February 15, 2019
Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge
Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge are now driving the San Antonio Spurs’ success.

 

It wasn’t long ago—just shy of two months—but it feels like ages.  On Jan. 21, after a 117-89 victory over the Suns in Phoenix, LaMarcus Aldridge followed a seven point, 3-for-9 shooting performance with an interesting quote.

“This is more Kawhi’s team,” he said, “and we all fit in around him and try to make his life a little easier.  If I was trying to be that guy still, I should have not come.  I’m OK trying to help Kawhi be great every night.”

Maybe he was right, to a point.

Gregg Popovich declared Kawhi Leonard the future of the Spurs well before Aldridge arrived.  The way in which the three-time Coach of the Year ran to midcourt and vehemently demanded Tony Parker defer primary ball handling duties to Leonard in the final minutes of their most recent game against the Oklahoma City Thunder would seem to support a commitment to continue in that direction.

And why not?  Leonard, as becomes clearer by the day, is a generational talent: a one-man, game-changing force on both ends of the floor.

But Aldridge was mistaken if he thought he was recruited to San Antonio merely to prop up Leonard; even more so if he supposed “trying to help Kawhi be great” was a one-way street.

As the mantle of responsibility passed from Robinson, to Duncan, to Ginobili, to Parker over the last 20 years, the purpose was never to showcase their individual greatness, but to make the Spurs the best they could be.  It is no different with the latest Spurs’ star acquired on Draft night.

In Popovich’s estimation, Kawhi Leonard started becoming a great player “when he realized that when I call his number, it’s for the Spurs to score, not for him to score.” Chances are, anyone who has caught the Spurs on TNT even once in the last year has heard this quote no less than three times.  It is a particular favorite of Charles Barkley’s.  The repetition does not detract from the point it illustrates.

Featuring Leonard isn’t a move made at the expense of his teammates, but in service of the team.  If Leonard’s teammates are expected to help him be great, the expectation that he will do the same for them is equally as strong.

It is a skill that Leonard is still developing, but the more he understands his ability to impact entire defensive schemes the way his defense already alters entire offensive schemes, the more Aldridge—with formidable talent of his own—stands to benefit.  Likewise, the more aggressive Aldridge is, the more he opens up the floor for Leonard.  In turn, their success breeds opportunities for their teammates to succeed.

Somewhere along the way, they began to figure it out.

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Since February started, Aldridge and Leonard have been on the floor together for 15 games.  They are averaging 47 points per game in that span, and have each scored at least 20 points in 10 of those games.  In 44 previous games together they managed that feat just four times.

The first hint of a symbiotic relationship developing between Leonard and Aldridge came on Feb. 3.  It was a rare February home game, the second to last before the Rodeo Trip.  With Duncan out due to knee trouble and Ginobili leaving for the hospital, the Spurs’ All-Stars hung 62 points on the New Orleans Pelicans.  Aldridge, who was aggressive from the jump, led the way with 36.

Most fascinating was the way they took turns attacking throughout the fourth quarter, in which they scored 20 of the Spurs’ 27 points.  They fell into a natural rhythm, a two-headed charge that pounded the Pelicans into submission.  It became a familiar pattern in the following weeks.

After a blowout victory in Dallas, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge topped 20 points apiece in three straight games, including the first two of the Rodeo Trip.  The most impressive of these was a comeback victory over the Magic.

On the back end of a back-to-back, in the last game before All-Star break, the Spurs found themselves down 12 heading into the fourth quarter.  Timely shooting by Patty Mills and Danny Green shortened the gap but couldn’t close it.

Then, as the Spurs’ defense rose to the challenge, Leonard and Aldridge stepped forward.  They scored 17 of the Spurs’ 31 points in the final frame, including all 10 in the last 2:23.

Aldridge made four free throws in a row before attempting this turnaround jumper.  He was lucky to regain possession after turning blindly into Fournier coming to double, but his determination to still take and make the shot shows a confidence that had been touch and go for him to that point in his San Antonio tenure.

Aldridge’s heroics were ultimately followed by Leonard’s game-winner, a watershed moment for the 24-year-old.  It was the first time Popovich put the ball in Leonard’s hands, in isolation, and asked him to win the game.  He prevailed despite a terrific contest by Aaron Gordon.

The comeback against the Magic sent the Spurs into All-Star break on a high note.  They would take some time to regain their rhythm as Leonard missed the first three games after the break with a strained calf, but the foundation for a material progression had been laid.

The Kawhi Leonard-LaMarcus Aldridge duo has taken another step forward in March.  Leonard is averaging 25 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists at 48 percent shooting.  Aldridge especially looks rejuvenated, averaging 25.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, two assists, 1.5 blocks and shooting nearly 60 percent from the field in six games this month.

Along with his usual array of shots, Aldridge has put a lot of effort into running the floor and trailing the break, and his teammates have done a better job finding him.

Not only has individual scoring increased, but they are continually learning to work in tandem as well.  The Leonard-Aldridge pick-and-roll, in particular, has emerged as a serious weapon.

Kawhi Leonard’s improvement as a penetrator frees up that sweet spot mid-range look for Aldridge.

When Aldridge’s man hurries back to cover the shot, as Karl Anthony Towns does here, Leonard takes the open lane to the rim.

Occasionally, if he catches the defender closing too hard on the shot, Aldridge can get in on driving to the rim as well.

Kawhi Leonard’s range adds another dimension.  This dagger three off the Aldridge pick capped another comeback for the Spurs.  Leonard and Aldridge again killed the Pelicans down the stretch in this meeting, scoring 21 of their team’s 26 points in the last 12 minutes.

With accurate jumpshots and the ability to command double-teams, both players are also capable of creating shot opportunities for each other (as well as teammates) out of the post.  How often has that been true of a duo in NBA history?

It sounds corny and insignificant, but even the number of fist-pumps—the pinnacle of Spurs-y celebration for anything less than a championship—for each other’s success has increased.

There’s a sense that they are enjoying playing together.  They are just discovering the impact they can have on games, together, and how important it is to their team’s success.  Winning is fun, and it becomes easier once teammates trust that it is the top priority for everyone.

Aldridge had reason to be confused back in January.  The Spurs needed about half a season to get used to dumping the ball to him in the post regularly.  He needed to learn where his shots would come from, to trust that he was open without needing a pump fake or a dribble into the defense.  Chemistry takes time, and it’s safe to assume Leonard is not the easiest teammate to get to know.

In nearly five years in the NBA the revelations about Leonard—his personality and motivation—have been harder to come by than a gold strike.  Still, the clues to what drives him exist, flecks of gold buried deep under layers of snow and permafrost.  With his play demanding the focus of the national spotlight begin to shine in his direction, he has started to thaw, ever so slightly.

Last weekend Leonard was questioned about the superstar status recently thrust upon him by TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal.  Leonard told the San Antonio Express-News, “This is not where I want to be.  I’m striving for team goals.  Once that time comes, I’ll be happy, but I’m not just focused on myself becoming a superstar.  I want to make us the best team – a super team.”

So yes, Popovich will entrust Kawhi Leonard with the future, as he said he would years ago, because Leonard can be trusted.  But Aldridge will be an important part of that future, because Popovich said other things before Aldridge arrived, too.  In the midst of the Spurs’ ill-fated trip to the Finals in June of 2013 he told the assembled media, “We’ve never labeled it as someone’s team.  It’s our team.  It’s not my team, or Tim’s team, or Manu’s team, or Tony’s team.  It’s our team.”

Aldridge may not have understood two months ago, but it’s becoming clearer all the time.

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