What If Kawhi Leonard Doesn’t Become a San Antonio Spurs Superstar This Season?

Kawhi Leonard has largely been a quiet standout for the San Antonio Spurs, but the small forward has proven he holds the potential of becoming a top NBA player.

That statement is not exactly ground-shaking, especially given his elite showing during the 2013 finals. The Miami Heat may have won the series, but Leonard’s hype train began rumbling at a dangerous speed.

He was soon heralded as the next best thing, and it was supposed to be an immediate change for the aging Spurs—a changing of the guard, per se. The former first-round pick certainly improved throughout the most recent campaign, but ever-so-fractionally, to be honest.

Of course, Leonard proceeded to absolutely dominate the final three games of the 2014 finals, making him one of the league’s most interesting subjects.

Consequently, he will once again be expected to make a leap into superstardom, but is the vaunted Spurs’ system actually stunting the 23-year-old’s development into an elite NBA star?

Not one San Antonio player averaged more than 30 minutes per game last season, which is either fantastic or somewhat perplexing. Fantastic, because Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are definite beneficiaries of Gregg Popovich’s scheme. And perplexing, because Leonard appears so close to placing himself among the league’s best individual talents.

An obvious explanation is “that’s just the way it works in San Antonio,” so he will continue to occupy a complementary role. Right now, Leonard is essentially a leading 3-and-D player, with the emphasis leaning toward his stellar defense since he has knocked down a modest 37.6 percent from distance.

“Can he be a star?” ESPN’s Amin Elhassan (subscription required) asked.

In the traditional sense, probably not. His offensive repertoire is not refined or diverse enough to allow him to be the main engine that powers a team’s offense. Similarly, he appears to lack the disposition to instinctively assume that role, as evidenced by the muted performances he put up in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals.

However, Leonard’s most consistent aggressive displays occur during the postseason, where he has increased his points, rebounds and steals outputs each year.  The 6’7″ wingman occasionally exhibits a fearless nature, clearly seen when he spotted up and buried a jumper in LeBron James’ face multiple times last June.

Despite being guarded by one of the league’s premier defenders, Leonard simply did not flinch. That’s just one example of the strides San Antonio knows he is capable of making, but his typically passive style still persists as a lingering question.

Will he be ready to flip the switch when Duncan and Ginobili retire, something that very realistically happens following the 2014-15 season? Or, will another season of being the third or fourth option slowly turn him into a player who only thrives as an under-the-radar component?

Note: One of Leonard’s previously mentioned spot-ups over LeBron is the second clip in the accompanying video.

San Antonio’s team-oriented scheme is flat-out fun to watch, but its longevity is clearly an issue. The retirements of both Duncan and Ginobili feel much closer after the Spurs earned another ring, and Popovich’s replacement cannot perfectly replicate what the team is currently doing.

Leonard’s reserved attitude causes doubts that he’ll be able to instinctively assume the role of a leading playmaker, so the Spurs need to see exactly that this season. The elderly version of the Big Three remains, and it’s a perfect opportunity to hand a budding star more responsibilities.

The Spurs often win handily, so Leonard has rarely, if ever been required to take a over game. He manages some key plays down the stretch, but the fourth-year pro can learn hero-ball without the pressure of being expected to drain the clutch shot every time.

Additionally, he can be the primary focus in more offensive sets, most notably an extremely successful and slightly tweaked version of the pick-and-roll. Instead of just rubbing around a screen, Leonard starts at the top of the key, dishes to a teammate at the free-throw line before securing a return pass as he slashes toward the rim.

Utilizing him more in the half-court offense will pay prospective dividends since Leonard is not a shot creator, which makes the aforementioned play so beautiful. It’s an elementary combination that can be completed with an end-of-the-bench guy—heck, even you can throw the pass.

San Antonio need not abandon its championship-caliber system and rush him into superstardom, but it still must take steps to ensure Leonard progresses into what scattered performances have displayed. 

This kid is special, and elite potential is written all over him. But Leonard should receive more opportunities to grow while playing alongside three of the finest players the NBA has ever seen.

If the Spurs ignore his necessary progression, it will set back their future successes. And that’s exactly what a perennially premier franchise does not want to encounter.

 

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

Follow Bleacher Report NBA writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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Ray Allen’s Next NBA Stop Should Be with San Antonio Spurs

For quite some time, NBA veteran Ray Allen was public enemy No. 1 in the city of San Antonio.

Not that most San Antonio Spurs fans need reminding, but in the 2013 Finals, the then-Miami Heat shooting guard completed a miraculous Game 6 comeback with a three-pointer that extended the series, which Miami would go on to win.

So, when news broke that the Spurs were interested in Allen, a free agent searching for a home to spend the coda of his career, it initially came as a bit of a shock.

But San Antonio, with one final roster spot to fill, is smart to give Allen ample consideration. A talented player who fits the system, Allen would join a championship roster in search of his third ring with a third team.

With the mutual benefits too glaring to ignore, the Spurs front office should take the next step and extend Allen a contract offer before his services are snatched by a competing contender.

 

The Player

In 2014, Ray Allen is not the player that he once was.

Long gone are the days where Jesus Shuttlesworth—complete with a unique blend of skill and athleticism—averaged upwards of 25 points for the Seattle Supersonics. But even in his final years in the league, the 39-year-old Allen has managed to stay relevant.

Though aspects of his game have faded with age, his staple skill—his three-point shot—remains very much intact.

And as Spurs fans know all to well, this makes him very dangerous.

Like San Antonio veteran Tim Duncan, Allen has compensated for any deficiencies brought about by age by maximizing the aspects of his game that are unaffected by declining athleticism. 

A sniper from beyond the arc, Allen last averaged 37.5 percent from deep for Miami, with averages of 42, 45 and 44 percent in the three years prior. He can create his own shot, can get open with ease and possesses a quick release that can punish even the most talented defenders.

He’s also an above-average passer with a point guard’s court vision.

Throw in excellent offensive mechanics from elsewhere on the offensive end and Allen represents everything that contending teams desire from a veteran role player.

