Skip to content

Kawhi Leonard becoming the LeBron stopper the Spurs knew they’d need

Jun 12, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT

Miami Heat v San Antonio Spurs - Game Three Getty Images

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 Leonardranked 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.

Latest Posts
  1. Report: Team USA uncertain whether Dwight Howard, John Wall will attend minicamp

    Jul 30, 2015, 12:07 PM EDT

    Dwight Howard, John Wall AP

    Jerry Colangelo said attendance was mandatory to be considered for 2016 Olympic team

  2. Adam Silver: NBA on track to play regular-season games in Africa

    Jul 30, 2015, 11:22 AM EDT

    cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznpwm0ndlhnjzlyjziyjk4otqxymqym2y5yzrintq4yjm1 AP

    NBA commissioner confident Africa will get a preseason game

  3. Thabo Sefolosha: Too soon to say when I’ll play again

    Jul 30, 2015, 10:31 AM EDT

    Thabo Sefolosha AP

    Hawks wing says his leg and ankle feel better

  4. 76ers sign Richaun Holmes

    Jul 30, 2015, 9:28 AM EDT

    Philadelphia 76ers: Richaun Holmes Portrait Getty Images

    Philadelphia drafted Holmes in second round

  5. Matt Barnes ready to “foul the beep” out of DeAndre Jordan when Grizzlies, Clippers meet

    Jul 30, 2015, 8:33 AM EDT

    cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznpthkoty3ytfmn2fjnjvlyjeyytc0mwvlngi0nwqyzmjh AP

    Barnes is a perfect fit in for the “grit and grind” style of the Grizzlies.

  6. Wesley Matthews says Trail Blazers never made him an offer, “I was pissed off”

    Jul 30, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT

    Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Three Getty Images

    Portland not making a call means they knew Aldridge was gone and it was time to rebuild.

  7. Report: Rockets sign Chuck Hayes to one-year deal

    Jul 30, 2015, 12:55 AM EDT

    Toronto Raptors v New York Knicks Getty Images

    The Rockets have nice depth up front.

  8. Anthony Davis excited to get running in Alvin Gentry’s offense

    Jul 29, 2015, 10:55 PM EDT

    Golden State Warriors v New Orleans Pelicans - Game Four Getty Images

    The Pelicans were one of the slowest paced teams in the NBA last season, that’s about to change.

  9. Chris Kaman has new reality show, to air on Mark Cuban’s network

    Jul 29, 2015, 9:30 PM EDT

    Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Lakers Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Lakers

    “I think someone who would watch this would think there is something wrong with me and something wrong with my friends.” — Chris Kaman

  10. Report: Veteran point guard Andre Miller reaches one-year deal with Timberwolves

    Jul 29, 2015, 8:47 PM EDT

    Shabazz Napier, Andre Miller Shabazz Napier, Andre Miller

    Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns are about to be finishing alley-oops from the best lob passer in the game.

  11. Warriors promote Luke Walton to lead assistant coach

    Jul 29, 2015, 6:55 PM EDT

    Golden State Warriors v New Orleans Pelicans Getty Images

    Kerr says Luke Walton is a future head coach in the NBA.

  12. Raptors’ coach Dwane Casey says expect more small ball from the Raptors this year

    Jul 29, 2015, 6:31 PM EDT

    Toronto Raptors v Washington Wizards - Game Four Getty Images

    Toronto has shifted the roster to be more defensive, and be able to go smaller.

  13. Raptors hire Jerry Stackhouse as assistant coach

    Jul 29, 2015, 4:22 PM EDT

    Stackhouse drives against Carter Getty Images

    Rex Kalamian and Andy Greer also join Dwane Casey’s staff

  14. Jerry Colangelo: I think LeBron James wants to be part of Team USA

    Jul 29, 2015, 2:03 PM EDT

    cd0ymzcznguwzdbhnduynddiytjhm2yyzthlmtjjotqwyyznpwmxmdgxmdzhnmq1mwfkn2ewnwi0m2zkowvjzwnhmdmz AP

    Cavaliers star has avoided making a public decision

  15. Brazil’s automatic basketball bid for 2016 Olympics in jeopardy over money

    Jul 29, 2015, 1:04 PM EDT

    Tiago Splitter, Rudy Fernandez, Leandrinho Barbosa AP

    If Brazil qualifies through FIBA Americas Championship, that could close door for another North/South American team from qualifying

  16. Phil Jackson on Kobe Bryant: ‘I could feel his hatred’

    Jul 29, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT

    Los Angeles Lakers v Charlotte Bobcats Getty Images

    Lakers were in a bad place when Jackson first stepped away

Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. K. Bryant (2897)
  2. B. Haywood (2478)
  3. I. Thomas (2425)
  4. A. Randolph (1965)
  5. L. James (1908)