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San Antonio Spurs 2017-18 Season Preview

The Spurs brought their band back and added Rudy Gay. Will it be enough to win the Southwest again?

Basketball Insiders

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After cruising through last season to the second seed in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs’ championship hopes were ended when Kawhi Leonard suffered a playoff-ending ankle injury in the Western Conference Finals.

Now, the Spurs look to gather themselves and attempt to knock off the Golden State Warriors this season. Most of the team is back for another run, with a few changes here and there. Can this group compete for a sixth championship in the Gregg Popovich era?

Let’s take an early look at the 2017-18 Spurs season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

While the rest of the Western Conference powerhouses were adding star players and key talents to their arsenal in an attempt to knock the Golden State Warriors off of their high horse, the San Antonio Spurs held their ground.

Aside from bringing in Rudy Gay, the same old Spurs captained by the stoic looks of Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard will enter this season looking to do what every team last season failed miserably at; beat the Warriors.

Unfortunately for San Antonio, the road to that seemingly impossible task looks a whole lot bumpier this season. With no real upgrades across the board for their squad, this may not be the year the Spurs have a chance at title number six under Coach Pop. But don’t expect the NBA’s pillar of sustained excellence to go down without a fight.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Nothing has happened over the course of the last four months to suggest that the San Antonio Spurs won’t be every bit as formidable as they’ve always been. Manu Ginobili is back. The team re-signed Patty Mills and Pau Gasol, while adding Rudy Gay to the rotation for some more scoring. Kawhi Leonard is a top-five player in the league, and it’s not like Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge have been completely siphoned of their usefulness. This still is an incredibly good, incredibly deep team that still has Gregg Popovich as a coach. They’ll be a top-four seed in the Western Conference, as has become their custom.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Re-signing Pau Gasol and nabbing Rudy Gay were the splashiest moves the Spurs made this past summer, but at this point, nobody should doubt them or their ability to seemingly overachieve.

If Tony Parker isn’t able to return to pre-injury form quickly, it could threaten the Spurs and their ability to win the Southwest Division, but I think I’ve seen enough from the combination of Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray to believe that they’ll be able to hold the fort in his absence. Plus, we can rest assured of at least two guys on Popovich’s roster will reveal to the world that they are studs.

I’m sad that Jonathon Simmons will be wearing a new uniform next season, but am happy for him and the fact that he was able to turn his opportunity with the Spurs into a three-year, $20 million contract with the Orlando Magic.

It’s fairly easy to see the Rockets finding a way to outlast the Spurs and take the division crown, but with their compromised depth and the Spurs being the Spurs, at this point, I’m still betting on Popovich and Kawhi Leonard.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

Is this finally the year the Spurs take the small step back many have been predicting from them for half a decade? It could be, but you won’t see that pick coming from this pen until we’ve at least seen it happen once. The Spurs stood pat this offseason other than the acquisition of Rudy Gay – unless they have more moves up their sleeve, it seems as though they’ll look to challenge the Warriors with roughly the same kind of roster. They’ll rack up wins all season against inferior competition, as per usual, and the big questions will arise come spring time. To this eye, Kawhi Leonard is one of the best MVP bets available on the board.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

Between the issues at point guard, Rudy Gay’s recovery from an Achilles tear, Pau Gasol’s age and the loss of Jonathon Simmons, I’m a bit concerned about the San Antonio Spurs heading into this season. I fully understand that the Spurs will likely find a variety of ways to be as competitive as ever this upcoming season, but this roster just feels outmatched by other elite teams in the league at this point. The defense should still be formidable, Kawhi Leonard may be even better with another season under his belt and LaMarcus Aldridge could bounce back and become more of a focal point for the team. But, as of now, it feels as though the Spurs are a step behind the Houston Rockets and even further behind the Golden State Warriors.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

One name that will be a constant on this list: Kawhi Leonard. He is among the best players in the NBA and leads the Spurs on both ends of the floor night in and night out.

Leonard averaged a career-high 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game last season. Although he finished third in the Most Valuable Player award voting and third in the Defensive Player of the Year award voting, he had a case to win both awards.

He can attack a defense in a variety of ways. He can knock down the outside shot, drive to the basket and finish through contact and is one of the league’s best scorers in the pick and roll. Leonard also ranked third in the NBA in PER at 27.6.