Of course, his defense—though he’s never been noted for excellence on that end, his capacity to defend is rapidly declining—is a legitimate reason for worry, but that hasn’t stopped championship rosters from utilizing him down the stretch in crucial games.

In short, you’re not going to see Jesus Shuttlesworth trotting out onto an NBA court anytime soon.

Instead, you’ll see a seasoned veteran who has made the seamless transition to role player in his later years—a position that he has thrived in, thanks in no small part to his everlasting perimeter weapon.

 

The Fit

Perhaps no NBA team bore more resemblances to the San Antonio Spurs than the Miami Heat squad with whom they clashed in 2013 and 2014.

Both teams boasted superstars at the top, but deep benches overflowing with capable role players.

So, it serves as a good sign that Allen thrived in an atmosphere similar to the one he would enter in San Antonio.

The Spurs play a perimeter-oriented style of basketball that capitalizes off of unparalleled ball movement to create openings along the arc and within the paint. Allen, should he join San Antonio, would find himself beside a supporting cast that has excelled due to lethal three-point shots.

Take Danny Green, for example. The starting shooting guard is inconsistent, but when he’s on from deep, San Antonio’s offense is borderline unstoppable. The same holds true for other Spurs like Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. 

However, Mills—coming off a breakout year in which he set the tone for one of the league’s most successful second units—is set to miss the majority of the regular season with a shoulder injury.

With Manu Ginobili likely facing more minute restrictions than ever before and Boris Diaw eyeing a spot in the starting lineup, the team’s top bench sparks might not be able to carry the second unit.

The need for another offensive playmaker has opened up with Mills’ injury, and Allen—with his perfect skill set—could not be a better fit.

And beyond his ideal repertoire that would put San Antonio into a prime situation to succeed in the upcoming year, the marriage would have significant long-term benefits as well.

Though other potential roster additions might require a multiyear investment, Allen’s retirement is looming. Should he enter a deal with the Spurs, it would likely be for one season, freeing up the contract books for the post-Duncan era in which the franchise will have the necessary funds to rebuild through free agency.

No matter which way you look at it, Allen to the Spurs makes sense. He thrived in a comparable environment in Miami, and his services mesh well with San Antonio’s short-term roster needs.

Though it may be difficult for some to accept Allen in black and silver garment, it’s time to forgive, forget and move on. In the battle between Ray Allen and the San Antonio Spurs, the Spurs got the last laugh.

Now, it’s time for them to join forces.

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Ranking the Top 10 Most Underrated San Antonio Spurs Players of the Past Decade

The San Antonio Spurs have consistently been one of the NBA‘s most overlooked teams, largely avoiding national attention and criticism while compiling a variety of regular season and playoff successes.

Underrated players have helped lift the franchise to 50-win campaigns throughout the entire past decade, and the Spurs have won three championships since 2004-05.

Individual performances in years prior to the previous 10 may be referenced but are not included in determining the rankings.

Note: All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

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How San Antonio Spurs Should Round out Championship Roster

The San Antonio Spurs elected to keep things simple this summer, quietly reassembling a roster that’s thus far identical to the one that quickly dispatched the Miami Heat in last season’s NBA Finals.

In addition to inking head coach Gregg Popovich to a multiyear extension, the organization extended point guard Tony Parker and re-signed free agents Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Matt Bonner. In a bid to maintain the corporate knowledge that’s gotten the franchise this far, general manager R.C. Buford avoided any impulse to prematurely shake things up with an eye to the future.

That plan almost certainly owes much to Tim Duncan’s decision to put off retirement for at least another season.

So long as Duncan continues anchoring San Antonio’s interior presence, the remaining piece to the puzzle consists primarily in surrounding him with high-IQ players who can pass and shoot the ball. 

Parker—now 32—will still be the club’s offensive engine, and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard is poised to take another step forward in his rapid ascendance.

By all accounts, the Spurs are well-positioned to vie for another title. Though much has changed around the NBA landscape, Popovich’s squad supplements its talent with unrivaled chemistry, depth and discipline.

That said, Buford and Co. now have some decisions to make.

With just one open roster spot, speculation about the team’s final piece has surfaced with a number of names mentioned as possibilities.

The most familiar of those names is still deciding whether he’ll retire or play another day.

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein suggested via Twitter in August that the, “Reigning champs, I’m told, [are] trying to barge into Ray Allen sweepstakes.”

Stein quickly proceeded to note that, “Ray Allen himself, mind you, has been saying for weeks that he’s still deciding whether or not to play next season, let alone choose where.”

Indeed, Allen and his camp have been persistent in their declarations that there’s nothing to see here, at least not yet.

“As Ray has previously stated, he is taking this time to make a decision whether or not he will play next season,” agent Jim Tanner said in an August statement, per USA Today Sports. “Any reports otherwise are false.”

Allen himself echoed that sentiment.

“It’s August, and I don’t want to rush to judgment,” Allen said, according to the Hartford Courant‘s Dom Amore. “I want to get to September and see how I really feel.”

Now that it is September, we may be closer to some news. If the Spurs can dissuade Allen from joining close friend LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, that would instantly resolve any outstanding questions about how Buford should complete his roster.

Though San Antonio’s wing rotation is well-stocked with shooters (including Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli), no team is too deep to make room for an icon like Allen. The 39-year-old may be coming off a career-low 9.6 points per contest, but he still converted on 37.5 percent of his three-point attempts.

Allen certainly can’t carry a significant load, but he’s the kind of specialist who rises to the occasion—as the Spurs themselves traumatically learned in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals.

While adding an accomplished veteran like Allen ranks as San Antonio’s ideal scenario, it probably isn’t the most realistic.

The organization has already signed a trio of roster long-shots: Bryce Cotton, JaMychal Green and, most recently, San Diego State forward Josh Davis. 

Unless one of those guys makes a strong impression during training camp, odds are the Spurs look elsewhere.

