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The Spurs Might Be the Best Team in Basketball — Again

That’s a statement that’s rung true many times over the past two decades. But this Kawhi Leonard–powered San Antonio squad is unlike any we’ve seen in the Popovich era.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Spurs won five titles over two decades by shape-shifting their style to best complement their personnel and to best combat their opponent, whether it was matching the bully ball of the late 1990s with the Twin Towers, or assimilating like they did against the Seven Seconds or Less Suns with a European-influenced system, or in recent years going against the grain as midrange-shooting leaders in a 3-point-dominated league. But through its countless mutations, the Spurs style has retained an equal-opportunity feel resembling a basketball democracy. Since Gregg Popovich took over as the team’s head coach during the 1996–97 season, a Spurs player’s usage has rarely been a talking point: Tony Parker has the highest usage percentage in an individual season (31.7 in 2008–09). Tim Duncan’s career high of 29.7 came in 2003–04. Manu Ginobili never eclipsed 29. No one else finished with a percentage over 30 in a season, per Basketball-Reference. A dearth of high-usage stars is a byproduct of a philosophy that emphasizes playing “good to great” by finding the open man.

Times are changing once again, though. Parker and Ginobili are inching closer to the basketball retirement home. Duncan is already there, waiting. Kawhi Leonard is the captain now. This season, Leonard’s usage percentage is 31.2, and it’s rising rapidly. Over Leonard’s past 20 games, he has a 34.2 usage percentage, which would rank behind only Russell Westbrook, Joel Embiid, and DeMarcus Cousins over the full year.

The Spurs are featuring Leonard like the superstar he’s become. They haven’t moved away from their signature ball movement, but in a post-Duncan era, they’re leaning on Kawhi as much as they’ve ever leaned on any one player. This is a continuation of a trend:

In the five years they played together, as Duncan’s role declined, Leonard’s rose. Duncan’s steady descent afforded the Spurs time to develop Leonard into one of the league’s dominant scorers. Kawhi scores 1.11 points per possession, per Synergy, which ranks behind only Kevin Durant and Isaiah Thomas (of players to log at least 1000 possessions). He ranks in the 90th percentile or higher in three Synergy play types: pick-and-roll, spot-up, and post-ups; in the 75th percentile or higher in transition, handoffs, and cuts.

Above all else, Leonard’s pick-and-roll acumen has improved. Kawhi’s pick-and-roll possessions have grown exponentially over the past two seasons: In 2014–15, 10.1 percent of his possessions came out of the pick-and-roll, a figure which jumped to 13.7 percent in 2015–16 and 25.6 percent this season. Leonard scores 1.06 points per possession on those plays, which ranks ahead of Kyle Lowry, James Harden, and Isaiah Thomas. Not only is Kawhi the one defender who gives LeBron James nightmares, but the Spurs can feature him as a superstar scorer in game-deciding situations.

Pull-up 3-pointers over the defense wasn’t part of Leonard’s skill set just a few seasons ago. It’s the final piece of the puzzle. The clutch 3 over the Rockets defense followed by a heroic chase-down block on Harden (and then a rebound, plus two game-clinching free throws) was the sequence of the season. It transfixed the entire basketball world; it was Kawhi’s MVP moment. “The block is what makes him special,” Popovich said. “Kawhi wanted it badly, and he went and took it.”

Leonard is a Finals MVP, the back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, and will soon be named to his second All-NBA First Team. And NBA MVP is now within his grasp.

Leonard has prolonged the Spurs dynasty in a way few stars have done in the past. David Robinson, one of the premier 1990s big men, passed the torch to Duncan — arguably the greatest power forward of all time — who then passed it to Leonard, arguably the best two-way player in the NBA. Let that soak in. How many other instances are there in professional sports in which a star played alongside his heir apparent, who went on to become a star? Mario Lemieux to Sidney Crosby. Ronaldinho to Lionel Messi. Joe Montana to Steve Young. Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. Lou Gehrig to Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle. There aren’t many more examples that have created that kind of talent chain, and even fewer examples of franchises turning a chain into a pipeline.

