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.
Jan 28, 2015, 1:17 PM EST
Jackson said breaking rule gave New York an edge due to team’s style of play
Jan 28, 2015, 12:42 PM EST
Thunder remain heavy favorites
Jan 28, 2015, 12:05 PM EST
The Raptors are trying to be patient and tap into his potential.
Jan 28, 2015, 11:17 AM EST
Mirotic, drafted in 2011, is a darkhorse challenger to Andrew Wiggins for Rookie of the Year
Jan 28, 2015, 9:59 AM EST
It probably would matter less than before, but why change the date?
Jan 28, 2015, 9:22 AM EST
Upshaw reportedly failed multiple drug tests at Washington and Fresno State
Jan 28, 2015, 8:30 AM EST
He can do more than just shoot the rock.
Jan 28, 2015, 8:00 AM EST
They like his veteran leadership on a young team.
Jan 28, 2015, 2:59 AM EST
The Warriors are just simply a fun team to watch play.
Jan 28, 2015, 2:03 AM EST
I’d take this Finals matchup.
Jan 28, 2015, 12:17 AM EST
Lucas also previously played for Memphis
Jan 27, 2015, 11:33 PM EST
Hornets also reportedly had interest in Heat point guard
Jan 27, 2015, 10:51 PM EST
Buss would have turned 82 today
Jan 27, 2015, 10:09 PM EST
Heat blow lead to Bucks without star guard
Jan 27, 2015, 9:25 PM EST
Following Pistons basket, Cavaliers run awesome insta-fastbreak
Jan 27, 2015, 8:27 PM EST
One Clipper has a better chance than the other
Jan 27, 2015, 7:23 PM EST
The best news may be the return to the classic dunk contest format.
Jan 27, 2015, 6:50 PM EST
Barring any setbacks with hand injury
Jan 27, 2015, 5:59 PM EST
The Atlanta Hawks, is there anything they can’t do?
Jan 27, 2015, 5:15 PM EST
My gaming experience suggests you talk a lot of trash to the guy next to you.
- Nikola Mirotic’s unique style rewarding Bulls for waiting on him 6
- What We Learned in NBA Tuesday Night: Bulls fans should want more of this attacking Derrick Rose 8
- Derrick Rose hits step-back jumper in overtime, lifts Bulls past Warriors (VIDEO) 5
- It’s official: Zach LaVine, Greek Freak Antetokounmpo headline All-Star Dunk Contest 11
- Report: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson to participate in All-Star weekend’s Three-Point Contest 8
- Three Things We Learned from NBA Monday: Is it time to mention Anthony Davis with LeBron and Durant? 33
- PBT Extra: Who should be the All-Star Game reserves? 16
- Report: Kobe Bryant “definitively coming back to play next season” 31