Earlier this month, Sporting News’ Sean Deveney reported that, “Free-agent forward Earl Clark, who followed up a breakthrough year with the Lakers by bouncing between the Cavaliers and Knicks last year, will be working out this week for the defending champion Spurs, a source told Sporting News.”

Still only 26, Clark has bounced around the league since the Phoenix Suns selected him with the No. 14 overall pick back in 2009. He showed some potential during his 2012-13 campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers, but he’d likely struggle to establish himself as anything more than a third-string forward in San Antonio.

Meanwhile, Stein reported amidst FIBA World Cup play that the “Spurs have expressed interest in signing Mexico star center Gustavo Ayon, ESPN.com has learned.”

Stein also notes that, “San Antonio remains determined to re-sign Australian center Aron Baynesbut has identified Ayon as both a potential Baynes replacement or a possible addition to the roster even if a new deal with Baynes is worked out.”

It’s not entirely clear how the team would make space for both Baynes and Ayon, but the big takeaway is that there’s a good chance the Spurs carry another seven-footer on the roster before all is said and done. One way or the other, it makes sense to add some depth behind Duncan and Tiago Splitter—especially with Diaw limited primarily to playing the 4 spot.

Baynes was used sparingly last season but made the most of his limited minutes with hard picks and tenacious rebounding. He even made 14 appearances in the playoffs, including some quality minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder.

His presence was a reminder that the bottom of the rotation matters, especially on a team that spreads its minutes around.

But important as these little things are, there’s a strong case to be made for punting this decision down the road a few months. Unless someone like Allen jumps at an opportunity to join the reigning champions, preserving an open roster spot makes a lot of sense.

Recall that San Antonio signed Diaw in March of 2012 after the veteran was waived by the then-Charlotte Bobcats. Buford could take a wait-and-see approach, surveying the free-agent landscape once teams have had the opportunity to waive or buy out what they consider excess baggage.

The Spurs have a way of reclaiming those lost causes.

Alternatively, some extra depth in the middle (in the form of Baynes or Ayon) couldn’t hurt. Another point guard to ease the blow of Mills’ months-long recovery from shoulder surgery might make sense, as well.

For the Spurs, these kind of decisions are something of a luxury. A title-worthy core is already in place, and the options for supplementing that core aren’t half bad. 

The rich appear destined to get a tiny bit richer.

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Why Don’t More NBA Teams Try to Emulate the San Antonio Spurs’ Style?

The only thing harder than beating the San Antonio Spurs is copying them.

To understand why, we have to deconstruct the Spurs’ model, reverse-engineering it to reveal the inimitable pieces and people that make it so special.

 

The Personnel

We’ll start in the present, with the Spurs enjoying yet another post-title afterglow.

They knocked off the Miami Heat to win their fifth ring this past June, and they did it by moving the ball, sacrificing minutes and shots for the good of the team and adopting a collective, team-first approach we simply haven’t seen in modern NBA history.

Now, months later, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban marveled at the committee mentality in an interview with KRLD-FM 105.3 The Fan in Dallas (h/t The Dallas Morning News):

Part of the lesson that we proved when we won and what San Antonio proved was that it wasn’t [Tim] Duncan getting that last-minute hoop. It was Patty Mills and Danny Green. Anybody was in a position to contribute. Manu Giniboli didn’t have a great last series, he did against us, but not afterwards. They were a good team. They moved the ball and got the open shot and they were smart. Literally in the Finals Patty Mills is sprinting up and hitting pull-up threes. It was almost like Nellie-ball. The lesson there isn’t can just one guy carry the load, but it’s can one team carry the load.

OK, sure. The first step in emulating the Spurs is to assemble a team loaded with selfless talent and devoid of ego.

Let’s say you find those kinds of players—role-fillers like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills—all of whom were integral to San Antonio’s most recent ring.

And let’s say you assemble them around stars like Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili who don’t act like stars at all—guys who contentedly sit on the bench in crunch time if their unsung backups are performing well—regardless of the stakes.

Let’s say you find all of those guys.

You’re still nowhere close to duplicating the Spurs’ blueprint because you don’t have their system in place.

 

The “System”

We’re already entering complicated territory because the Spurs don’t have a system—not in the conventional sense, anyway.

We understand how they play: extra passes, constant player movement, loads of pick-and-rolls and repeated side-to-side swings to attack shifting defenses. But it’s not like San Antonio has a playbook that lends itself to being copied.

Before the 2013-14 season, Dan McCarney of Spurs Nation wrote:

Interestingly, a player said recently that the Spurs have actually simplified their playbook in that span, even as they’ve become more balanced and diversified. Rather than call plays every trip down court, the Spurs use a handful of base sets, with the freedom to break them off at any point in order to exploit an immediate weakness rather than run them to completion by rote.

Even if you somehow nailed down San Antonio’s current offensive system, you’d only have a tiny shred of what makes the Spurs stylistically successful.

The past 15 years reveal the surprising truth that San Antonio isn‘t a system team at all. It has evolved, adding and subtracting parts of its scheme to figure out the smartest ways to play before anyone else catches on.

The emphasis on the corner three, heavier use of the pick-and-roll, short rotations to preserve an aging roster—all Spurs innovations.

Remember, San Antonio used to grind it out on offense and stifle teams on the other end because it worked best with past personnel. That approach changed over time to maximize the talent on the roster and exploit trends the league hadn’t yet figured outprobably because the Spurs started them.

San Antonio’s stylistic blueprint isn‘t inked on paper. It changes from year to year. You can’t copy a system so fluid.

For the sake of argument, let’s say you could find the players you need and implement the ever-changing system that would make them successful. Even then, you’re still miles away from being the Spurs because you don’t have the man who leads them.

 

The Mastermind

You don’t have Gregg Popovich.

He’s the guy pulling the strings, motivating players like Parker, Duncan and Ginobili who have nothing left to prove. He’s the guy emboldening young talent just as effectively.

Popovich has cornered the market on tough love. He respects his players, but not automatically. His approval has to be earned, and not just once.

Constantly.

He can scream at Duncan, an all-time great, then shout at Mills, a player who nearly washed out of the NBA before finding salvation with the Spurs.

