibilities. Kawhi coming back means Aldridge is now the big that will see the most touches in Pop’s offense, making Pau become the pick and roll guru for the Spurs.
Danny Green will continue to be a great defender first, and a spot-up shooter second. He and Leonard make up arguably the best defensive wing presence in the NBA, and this will be crucial in games against the Warriors, Thunder, or Rockets. Green will no longer have to defend the primary offensive talent on the opposing team, which will only benefit his minutes and the Spurs effectiveness.
Rudy Gay has been a revelation for the Spurs. He is second on the team in scoring and has seen occasional starts in Kawhi’s absence. This will certainly change with Kawhi’s return, however, Gay has earned himself a spot in the Spurs small-ball lineup. Popovich will continue to find a way to put Gay on the floor, as his versatility and explosiveness is similar to what Jonathon Simmons brought last year.
Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, Brandon Paul, Patty Mills, and Manu Ginobili likely don’t see their roles change with Leonard returning. The guard play for the Spurs has been inconsistent at best, but the return of Leonard means less pressure on these guards to carry the load offensively.
Kyle Anderson is an interesting discussion for the Spurs. He saw many starts before he sprained his MCL in Oklahoma City. He was generally unimpressive, failing to find a niche for himself within the offense. He definitely won’t be starting anymore and has almost assuredly fallen behind Rudy Gay on the depth chart. It is unlikely he gets a large bulk of minutes outside of the occasional Popovich line-change style substitution.
Davis Bertans and Joffrey Lauvergne likely move to the garbage time role, with Lauvergne the most likely to work his way back up in the case that the Spurs don’t have to go small-ball.
The Spurs definitely aren’t the favorites in the West. They were a strong offensive team without Kawhi but struggled on defense in some games. Kawhi Leonard is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and will be a staple guarding the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis. He still needs time to get into game-ready shape, but when he does the Spurs will remain a dangerous threat to the title hopes of any Western Conference contender.