Most Spurs fans will remember the 43 points he scored against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs while knocking down seven three-pointers or the six consecutive games he had in January in which he scored at least 30 points.

Leonard has long been known to be a lockdown defender, but it’s possible his offense is nearly just as good as his defense, which is why he’s one f the best overall players in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

As a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Leonard listed as the team’s best defender.

Leonard is tasked with guarding the best players in the league on any given night and he has proven to have more success than others in doing so. He has long arms, great athleticism and seemingly never gives up on any play.

It’s perhaps most impressive that Leonard can guard virtually any position on the floor. He can be matched up with the game’s fastest players on one night and then be asked to guard some of the biggest players on other nights. Whether it’s matching up against John Wall or Kevin Durant, Leonard can lock up just about anyone and has a legitimate case to be the best NBA’s best defender.

He ranked eighth in defensive rating (101.5), sixth in defensive win shares (4.7) and seventh in steals (1.8 per game). He had a legitimate case to win DPOY for a third consecutive year, but was voted third, instead.

Top Playmaker: Tony Parker

While his best years may be behind him, Parker is still a key playmaker for the Spurs. Sure, Leonard is the team’s best player and responsible for carrying the offense load each night, but Parker is still the point guard and is often the one initiating the offense.

Parker has proven to be a great penetrator over his 16 years in the NBA and can make a great pass to find an open man as well. His 4.5 assists per game last season led the Spurs as a unit. Parker simply knows how to feed the team’s key offensive players – especially in the post.

He may not be ready to play until January after tearing his quad in the postseason, but he’ll surely be a welcomed addition to the team once he’s healthy again.

Top Clutch Player: Kawhi Leonard

As Leonard proved to be the team’s top clutch player, he was also one of the best clutch players in the NBA.

The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five points. Leonard ranked 13th in the NBA with 136 total points last season in those situations and shot 40 percent (38-of-95) from the field.

Leonard had an incredible clutch sequence back in March against the Houston Rockets. James Harden converted on one of two free-throw attempts to give the Rockets a 108-107 lead with 39.7 seconds left in the game. Leonard then brought the ball down the court, dribbled to his left and pulled up to drain a three-pointer to give the Spurs a two-point lead with 25.4 seconds left. Just seconds later, Leonard blocked a shot by Harden at the rim to seal the victory.

He also hit a game-winning shot against the Washington Wizards in December. He’s proven to be among the best in the league in these clutch situations and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him add a few more game-winning shots to his collection this season.

The Unheralded Player:  Danny Green

Leonard often dominates the headlines when discussing this Spurs team and rightfully so. Even after Leonard, most will talk about LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Each player brings something to the table and are key contributors for this team.

One player that is often overlooked is Green. His stats last season weren’t flashy: 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range.

But Green is still a key piece to this team. His shooting creates spacing to allow guys like Aldridge and Pau Gasol room to work and he is still among the best defenders in the league after earning All-Defensive Second Team honors last season.

He came up with some big plays down the stretch to help the Spurs to a 3-2 series lead over the Rockets in the playoffs last year. It might be easy to overlook him, but it’s clear that Green is more than just what appears on the stat sheet.

Best New Addition: Rudy Gay

Gay leaves what he described as “basketball hell” with the Sacramento Kings and joins one of the best organizations in the league.

Signing Gay has the potential to be one of the best free agency steals of the summer after adding him on a two-year, $17.2 million deal. He holds an 18.4 points per game mark over his 11 seasons in the NBA. While he may not put up numbers like that this season, he still figures to be another quality scorer for the team.

He reportedly met with the Spurs, Warriors and Thunder in free agency and ultimately decided to sign with the Spurs. With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Gay will take the pressure off of Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge on the offensive end.

Of course, health is a huge question mark with Gay as he’s just one year removed from an Achilles’ heel injury that limited him to just 30 games last season with the Kings. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a huge addition to the second unit as a player that can still get buckets.

— Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Popovich has guided the Spurs to the playoffs in 20 of his 21 seasons on the job. It’s a pretty remarkable feat, but the Spurs have become a team expected to compete for a championship each year while under his watch.

The Spurs have won five championships during his tenure and he has won three Coach of the Year awards to back that up. It remains to be seen just how much longer Popovich has left as coach, but it has been proven that the Spurs will be among the league’s best as long as he’s still there.