Pop marries a no-nonsense attitude with a smirk, subtly assuring every student that what he’s saying matters more than the brusque way he’s saying it.

And that shifting system? That’s all Pop, too.

Former assistant Brett Brown spoke with Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com about this in June:

He’s changed ever since I was with him. Every year was different. He took the strengths he had and he changed over the years from a post-up team with David and Timmy, to an isolation team with Manu [Ginobili], to a pick-and-roll team with Tony [Parker], to this now hybrid Euro-ball that’s on hyperspeed. But always with the same foundation of defense and accountability and responsibility and teamwork.

Popovich figures out the smartest way to win and implements it, often putting aside his own ego to crowdsource solutions. The Spurs’ end-of-season retreats are legendary for their egalitarian brainstorming, and those pow-wows regularly result in tearing up old plans and drawing new ones.

Let’s say you somehow found another Popovich, implausible as it sounds. Even then, you’re still a few steps short of emulating the Spurs because you lack the franchise stability that allowed Pop to become who he is.

 

Organizational Pillars

For all of San Antonio’s changing styles on the court, it is a predictable organization off it.

Current general manager R.C. Buford started with the team in 1988 as an assistant coach. When Peter Holt bought the team in 1994, he hired Popovich to be the GM. Pop summarily hired Buford back from the Los Angeles Clippers.

Those three have now been running the Spurs together for 20 years, and no other NBA franchise even comes close to that level of stability.

For reference, Erik Spoelstra is the league’s second-longest-tenured coach, a mere 12 years behind Popovich.

That firm foundation is what allowed Popovich to make so many changes without fear of reprisal. It’s what gave Buford the confidence to take risks on international scouting, to draft players nobody had ever heard of, to sign castoffs everybody had given up on.

It’s what made trusting the process an option in a league that so often puts the value on immediate result.

That stability extends to the roster as well.

“Between the three of them, Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili boast 39 years of combined experience. In terms of institutional knowledge—of a trillion trials and errors—no other NBA team can even compete,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Jim Cavan.

Let’s say you had stability like that—top to bottom, inside and out. Even then, the key ingredient is still missing.

 

The Lucky Break

You still don’t have Duncan.

His unquestioned on-court greatness, complete lack of ego and willingness to listen allowed everything else to fall into place around him. You can’t get another Duncan because another one doesn’t exist. Superstars of his quality inherently change the way their teams play.

Duncan’s willingness to change his own game—to fill in the gaps and play in whatever fashion makes winning easiest—makes him unique among superstars.

At the bottom of it all, beneath the personnel, system, coach and staff, the Spurs have Duncan. And do you know what it took for them to get him?

Luck.

If not for an injury that knocked David Robinson out for the season before the 1997 draft, San Antonio wouldn’t have been in a position to get him. It still took the Boston Celtics‘ own bad fortunethey had the best odds of landing the top pickfor Duncan to fall to San Antonio.

And if you have any doubts about Duncan, the luckiest of lucky breaks, being the key figure in San Antonio, consider what Holt told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein: “I’m lucky to work for him.”

Buford added, “The truth is we all work for Timmy.”

Good luck finding another franchise cornerstone like that.

 

The Impossible Dream

The Spurs can’t be emulated. They’re a perfect storm of unique components held together by unparalleled leaders. Their style on the court is merely a product of countless factors, all of them singular and extraordinary.

That hasn’t stopped teams from trying, though.

The Philadelphia 76ers are doing their best to strike gold in the lottery, though their allegedly deliberate attempts to bottom out are a little different than San Antonio’s unanticipated slip in 1997. The Sixers are trying to do on purpose what the Spurs did by chance.

It’s also interesting to note that Philadelphia has Brown, a Pop disciple, at the helm. It also features a forward-thinking GM in Sam Hinkie and new, stable ownership that has the patience to play the long game.

Philly is years away, but you can see what it’s trying to do.

Elsewhere, teams are stealing scraps. Indirectly, every instance of tanking is a ploy to land the next Duncan.

Mike Budenholzer (another Popovich protege) has the Atlanta Hawks taking a ton of threes—a strategy the Spurs pioneered over a decade ago. Similarly, the pick-and-roll is everywhere now, and we should expect contending teams to copy San Antonio’s liberal rest policy for their stars this season.

But that’s about it. In terms of wholesale emulations, nobody’s even close.

That’s because it’s too hard. It takes time, one-of-a-kind personalities and a whole lot of luck.

The takeaway, then, must be this: Enjoy the Spurs now, because unless a team like the Sixers stuns everyone, we’re never going to see them again.

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Why Kawhi Leonard Is Worth a Full Max-Contract Commitment from San Antonio Spurs

In his three seasons since turning pro, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard has established himself as one of the league’s brightest young stars—and he’s done it the old-fashioned way.

“He has a great capacity to absorb things and he works hard,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters last season. “He comes early to practice. He stays after. Our development guys work with him constantly and he wears them out. So he really wants to be good and he’s got some talents to work with, so that’s a good combination.”

That grueling ethic has already paid dividends in a big way, earning Leonard a Finals MVP award after San Antonio dismissed the Miami Heat in historically dominant fashion

And now Leonard’s ascent is poised to earn him a big raise.

Still on his rookie contract, the 23-year-old will make just $3,053,368 this season. San Antonio can either ink Leonard to an extension before he becomes a restricted free agent next summer or wait until the end of the season to re-sign him, potentially by matching another team’s offer.

However it gets done, this is no time for the Spurs to demonstrate fiscal restraint.

While the organization has historically retained its top talent with below-market deals, Leonard is uniquely essential to the franchise’s chances of remaining relevant in the impending post-Duncan era. At 32, point guard Tony Parker is approaching the end of his prime, and 37-year-old Manu Ginobili is well past that prime. Even as San Antonio’s core ostensibly defies the aging process, that luck will run out soon enough.

When it does, Leonard becomes even more of a necessity than he is already.

