Jun 12, 2013, 8:00 AM EST
In 2011, a 22-year-old Derrick Rose became the youngest Most Valuable Player in NBA history. Dwight Howard, then just 25, finished second in the voting. Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavericks to the championship.
The NBA can be a reactionary league, and some teams set out that offseason searching for the next Rose, Howard or Nowitzki or a player who could stop one of those three. A point guard, center and power forward.
The Spurs didn’t become the NBA’s top team in the last 15 years by being reactionary, though, and they eyed a different type of player, one who could help them in 2012, 2013 and beyond – not 2011, a season that had already ended. That meant they needed someone to guard LeBron James and Kevin Durant, small forwards.
So, the Spurs shopped George Hill, a player they had developed into a borderline starter/Sixth Man of the Year candidate. To a degree, San Antonio got lucky Kawhi Leonard – ranked No. 6 on ESPN’s big board – fell all the way to the No. 15 pick in the 2011 draft, where the Pacers picked and were willing to trade for Hill.
The Spurs’ calculation was dead on. LeBron and Durant finished 1-2 in MVP voting and led their team to a combined three Finals in the two years since San Antonio drafted Leonard. Meanwhile, Leonard has developed into one of the NBA’s best defenders of those two.
That ability was on full display during the Spurs’ 113-77 Game 3 win over the Heat last night. In addition to posting 14 points and 12 rebounds, Leonard became the youngest player since at least 1985 to get four steals in a Finals game and helped hold LeBron to 7-of-21 shooting and, for the first time since 2009, no free throws .
LeBron has never averaged fewer points per game in a series than the 16.7 he’s scoring in these Finals, and his series field-goal percentage (38.9) is his lowest in the last five years. Of course, Leonard doesn’t deserve all the credit, but he’s the primary piece of San Antonio’s defense of LeBron.
Leonard showed this type of defensive potential against Durant in the Western Conference Finals last year, but ultimately, Leonard was still a rookie and wasn’t ready for the matchup. That was a key reason the Thunder beat the Spurs to reach the Finals.
But Leonard, even though he’s four years younger than any other starter in this series, sure looks ready now. Especially impressively, Leonard has grabbed two, eight and three offensive rebounds in the Finals. He’s not just guarding LeBron, he has enough energy to make all the hustle plays on offense, too.
Leonard is at the perfect crossroads, young enough to play hard for major minutes and savvy enough to play well on the biggest stage – just as the Spurs envisioned two years ago.
Dec 26, 2014, 8:00 AM EST
Well, you don’t see that every day. Fortunately.
Dec 26, 2014, 2:56 AM EST
The flagrant fouls and ejections we’ve come to expect from these teams were non-existent, as L.A. came away with a “signature win” over the league-leading Warriors.
Dec 25, 2014, 11:48 PM EST
The Bulls blew out the Lakers on Christmas.
Dec 25, 2014, 11:31 PM EST
Wade was brilliant… for a half, anyway. But that was enough.
Dec 25, 2014, 10:16 PM EST
Dec 25, 2014, 9:24 PM EST
Bryant misses his second straight game simply due to a need for rest.
Dec 25, 2014, 6:46 PM EST
With Kevin Durant out, Westbrook puts Oklahoma City on his back, elevates Steven Adams and helps produce 114-106 victory
Dec 25, 2014, 6:10 PM EST
Scott Brooks: Kevin Durant ‘could not go if he wanted to go’
Dec 25, 2014, 4:15 PM EST
Washington was never threatened after the first quarter.
Dec 25, 2014, 2:46 PM EST
A multiple game suspension is following.
Dec 25, 2014, 2:00 PM EST
Well, it’s a pretty easy goal to reach.
Dec 25, 2014, 12:30 PM EST
Kevin Durant would not start as of right now, but expect that to change once he starts playing again.
Dec 25, 2014, 11:00 AM EST
Howard and Smith were AAU teammates.
PBT Christmas Day preview: Late game between Clippers and Warriors will see league’s best rivalry renewed
Dec 25, 2014, 9:30 AM EST
These teams do not like each other.
Dec 25, 2014, 8:00 AM EST
And at No. 1… come on, isn’t it pretty obvious?
Dec 25, 2014, 2:13 AM EST
This will be his fourth game missed with a sprained ankle, they are 1-2 without him the last three.
Dec 24, 2014, 11:00 PM EST
The Wizards are an underrated team in the East. The Knicks… not so much.
Dec 24, 2014, 9:30 PM EST
Previewing the Bulls vs. Lakers matchup at the United Center.
Dec 24, 2014, 9:00 PM EST
Colorways inspired by shoes Michael Jordan wore during his best Christmas Day performance.
Spurs and Thunder, who’ve been best in the West lately, both fighting for position entering Christmas matchup
Dec 24, 2014, 7:00 PM EST
Injuries to Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard have put both teams behind the eight ball
- Clippers win ‘nice, boring’ Christmas Day battle with Warriors 0
- Miami fans give LeBron warm welcome, Heat team not so much in upset win 10
- Russell Westbrook inspires Thunder to skid-stopping win over Spurs 8
- LeBron James, Stephen Curry leading in early All-Star voting returns 16
- PBT Christmas Day preview: Late game between Clippers and Warriors will see league’s best rivalry renewed 1
- PBT Extra: Top 5 NBA stories of 2014 0
- Five things to watch as NBA takes over Christmas Day 16
- Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao tears Achilles, done for season 30