How great is Kawhi Leonard's potential? At 22, and about to enter his third season, the 6'7" small forward has already rewritten what was supposed to be the ending of a dynasty. His rapid development gives point guard Tony Parker, 31, an All-Star-caliber running buddy for at least the next half-decade. Things will be different without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginóbili, but whenever those Hall of Famers do hang it up, the Spurs won't exactly be sliding into irrelevance.
Plucked from the Pacers in a 2011 draft-day trade, Leonard showed his skill during the 2013 playoffs, averaging 13.5 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals while shooting 54.5%. It was hard to know which was more impressive: Leonard's success guarding everyone from Stephen Curry to LeBron James or the way he remained unfazed as the stakes rose.
His dream ride took a cruel turn in Game 6 of the Finals, when he missed a free throw that could have helped seal the title. But that shouldn't overshadow Leonard's immense capabilities. An excellent rebounder, a dependable outside shooter, a ball-hawking defender and a player whose drive draws regular praise from hard-to-please coach Gregg Popovich, Leonard was the third-highest scorer on the NBA's seventh-best offense and the second most important defender on the No. 3 D. So if you think 2013 was San Antonio's last, best shot at a title for the foreseeable future, think again.
COACH GREGG POPOVICH (18TH SEASON WITH SPURS)
2012--13 RECORD 58--24 (1ST IN SOUTHWEST)
WHAT'S NEW Shooter Marco Belinelli will ease the burden on Danny Green and 36-year-old Manu Ginóbili.
PROJECTED LINEUP (2012--13 STATS)
PG TONY PARKER
20.3 PPG; 7.6 APG; 52.2 FG%; 35.3 3FG%
SG DANNY GREEN
10.5 PPG; 3.1 RPG; 44.8 FG%; 42.9 3FG%
SF KAWHI LEONARD
11.9 PPG; 6.0 RPG; 49.4 FG%; 3FG% 37.4
PF TIM DUNCAN
17.8 PPG; 9.9 RPG; 2.7 BPG; 50.2 FG%
C TIAGO SPLITTER
10.3 PPG; 6.4 RPG; 0.8 BPG; 56.0 FG%
SG MANU GINÓBILI
11.8 PPG; 4.6 APG; 42.5 FG%; 35.3 3FG%
PERCENTAGE OF games won by the Spurs since they took Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft. That is the highest winning percentage over any 16-year span in NBA history.
A RIVAL SCOUT SIZES UP THE SPURS
Defensively you get smarter as you age, but Tim Duncan was also a little more bouncy. The second reaction is huge around the basket—that quick second jump. Last season Duncan had 2.7 blocks per game, second best of his career, and his free throw percentage [81.7] was far and away a career high. Two years ago I didn't think he was as big a go-to guy as he was last year.... If I were building a franchise, I'd probably take Steph Curry to run the team, but for this year the only guys I'd take ahead of Tony Parker would be Chris Paul and Derrick Rose. Isiah Thomas was able to dominate without shooting—and then he'd go get you 30. The same is true for Parker.... Manu Ginóbili still has that explosiveness, and being a lefty makes guarding him more difficult. He's great at drawing fouls and getting into defenders: He knows the old soccer tricks of the Europeans and South Americans, but at the same time—and I don't know if this is politically correct—he attacks the basket like an American.... Their role guys usually spot up and you can run them off the three-point line, but that's not the case with Kawhi Leonard, who can beat you off the dribble. He plays multiple positions and is a terrific defender. Dirk [Nowitzki] likes to post up smaller guys, but Kawhi is able to deal with him because he's strong.... Marco Belinelli is a good shooter who's going to stretch your defense because you can't sit there and let him line it up. He's more of a playmaker than Gary Neal, who is a tougher and more physical defender.
GREG NELSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (LEONARD)
BUDDING STAR LEONARD
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DUNCAN)