To be sure, this isn’t merely a question of fending off other suitors. Were that the only thing at stake, the Spurs could simply wait and see how much Leonard commands on the open market. As a restricted free agent, San Antonio would retain the right to match any offer sheet he signs next summer.

The more important consideration is messaging—leaving no doubt in Leonard’s head that he’s valued, appreciated and viewed as a superstar in waiting.

In an age of optics, these things matter.

Even if Leonard doesn’t show it.

“I’m just playing,” Leonard told USA Today‘s Jeff Zillgitt in June after the Finals. “The Spurs are a great organization. I’m leaving that to my agent, and I’m sure they’ll come out with a great understanding and a deal. I’m not focused on that at all.”

But don’t mistake Leonard’s nonchalance as permission for the Spurs to haggle. A vote of confidence could go a long way toward reinforcing the kind of sentiment Leonard hit Zillgitt with next.

“The next step is learning how to carry a team and carry the full load scoring-wise,” Leonard explained. “I know people are going to put the main focus on stopping me, so I need to learn how to make my teammates better by passing and creating opportunities for them.”

That’s the kind of thinking that turns good players into great ones.

For the record, though, Leonard has already acquitted himself nicely.

Through the last three games of the Finals, he tallied a combined 71 points, 28 rebounds, six blocks and six steals. It was the kind of clutch production that almost made one forget Leonard’s principal value during the series was slowing down four-time MVP LeBron James.

Per NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman, the last time someone recorded Leonard’s Game 4 line (20 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, three steals and three blocks) in the NBA Finals was in 2003, when Duncan did it.

Those who’d pass judgement after glancing at Leonard’s regular-season numbers may wonder what all the fuss is about, chalking up the illustrious Finals performance to an anomalous and limited sample size.

They may concede that Leonard is one of the finest perimeter defenders in the game while doubting he can carry a team on the offensive end.

Put in context, however, Leonard’s production has been exceptional. The 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds he averaged a season ago came in just 29.1 minutes per game—minutes that were shared with the league’s deepest rotation.

Per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, the San Diego State product averaged 21.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. 

In addition to his relatively modest playing time, it’s worth noting Leonard operates in a system wherein there’s a premium on equally distributed touches and ball movement. The Spurs eschew hero-ball, limiting the extent to which someone like Leonard can look for his own offense.

That’s one of the biggest differences between Leonard and Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George, another elite two-way star still in the early stages of his career. Whereas Leonard attempted just 9.8 field goals per game last season, George put up 17 shots per contest—which translated into an average of nearly nine more points.

Still, there’s a reason Leonard’s player efficiency rating—19.43, per ESPN.com—was so close to George’s (20.16).

Leonard made an impressive 52.2 percent of his field-goal attempts last season, including a 37.9 percent success rate from beyond the three-point arc. It marked the third year in which he made at least 37 percent of his three-pointers.

That kind of efficiency hints at what Leonard could accomplish as the focal point of San Antonio’s offense. Even if Popovich continues to rely on ensemble efforts, there’s little doubt his youngest star will soon become his most productive.

He should be paid accordingly.

NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman notes that, “In the last decade, just 20 first-round picks have produced as many win shares as Leonard through three seasons, when they became eligible for contract extensions. So far, 15 of those 20 have received max deals—14 by extension.”

The Spurs knew they were getting a potential difference-maker when they traded away team-favorite George Hill to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for the rights to Leonard, taken with the No. 15 overall pick.

“It felt like we were going to get our ass chewed because we just traded the coach’s favorite player,” general manager R.C. Buford admitted to reporters during the Finals. “Tim, Tony and Manu, those guys had a really strong alignment with George [Hill]. They’d been through a lot together, and there was concern for them, not only that they were losing a great friend but also a great teammate.”

San Antonio’s willingness to part ways with Hill spoke volumes about how highly they valued the defensively oriented prospect they inherited in return.

Come the summer after Leonard’s rookie campaign, Popovich was already making bold predictions.

“I think he’s going to be a star,” Popovich said during a 2012 Q&A with fans on Spurs.com. “And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player.”

Having worked with the likes of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, Popovich knows a thing or two about stars.

And he’s not quick to anoint new ones.

If the coach’s prognostications shed any light on how much Buford and Co. value Leonard, contract negotiations may be a fairly open-and-shut affair. 

Even as it reasons to be a costly one. With other up-and-coming swingmen like Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward cashing in this summer, the writing is on the wall for San Antonio’s front office. Given that the franchise hasn’t been a preferred destination for top-tier free agents, it has little choice when it comes to locking up Leonard for the long term.

That may be the worst-kept secret in the Lone Star State.

For his part, Leonard remains notoriously quiet, and he may never fit the league’s conventional profile of a franchise player.

That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be compensated like one.

The Spurs have always done things differently. A different kind of superstar couldn’t be more welcome.

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San Antonio Spurs Offer Ray Allen What No Other NBA Team Can

The San Antonio Spurs rarely make epic free-agent splashes, but they’ve been known to add the occasional veteran role player.

Could unrestricted free agent Ray Allen follow in the footsteps of previous summer additions along the lines of Michael Finley and Antonio McDyess?

ESPN.com’s Marc Stein seems to believe there’s a chance.

He reports that, “Sources told ESPN.com this week that the Spurs and Clippers have emerged as two more rivals for the Cavaliers to worry about as Cleveland continues to try to lure Allen away from the Miami Heat.”

Stein adds that, “The Dallas Mavericks, sources say, are yet another top Western Conference team to register interest in Allen this summer and there are believed to be more teams chasing him that have yet to be identified.”

A note of caution is in order, however.

Indeed, Allen has been anything but committal since becoming a free agent after spending two seasons with the Miami Heat

“As Ray has previously stated, he is taking this time to make a decision whether or not he will play next season,” agent Jim Tanner said in an August statement, per USA TODAY Sports. “Any reports otherwise are false.”

Allen has sounded a similar tune.

“It’s August, and I don’t want to rush to judgment,” Allen said, according to the Hartford Courant‘s Dom Amore. “I want to get to September and see how I really feel.”