2. LaMarcus Aldridge

As the Spurs’ No. 2 man behind Leonard, Aldridge has had a solid two season run in San Antonio. Rumors regarding his happiness with that role aside, Aldridge still has plenty to offer the Spurs.

While some teams opt to move away from the mid-range shot, Aldridge is still shooting it and shooting it well. The Spurs have developed ways to get him clean shots and he’s knocking them down. Aldridge ranked fourth in the NBA last season with 3.3 made shots from mid-range per game while connecting on 41.2 percent of them.

The Spurs will continue to count on Aldridge to help Leonard carry the offensive load and it looks as though he’ll continue to deliver.

3. Dejounte Murray

As a rookie, Murray showed a lot of promise. Now, the Spurs will really get a good idea what they have with him as he figures to transition into a bigger role in his second year.

With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Murray projects to play more minutes in his place. It could be a welcomed sign for the team in order to get Murray more comfortable playing big minutes. He played sparingly during the regular season last season, but was asked to step in for Parker after he went down with his quad injury.

If Murray can continue to progress, it should be fun to see how he improves and if he’ll be a major factor this season for the Spurs. Popovich showed a lot of confidence in him by playing him big minutes in the playoffs and that should in turn help Murray and his confidence.

Murray has been in the gym working out with the likes of Leonard and Ginobili so we expect to see a big second year from him.

4. Manu Ginobili

We love the fact that Ginobili is back for a 16th season in the NBA. It almost wouldn’t feel like a Spurs season without Ginobili on the court making amazing passes, making defenders miss with his signature left-handed drive or hitting clutch shots.

While he may have averaged a career-low 7.5 points per game last season, he still has value to this Spurs team. He still has enough juice in the tank to put up a 21-spot in the playoffs (See: Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals) and even have a clutch block on James Harden.

— Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Spurs stayed over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap this summer, using their Mid-Level Exception on Rudy Gay (locking in a hard cap at $125.3 million). San Antonio isn’t close to the limit, comfortably under the luxury tax threshold of $119.3 million. If needed, the team should be able to use their available $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception to add another free agent to the roster.

Kyle Anderson is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. The Spurs also must decide on Dejounte Murray’s 2018-19 team option before November. Next summer, San Antonio may be able to get to about $40 million under a $102 million salary cap, but that assumes LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Rudy Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne all opt out of their contracts.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

For a team that has made the playoffs in 20 consecutive seasons, there are understandably not many holes on this team. The team has the playoff experience needed to make a deep run, and had it not been for an injury to Leonard, the team may have challenged the Warriors for a spot in the NBA Finals. It also helps that they have arguably one of the best players in the league that can impact a game equally on both ends of the floor.

— Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

Although Tony Parker’s best basketball is behind him, his loss will still impact the team’s point guard position. Patty Mills has proven to be a solid fill-in for Parker, but after that there are questions. It appears as though Dejounte Murray will start at point guard with Mills off of the bench. Can Murray develop into a capable starter? That will be a question the team will need to know as soon as possible.

Of course, having Leonard on the court helps, but will the team be able to duplicate its top defense from a season ago? They lost Jonathon Simmons in free agency to the Orlando Magic and Dewayne Dedmon is now a member of the Atlanta Hawks. Simmons was among the team’s best perimeter defenders and Dedmon helped control the paint inside. It may not necessarily be a weakness just yet, but a situation worth monitoring.

— Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can the Spurs make it past the Warriors in the playoffs this season?

It’s a question each team in the Western Conference is asking this season. Obviously, some teams have a better chance than others to pull off an upset against the Warriors, but can the Spurs make it past them? They certainly started off well against the Warriors in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals, but an injury to Leonard ended their hopes in that game. Even with a healthy Leonard, it remains to be seen how the Spurs would fare against the Dubs in a seven-game series and we’re not quite ready to say the Spurs would be able to knock off the defending champs given just how stacked the Warriors are.

— Cody Taylor

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James Johnson: The Latest Product of Miami’s Culture

James Johnson speaks to Michael Scotto about his success within Miami’s culture.

Michael Scotto

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James Johnson went from an NBA nomad to financially set for life.

Over the summer, Johnson signed a four-year, $60 million deal with Miami, as first reported by Basketball Insiders. The deal included a fourth-year player option.

“It really meant everything to me,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “To be in a situation in my life to overcome so much, and to finally get something like that where it’s long-term, where it’s somewhere I really want to be too, it was just all-in-all the best scenario.”

