Jun 12, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT
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.
Apr 17, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
Can you blame them?
Apr 17, 2014, 3:59 PM EDT
Ballots show a tight race
Apr 17, 2014, 3:15 PM EDT
It really comes down to this: Does he trust Phil Jackson and Knicks management to build a winner quickly?
Apr 17, 2014, 2:40 PM EDT
You put your money where your heart is, and your heart clearly follows LeBron James and the Heat.
Apr 17, 2014, 2:11 PM EDT
Bucks didn’t win back-to-back games all season
Kobe tells Lakers’ fans to “flush” last season, has been cleared to run, shoot, prepare for next season
Apr 17, 2014, 1:33 PM EDT
Kobe may be in France but he still had time to tweet Lakers fans and tell them things will be better next season.
Apr 17, 2014, 12:55 PM EDT
He is as high on some boards as No. 1, but likely goes No. 3. However no freshman near the top of this board will have a bigger immediate impact in the NBA — his offensive game is NBA ready.
Apr 17, 2014, 12:10 PM EDT
This both has been expected and is mutual, according to the buzz around the league.
Apr 17, 2014, 11:20 AM EDT
Hill previously reported to be a candidate for a job
Apr 17, 2014, 10:44 AM EDT
Pistons forward: ‘I’ve censored myself’
Apr 17, 2014, 10:11 AM EDT
Get ready for an intense playoff series
Apr 17, 2014, 9:40 AM EDT
Irving talks as if he wants to stay in Cleveland
Apr 17, 2014, 8:44 AM EDT
Clear out your calendar.
Apr 17, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
Tight 1-2 race
Apr 17, 2014, 2:10 AM EDT
On the season Kevin Durant averaged 32 points, seven rebounds and five assists a game. Not too shabby.
Apr 17, 2014, 12:07 AM EDT
Apr 16, 2014, 11:31 PM EDT
Kevin Durant was simply unstoppable with the game on the line against the Pistons.
Apr 16, 2014, 11:00 PM EDT
The West is loaded with great series: Thunder vs. Grizzlies, Clippers vs. Warriors, Rockets vs. Blazers.
Apr 16, 2014, 10:31 PM EDT
Vegas nailed the lines for season win totals for four NBA teams almost exactly.
Apr 16, 2014, 9:14 PM EDT
The matchups aren’t all set, but this gives us an idea of who plays when as the playoffs open this weekend.
- 2014 PBT Awards: Coach of the Year 0
- Carmelo Anthony: “I want to come back…I also want to win.” 16
- Kobe tells Lakers’ fans to “flush” last season, has been cleared to run, shoot, prepare for next season 30
- Duke’s Jabari Parker says he will enter NBA Draft 26
- Report: Rick Adelman will not return as Timberwolves coach 12