So the Spurs’ odds of acquiring the iconic sharpshooter hinge in part on whether he decides to delay retirement another year. Competing with Allen’s likely temptation to join LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers reasons to be another obstacle.

But Allen’s intentions remain indeterminate enough for San Antonio to hold out hope.

“There’s so much speculation about me going to Cleveland,” Allen told the Boston Herald‘s Mark Murphy. “I haven’t even decided where I will play. Obviously LeBron and I are great friends, and James Jones and I are really close. But at no point have those two tried to push me in that direction. I haven’t had that conversation.”

Allen added, “I have not leaned towards Cleveland. I have not made any mention of going to Cleveland. These last two months were about me physically, and deciding whether I want to play again.”

As Murphy notes, “Allen is weighing family concerns and a major question of whether he wants to retire in prime physical shape, or whether he wants to chase his third NBA title.”

And that’s where the Spurs barge their way into the conversation. 

While one could certainly argue that the Cavaliers and Clippers both offer comparable chances at that third title, San Antonio is coming off the fifth championship in franchise history and appears to be in prime condition to vie for another one.

It may take Cleveland some time to develop title-caliber chemistry between its established superstars (James and Kevin Love) and their younger counterparts (Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson).

Meanwhile, Los Angeles has been ousted from the conference semifinals in two of the last three seasons—and from the opening round in 2013.

The Spurs have made two consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals and came within two conference-finals victories of doing so in 2012. 

Point guard Tony Parker remains in the prime of his career, scoring and facilitating as well as virtually any floor general in the business. At 38 years old, Tim Duncan returns for at least one more season while aging with remarkable grace and making an All-Star-caliber impact on both ends of the floor.

And while sixth man Manu Ginobili remains a lethal weapon for 20-25 minutes per contest, the Spurs can increasingly rely on the emergence of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard—a 23-year-old boasting elite defensive skills and a suddenly robust offensive game replete with perimeter shooting, driving ability and a rapidly improving in-between game.

This team’s core should be attractive to Allen. A platoon of capable role players (Danny Green, Boris Diaw, Tiago Splitter, Marco Belinelli and—when healthy—Patty Mills) should ensure San Antonio remains the deepest team in the business, with or without Allen.

But there certainly reasons to be room enough for a veteran winner who has a knack for nailing timely three-pointers.

Though Allen turned 39 this summer, he’s still in fantastic shape and proved plenty relevant during Miami’s most recent postseason march.

After averaging 9.6 points per contest and converting on 37.5 percent of his three-pointers during the regular season, the Connecticut product was at times lethal in the playoffs—averaging 13 points against the Brooklyn Nets and notching double-figure points three time against the Indiana Pacers.

Beyond offering Allen an opportunity to win now, San Antonio can also guarantee a role in which he’d thrive.

Allen’s bread and butter remains the corner three-ball, as attested to by last season’s shot chart.

As Heat.com’s Couper Moorhead noted back in 2012, “It just so happens that there may be no better floor spacer, nor a better mover without the ball, than Allen.”

Then-teammate Shane Battier made a similar observation in 2012, specifically noting the spacing value of those corner bombs.

“That’s the kind of decisions we want teams to make,” Battier said, per ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh. “Not a fun decision. The corner three is an absolute killer. If you allow it, you’re in trouble. If you defend it, you’re in business. The threat of it can be just as potent as the actual shot…If we’re making shots, especially from the corner, the lanes are going to open up.”

Good as Battier himself was from those corners, it’s hard to find anyone better than Allen—as Spurs fans remember all too well from a certain shot in the 2013 NBA Finals.

Allen’s lethality from sideline to sideline makes his fit in San Antonio all the better.

Per NBA.com, the Spurs made 42.3 percent of their threes from the left corner (sixth league-wide) and 39.3 percent of their attempts from the right corner (15th league-wide). Given the volume of shots attempted from those locations, San Antonio’s success rate is especially impressive.

There’s little doubt it would be even more impressive with Allen in the fold.

Interest aside, there’s certainly little guarantee Allen winds up in silver and black. In addition to the competition for his services, San Antonio has little roster flexibility.

As Stein notes, “The Spurs, meanwhile, have only one open roster spot at the moment,” and centers Gustavo Ayon and Aron Baynes remain candidates to take that spot.

Still, San Antonio has its full mid-level exception available. That’s something neither the Cavaliers nor Clippers can offer. Allen’s decision probably won’t come down to money alone at this point in his storied career, but a little extra couldn’t hurt.

The Spurs whiffed in their pursuit of free-agent big man Pau Gasol (who eventually signed with the Chicago Bulls this summer), and they may well come up short with Allen.

Hopefully it won’t be for a lack of trying.

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Spurs, Clippers pursuing Ray Allen

The San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers have emerged as possible destinations for Ray Allen. Allen is still deciding whether or not he will retire, but he has been widely expected to join LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers should he continue his playing career. Doc Rivers is a natural recruiter for Allen given their time together with the Boston Celtics. The Spurs have one roster spot available.

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Breaking Down San Antonio Spurs’ Point Guard Position for 2014-15 Season

In today’s NBA, there is hardly a limited supply of talented point guards. 

Perhaps more so now than ever before, the league can boast remarkable depth at the position as well as incredible star power at the top. And of course, the San Antonio Spurs can claim both within their roster as well. 

The spotlight certainly falls on Tony Parker, a soon-to-be 14-year veteran who has played various roles within the organization since he was drafted in 2001. He provides the team with the superstar talent necessary to win titles, though the roster boasts plentiful depth behind him—another key given Parker’s age.

As a whole, the point guard rotation has consistently been one of the team’s strongest features, and following a strong 2013-14 campaign, there’s little reason to believe 2014-15 won’t follow suit.

 

Looking Back

As he does every year, Parker headlined the Spurs’ point guard corps with under-the-radar excellence—serving as the team’s alpha dog and primary orchestrator throughout its 2013-14 pursuit of a title.