What’s happening in San Antonio is atypical, not just in basketball, but in all of sports. It’s rare because it takes more than just good fortune. It takes extraordinary circumstances. NBA Twitter often jokes that Leonard is a cyborg created in a Spurs basketball factory, and that both acknowledges and belies the fact that he’s a product of diligent work by the whole organization: Popovich’s coaching and leadership; R.C. Buford and the scouting staff’s eye for talent; Chip Engelland’s shooting wizardry; the example set by Duncan, Manu, and Parker; and, most importantly, Leonard’s own work ethic.

If any organization is light-years ahead, it’s the Spurs. They’ve been the best team in basketball for nearly two decades, and they might end up with the best record this season. They’re still only two games back from the Warriors for the best record in the NBA. Las Vegas set the Spurs’ over/under at 56.5 wins and they’re already at 50 wins with 18 games left. They won nine in a row before falling to the Thunder on Thursday.

On Saturday night, the Spurs will host the sputtering Warriors, who have lost three of five games since Kevin Durant got hurt last week. The Spurs are 1–0 versus the Dubs and a win Saturday could move them within one game of the best record in NBA. A lot has changed in the world and in basketball since late October, but the Spurs and Warriors have remained consistent. Their units have developed better chemistry and there have been rotation tweaks, but, for the most part, the song remains the same. Leonard is still dominating and he’s only getting better. LaMarcus Aldridge is a reliable secondary scorer. Parker and Ginobili are still going steady. Patty Mills is one of the best backup point guards in the NBA. Danny Green and Jonathon Simmons are impactful, versatile wings.

The Warriors will be a different monster once Durant returns and they shorten their playoff rotation. The Dubs are league outliers, but so are the Spurs. One loss to the Thunder shouldn’t change the conversation, especially when Leonard sat the final 14 minutes of the game due to an apparent hit on the mouth. The Spurs were down by only 10 at that point, which is well within their striking distance. Leads have not been safe around San Antonio all season — the team’s comeback win from a season-high 28 points down against the Kings earlier this week is the ultimate testament of that; so is their league-leading win percentage in crunch time when trailing by five or less in the final five minutes. San Antonio could’ve made a game of it, but having a rested Kawhi against the Warriors is more important than fighting to keep a win streak alive.

Just like last year, when both San Antonio and Golden State chased historic seasons, the two teams once again are head and shoulders above the rest of the league. The Spurs and Warriors are the only two teams in the NBA with both a top-five offensive rating and defensive rating over the past two seasons (and no other team has had a net rating over 6.3).

Before the season, the perception was that the Spurs featured a declining Aldridge, defensive sloths Pau Gasol and David Lee, and a retread center in Dewayne Dedmon, and you wondered how they’d ever defend other elite teams. Yet they’re tied with the Warriors for the league’s best half-court defense, allowing only 89.4 points per 100 possessions, per Synergy. Their defense was bolstered by a recent lineup change that looks like another stroke of genius by Pop. Gasol was sent to the bench for Dedmon, whose rebounding and rim protection have enhanced the starting unit, while Gasol looks like Gasol of old.

NBA agent Warren LeGarie spoke recently on a Sloan Sports Analytics Conference panel and referred to San Antonio as a “coach carwash” where coaches can go, get cleaned up, learn new tricks, and come out more appealing to teams. The same can be said for aging players like Gasol. It’s as if the players are sponges and Popovich is squeezing every bit of talent out until it’s dry. Before this season, Gasol started all but 13 games in his career, and usually players are moved to the bench because their time is up. Gasol looked dunzo the last two years in Chicago. But he is now having the second-most-efficient scoring season of his career and looks even more rejuvenated coming off the bench; his scoring output has increased while the defensive burden is lifted, and the Spurs have better lineup balance.

The Spurs’ magical spell is working. Still, their playoff destiny can only be determined by their singular superstar. Leonard is becoming the nightly go-to presence that they haven’t needed for years, even during the Duncan era, when Ginobili or Parker could spell Duncan as the alpha. This is an unprecedented season for Popovich’s Spurs. This is a moment for Leonard to transcend and take the franchise along with him.