Think of the prototypical San Antonio Spur. You’re probably envisioning something akin to a basketball monk: Selfless sacrifice in the name of the greater good. Humility. Stoicism. Hard and unglamorous work. The denial of instant gratification in the pursuit of something larger than any one individual.
So Tim Duncan, basically.
Since he was drafted #1 overall by the Spurs in 1997, Duncan has been the stony face of a dynasty that has experienced truly staggering success, whether you are aware of it or not: four NBA championships, 15 straight seasons with 50 or more wins, and 17 consecutive playoff appearances. Pretty decent.
Though Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili emerged as stars in the early 2000s and continue to play critical roles on the team today, Duncan has been the steady and selfless metronome the Spurs play along to. He’s set the tone that the rest of the team follows, always willing to do whatever it takes to win – whether it shows up in the stat sheet or not – and steering to avoid personal accolades at all costs.
These are the positively puritanical values the Spurs have built their franchise around, and Duncan has exemplified them for 17 years. He’s so bland that his nickname, if you can call it that, is “The Big Fundamental.”
The guard appears to be changing, however. Against all odds, the team has found someone even more focused, introverted, team-oriented and cerebral than the cyborg from Saint Croix. Duncan is no longer the Spurs-iest Spur. That distinction is now held by 22-year-old rising star and emotionless Vulcan Kawhi Leonard.
Consider the following:
• Kawhi Leonard does not listen to music. Instead, he relaxes by lifting weights and getting his ankles taped.
• Kawhi Leonard does not waver. Whether he is nailing a clutch three, baptizing Mike Miller in the NBA Finals, or picking up his dry cleaning, he remains expressionless. There are no on-court celebrations. No displays of frustration at the officials. No displays of anything, really. He is the Lorne Malvo of the Association.
• Kawhi Leonard does not have a Twitter account. He does, however, appear to have an Instagram account, though it has been updated exactly once in 2014.
• Kawhi Leonard does not appear in shoe commercials, primarily because very few human beings are aware of his existence or feel compelled by his presence to spend $300 on basketball shoes. His Q Score is likely measured in degrees Celsius.
• Kawhi Leonard does not speak often in public, and when he does the results are sparse and awkward. When asked how it felt to have his first “podium game” after scoring 22 points and collecting 5 steals in the Spurs’ closeout Game 5 victory over the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Semis, Leonard meekly and without eye-contact offered the following: “Uh … I don’t feel no certain way about it. Tim [Duncan] wanted me to come up here.” Then he laughed sheepishly as the media room became engorged with pregnant and uncomfortable silence.
The Spurs have always valued cultural fit more than other teams, believing that the Popovich-Duncan system can inherently maximize the talents of each individual player as long as that player is willing to submit to the team above all else. But the Spurs have perhaps never found such a perfect cultural synergy than they have with Leonard.
Gregg Popovich himself – oenophile that he is – has stated that the stoic young small forward eventually will eventually age into the “The Face of the Spurs,” like a Merlot or something. When asked about his potential future as the franchise’s cornerstone, Leonard, of course, deflected the praise:
“I don’t even think about it like that,” he answered, presumably using up his monthly allotment of words. “Just being better as a player.”
What a very Spurs answer.
But Kawhi’s importance to the Spurs and their hopes of another title runs much deeper than his temperament. His emerging offensive game (all based around high-percentage threes and at-the-rim dunks, the two most efficient shots in the game) has combined with his already elite defensive skills and massive hands (seriously, look at this photo) to elevate Leonard to a critical cog in the Spurs’ hyper-efficient Basketball Machine of Death.
Leonard was sidelined for 14 games this winter, recovering from a hand fracture. While he was out, the Spurs defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 posessions) jumped from 99.6 to 103.6, and they sputtered to an 8-6 record. Upon his return, the Spurs ripped off an insane 22-4 run to end the year, and have positively destroyed the competition in this year’s playoffs.
And during that postseason run, Leonard has come into his own, averaging a shade under 14 points per game, grabbing 9 boards a night, and shooting nearly 55 percent from the field. On defense, he’s made life difficult for Kevin Durant – the league’s MVP and unapologetic assassin – in the Western Conference Finals, a series the Spurs currently lead 2-1 (Game 4 is Tuesday night). His emergence has more than offset the age-induced declines of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, and has the Spurs well-positioned to avenge last year’s Finals loss to Miami.
Just don’t expect to see any satisfaction on his face if the Spurs win. It would be highly illogical.