Despite a significant drop from his 2012-13 MVP-caliber stat line—his scoring and assist averages dipped from 20.3 and 7.6 to 16.7 and 5.7, respectively—digging deeper, the Spurs’ lone 2014 All-Star showed little evidence of a decline.

His playing time took an expected hit, and his changing role within the offense—spurred on by the rapid development of Kawhi Leonard as both a scorer and a playmaker—had a noticeable effect on Parker’s numbers.

Even so, his shooting efficiency remained top-notch, hovering around the 50 percent mark throughout the season. His poise, leadership and overall ability to drive his team to success were unchanged, and his stats remained admirable given the circumstances.

But Parker, though the linchpin of the team’s backcourt, hardly ran a one-man show. In fact, given his preseason expectations, Parker wasn’t even San Antonio’s showstopper at the point guard position. That honor belongs to Patty Mills, the team’s resident towel waver-turned-bench spark, whose contributions proved essential from start to finish.

Though he isn’t quite the player Parker is, he shattered expectations from day one. After serving the previous year as a bench bookend, Mills entered camp slimmer, the first of many improvements that surrounded his 2013-14 campaign. 

He became one of the team’s most reliable three-point shooters and a leader in the second unit from the season’s start to his championship-clinching Game 5 performance, in which he contributed 17 points, including 14 in the third quarter. 

When tasked with a heavier workload midseason due to a Parker injury, Mills responded with the strongest month of his career, establishing himself not only as a capable reserve but also as an individual capable of carrying a team in the near future.

His breakout alone is worthy of endless praise, but given the continued excellence of Parker and the increased development of fourth-year Cory Joseph, the Spurs deserve the highest of honors when it comes to the point guard position throughout their championship season.

2013-14 Point Guard Grade for San Antonio: A

 

Offseason Developments

The 2014 offseason was filled with highs and lows for the San Antonio Spurs, and a fair share of both revolve around Mills.

After his impressive campaign, Mills—an unrestricted free agent—entered the summer with a handful of options. Numerous teams with greater needs for his services had the money available to outbid San Antonio, and there was chatter within NBA circles regarding the young man’s potential as a starter.

Fortunately, Mills ended up re-signing in San Antonio. However, the reunion is due in no small part to a shoulder injury that cost Mills both a few million dollars and the opportunity to explore a future as a starter elsewhere.

The injury will keep him sidelined for a projected six months, heartbreaking news for both Mills and the Spurs, who became reliant on his services off the bench.

Beyond Mills, San Antonio offered a partially guaranteed contract to undrafted point guard Bryce Cotton, who will compete in training camp for a two-year contract after an impressive Summer League outing with the Spurs. 

At 5’11”, Cotton is hardly an imposing threat. However, what he lacks in size, he makes up for in talent. His success in college led to unanimous inclusion on the All-Big East First Team.

A talented scorer, he’ll have the opportunity to translate his collegiate success into a professional setting as he attempts to secure a roster spot for the upcoming season. 

 

Looking Forward

Even with Mills sidelined, the 2014-15 NBA season won’t be too different for the San Antonio point guard crew. Parker will return to lead the team, though he’ll likely see his stats and playing time diminish, as coach Gregg Popovich conserves the health and energy of his veterans.

Additionally, an increased focus on Leonard should take a load off Parker’s shoulders as the small forward looks to build upon his Finals MVP-worthy playoff campaign.

Still, Parker will serve as the team’s offensive catalyst and a likely contender for the All-Star Game.

Backing him up will be Joseph, who will assume the lead reserve duties as Mills recovers. Joseph has manned the main backup role before and has done so well. He’s the team’s best defensive option at the 1, and his confidence running the floor allows for seamless transitions whenever Parker needs to catch a break.

Joseph, though still raw, has been improving annually, and many people, including Bleacher Report’s David Kenyon, are confident that Mills’ absence won’t prove too hard for a Spurs team knee-deep at the point guard position:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has adapted his schemes to match his team’s collective strengths; he only needs to tweak it for Joseph.

San Antonio should not skip a beat because the efficiency of the backup point guards was so similar, both offensively and defensively. 

After all, Pop captains a plug-and-play operation, inserting the next man up and getting results. Besides, the show must go on, and the franchise will undoubtedly survive an unfortunate injury to a significant piece.

And of course, once Mills returns, look for him to pick up right where he left off. Joseph—who has shined in the past when given the opportunity—may steal a few minutes should he take advantage of his upcoming increased role, though the big picture—as it relates to the Spurs’ collection of point guards—should look similar to 2013-14.

After a season in which it sported one of the greatest cohorts of floor leaders, San Antonio will look for a repeat, relying on a full recovery from Mills, consistent improvements from Joseph and perennial excellence from Parker. 

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San Antonio Spurs Have Nothing Left to Prove, and That Makes Them Dangerous

Toting the burden of proof is one such bother the San Antonio Spurs do not share with 29 other NBA teams.

Another banner season to their name, their core still intact, the Spurs are in possession of pressure-free power. There is nothing left to prove, no expectations left to meet, no feats or follies left to chase or avoid that will define them as something other than what they already are.

Next year’s Spurs are picture-perfect stability incarnate, more so than last season, when the stench of NBA Finals defeat lingered and championship business was left unfinished. 

No such sense of incompleteness follows them into 2014-15. These Spurs are, unequivocally, masters of their own fate, at the mercy of nothing and no one besides themselves and the path they’ve chosen to pave.

 

Returning on Their Own Terms

Last year’s title run could have been the end.

Sensing their collective mortality, the Spurs could have disbanded, willingly accepting and facilitating the conclusion to 17 years of preeminent relevance. 

Tim Duncan, like David Robinson before him, could have retired on top, five championship rings in hand, a stainless legacy to his name.

Manu Ginobili could have done the same, walking away with four titles, two All-Star appearances and, most importantly, no regrets.

Gregg Popovich could have called it quits as well, taking his surly disposition and title-stamped resume with him.

Not even Tony Parker needed to stick around, in the loosest sense of the phrase. Retirement remains a ways off at only 32 years old, but a multiyear commitment wasn’t necessary. Anticipating the end to San Antonio’s illustrious reign, he could have kept his options open.

