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. Hawks’ Thabo Sefolosha says police incident damaged his reputation

    May 29, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT

    Thabo Sefolosha AP

    Sefolosha suffered a leg fracture during a police incident that kept him from participating in the playoffs.

  2. Suns shake up their coaching staff

    May 29, 2015, 8:00 PM EDT

    Phoenix Suns v Sacramento Kings Getty Images

    Jeff Hornacek remains in charge, but there has been some shuffling among his assistants.

  3. PBT Extra: Houston Rockets face interesting off-season

    May 29, 2015, 7:01 PM EDT

    Dallas Mavericks v Houston Rockets - Game One Getty Images

    There are questions about the future of Josh Smith, Patrick Beverley and others with the team.

  4. LeBron James on how to slow Stephen Curry: “The same way you slow me down … You can’t.”

    May 29, 2015, 6:15 PM EDT

    OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 12:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors goes in for a layup over LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat at ORACLE Arena on February 12, 2014 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) Getty Images

    The two most popular players in the NBA this season (with Kevin Durant out) go head-to-head on the NBA’s biggest stage.

  5. PBT Extra with NBASavant.com: Cleveland may want to cover Curry in the left corner

    May 29, 2015, 5:29 PM EDT

    Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors - Game Five Getty Images

    Cleveland’s defense has looked better in the playoffs than it has all season, but starting next Thursday it will get the biggest test it has had all season.

  6. It’s official: Scott Skiles hired as head coach of Orlando Magic

    May 29, 2015, 4:53 PM EDT

    150523_skiles Getty Images

    Skiles is a former Magic player from 1989 through 1994.

  7. Cookin’ with the Currys, guest-starring Riley Curry (video)

    May 29, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT

    Stephen Curry Stephen Curry

    Ayesha Curry cooks, Stephen Curry tastes, and Riley Curry points out raspberry-sauce spills

  8. PBT Podcast: Talking Thibodeau/Bulls divorce; future for Rockets, Hawks

    May 29, 2015, 3:45 PM EDT

    Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Two Getty Images

    Would hiring Thibodeau really a wise call by the Pelicans?

  9. Warriors’ Klay Thompson officially diagnosed with concussion

    May 29, 2015, 3:09 PM EDT

    Klay Thompson Klay Thompson

    The NBA needs to review this process going forward.

  10. Klay Thompson should not have been cleared to return to Game 5 after concussion evaluation

    May 29, 2015, 2:14 PM EDT

    Klay Thompson Klay Thompson

    Warriors guard passed, but not enough time had passed to determine his health

  11. Rumor: Thunder promised to draft Cameron Payne No. 14

    May 29, 2015, 12:43 PM EDT

    Cameron Payne, Reece Chamberlain AP

    Believable, but is that why it’s believed?

  12. Report: Cavaliers could activate Anderson Varejao in NBA Finals if necessary

    May 29, 2015, 12:04 PM EDT

    Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game One Getty Images

    Varejao was slated to miss the entire season with an Achilles tear

  13. Dwight Howard suspended one game after foul switcheroo

    May 29, 2015, 11:17 AM EDT

    Dwight Howard, Klay Thompson Dwight Howard, Klay Thompson

    NBA gives Rockets center a flagrant foul, rescinds technical fouls for him and Andrew Bogut

  14. Report: Magic could hire Scott Skiles as soon as today

    May 29, 2015, 10:54 AM EDT

    NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 26:  Head coach Scott Skiles of the Milwaukee Bucks looks on against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 26, 2012 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Scott Skiles Getty Images

    Contract negotiations reportedly ongoing

  15. National Spelling Bee co-champion wore LeBron jersey under dress shirt

    May 29, 2015, 9:45 AM EDT

    Gokul Venkatachalam predicts Cavaliers in 6

  16. Report: Fred Hoiberg still expected to become Bulls’ next coach

    May 29, 2015, 9:08 AM EDT

    Fred Hoiberg AP

    Iowa State coach reportedly had concerns about NBA jump due to health

  17. Three coaches who may replace Tom Thibodeau in Chicago

    May 29, 2015, 8:30 AM EDT

    150529_Hoiberg Getty Images

    They want Fred Hoiberg, but does he want them?

Did Chicago do the right thing in firing Thibodeau?

Despite ending, Hawks had season to remember
Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. S. Curry (8511)
  2. K. Love (6538)
  3. K. Irving (6401)
  4. K. Korver (5045)
  5. L. James (4859)
  1. K. Bryant (4046)
  2. D. Howard (3999)
  3. A. Varejao (3953)
  4. K. Durant (3948)
  5. M. Speights (3677)