None of them left or even came close to leaving. They all elected to stay and play even further beyond their shelf life. Not out of necessity, either. Rather, they stayed, they’re back, out of sheer want.

Contracts didn’t keep the Spurs together. Convenience isn’t at the heart of their return. Neither desperation nor obligation can be cited. Their continued existence is about themselves and their decision to play on.

No other team enjoyed the luxury of absolute, fallout-free choice. Only the Spurs, who remain in a league all their own because the easier it became for things to change, the more this group stayed the same.

 

Nothing Left to Prove

Satisfaction can be the enemy of success. It breeds complacency and lethargy, diminished drive, eradicated urgency. And with nothing left to fight for, how do teams actually fight?

The Spurs, to their credit, are different. They always have been.

When other teams rushed for change, they remained the same. When free agency and trades became foundations for rebuilds and instant turnarounds, they continued developing and improving from within. 

Different rules apply in San Antonio. The same things that damage aims elsewhere—like a lack of change—don’t play in River City. 

Continuity has been their friend. The same coach, guiding the same core, playing (mostly) the same way has won the Spurs numerous titles and yielded 17 consecutive playoff berths.

And it’s not like the Spurs don’t have anything to play for. They know their day in the sun is drawing to a close. They know what a sixth championship would mean for Duncan’s already sturdy legacy. They know this is a chance for them to erase doubt as to whether they’re a dynasty by winning back-to-back championships for the first time.

“Those consecutive championships may or may not be a requisite condition for the ‘dynasty’ label,” Bleacher Report’s Stephen Babb writes, “but it’s a distinction that would certainly help San Antonio’s case.”

Help. Not define or shape, but help. 

If the Spurs win another title—or come close to hoisting another Larry O’Brien Trophy—it only enhances their championship charm. If they fail to win, they won’t have actually failed at all.

Everything they do from here is either extra or inconsequential. The good becomes great, and the not-so-good doesn’t matter.

They already have the highest winning percentage (70.6) of any team since 1997, and it’s not even close. They rank fifth in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency during that time, too, per Basketball-Reference.com. The longevity of their success is peerless in that it’s reached the point where no one event—triumph or foible—makes a noticeable dent.

Their marble-etched reputation was in full force even before they won their most recent title. It’s what allowed CBS Sports’ Matt Moore to declare the Spurs’ current Big Three—Duncan, Ginobili, Parker—the best ever weeks before they unseated the Miami Heat:

I’m willing to go ahead and say it. I think this team, this Spurs core that has been together since 2002, when you factor its entire 12 year-and-counting run, is the greatest NBA team of all time. The Chicago Bulls had better players, and much better individual seasons in the 90′s. The Lakers and Celtics captured our imaginations the way that this team never has. But going back to when Duncan was drafted, that this team has been so dominant for so long? That this core for 12 years has been this good?

It’s fine if you believe it’s Russell’s Celtics, or Jordan’s Bulls, or Magic‘s Lakers or Bird’s Celtics or, if you want to get really inventive, Kobe’s Lakers. But that’s where I’m at. I’ve never seen anything like what this Spurs team has done over such a long time.

That, again, was in May. Winning another title only strengthened that mystique. And it’s the same story next season, only more so. 

No matter what happens—good or bad, beautiful or ugly—the Spurs will still be the same Spurs of the last 17 years. 

 

Danger Alert

Put in the simplest of terms, the Spurs are still insanely dangerous because they’re still the Spurs. But equally important, it’s never been a better time for the Spurs to be the Spurs.

The offseason has done nothing to hurt San Antonio’s chances next season. The starkest improvements came within the Eastern Conference. 

LeBron James and Chris Bosh didn’t journey west. Kevin Love went east. Pau Gasol went east. 

More valuable still, the Western Conference’s top contenders did little to improve overall.

The Oklahoma City Thunder aren’t any different. The Los Angeles Clippers (Spencer Hawes) and Golden State Warriors (Shaun Livingston) made marginal improvements. So, too, did the Memphis Grizzlies (Vince Carter) and Portland Trail Blazers (Chris Kaman). The Houston Rockets whiffed hard in free agency.

No outside-the-bubble team improved drastically, either. Omer Asik won’t vault the New Orleans Pelicans into contention. The Denver Nuggets‘ greatest weapon is the hope that maybe, quite possibly, they’ll be healthy. The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t work free-agency miracles.

Although the absence of power-shifting moves doesn’t promise anything, it does, as Pounding The Rock’s J. Gomez details, leave San Antonio on the offensive:

Now, all of this doesn’t mean the Spurs are guaranteed to repeat as champions or even come out of the West. Far from it. The Spurs have their own flaws they didn’t address and they are still very fragile when it comes to health. But the status-quo was maintained and that always benefits the people on top. Last season, with virtually the same roster they will have this upcoming year, the Spurs were undoubtedly the best team in the league. And it seems like none of the teams that could be a real threat to unseat them has improved that much over the off-season.

The path to a repeat won’t be easy. But the way things transpired in free agency at least signal that, at least on paper, the title is the Spurs’ to lose.

Defending champions are usually dangerous. The Spurs are no different, but they’re also something more.

Age is still an obstacle. They must hope Patty Mills gets healthy and stays healthy. They need to pray Boris Diaw’s new contract doesn’t color him lazy. They need Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to keep making leaps. 

They need things to remain unchanged.

Freak accidents notwithstanding, there’s no reason to believe they won’t. Remaining the same has been their forte for more than a decade. That’s all they have to do now, sans the burden of proof, the same one that creates pressure and the possibility for failure.

“I’m honored to be on this team right now because he’s going to be great for years to come,” Duncan would say of Leonard after beating the Heat, per USA Today‘s Sam Amick. “And I’m going to hold on as long as I can.”

That Duncan and the Spurs continue to hold on makes them dangerous, because with nothing to lose and everything to gain, they are holding on to an immediate future that cannot include failure.

 

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