Johnson was drafted No. 16 overall in 2009 and spent time with four different teams, including two stints in Toronto, before his career year in Miami last season. During that span, Johnson also spent time in the G-League for the Iowa Energy (2011) and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (2013).

Despite being nomadic through the first eight years of his career, Johnson never doubted his talent nor the hope that he’d find the right organizational fit.

“No, I never doubted myself,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “I never doubted the Lord neither. I’m a big firm believer of that. Every team I was on I always enjoyed my teammate’s success. I always was a real part of practice players and being a scout guy. My whole journey is just to figure out and experience all the other aspects of this game that we play. It says a lot where I can start helping other guys out like the rookies now and guys that are not getting any minutes right now, things like that. I’m a big testament to just staying ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”

After playing for the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, what set Miami’s culture apart?

“Just their want-to, they’re no excuses, act like a champion on and off the court, and just that mental stability of always teaching you, not just drills, not just coaching just because they’re called coaches,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “They really inspire, they really help out, and it makes you want to be in that work environment.”

Johnson credits his relationship with President Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra for helping him fulfill his potential.

“It’s great, its nothing like I’ve ever experienced before,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a little new still, but the freedom to be able to go into their office and just talk about normal things, you know, is one of the big reasons why I never want to leave this place.”

While playing on a one-year, $4 million deal, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 27.4 minutes per game. Johnson also shot a career-high 34 percent from beyond the arc.

Looking ahead, can Johnson continue to improve at age 30 and beyond coming off his best year as a pro?

“I got paid, so there’s no pressure of playing for the money,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s really playing for the wins, playing for your teammates, and playing with a pure heart, not going out there with any agendas, not going out there looking to live up to something that everybody else wants you to live up to. For me, it’s just gelling with our team and making sure our locker room is great like I was mentioning. Go out there and compete and trust each other.”

Johnson has put up nearly identical numbers through the first quarter of this season, averaging 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists in 27.6 minutes per game. Johnson is also shooting a career-high 36 percent from beyond the arc.

“It’s my ninth year, and I’m just happy to be able to be part of the NBA for that long,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders.

Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to maximize years 10-12 in Miami during the rest of his contract and the remaining prime of his career.

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NBA Daily: Quincy Pondexter Has Grown With New Orleans

Quincy Pondexter did two stints with New Orleans four years apart, both of which changed his life forever.

Joel Brigham

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By the time the New Orleans Hornets traded for the draft rights to Quincy Pondexter in the summer of 2010, the city was just starting to see some real progress in the reconstruction efforts that followed the half decade after Hurricane Katrina.

In February of that year, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, a victory that the city badly needed, and Pondexter found himself dropped into the sports culture of the league’s most unique city.

Now with the Chicago Bulls, Pondexter would only play in New Orleans for his rookie year before getting dealt to Memphis and signing a multi-year extension, but in late 2014 he was traded back to New Orleans, who had rechristened themselves the Pelicans by that point. He couldn’t believe how much had changed in just four short years.

“You stopped seeing the spray paint on the houses, and the prices start going up on real estate. It was definitely a lot different coming back,” Pondexter told Basketball Insiders. “I remember I had a house there, when I first got there as a rookie, and it was very, very cheap. But when I came back, I had a place probably twice as small for almost double the price. The city had just grown and developed a lot more, especially the downtown areas where you could start seeing buildings being built. You’d start to see the city come back to form, come back to life, and I really, really got to enjoy it my second time.”

That sort of progress was slow to come by 2010, however. Despite five years having passed since the initial devastation of Katrina, New Orleans was finding slow progress toward physical and emotional healing. The team had just moved back to the city full-time a couple of seasons prior after having played a good number of games in Oklahoma City during Louisiana’s recovery, but Pondexter remembers the Hornets giving the people of the city something to root for, too.

“The Saints, when you win a championship, when you’ve been there for years, of course you’re going to be the favorite, but, when the Hornets were part of that, too,” he said. “When you win games, and I had the chance to go to the playoffs with two different stints with them, I think it’s embracing how much the city comes together once you make an achievement like that, and whether you’re at the grocery store, gas station, whatever, people are always going to talk to you about the game of basketball. They don’t talk to you like a fan in New Orleans; they talk to you like a family member. It was really cool to be in a city like that.”

He also admitted that it was exciting to play even a small role in helping New Orleans continue to heal.

“It was a unique experience because the city was rebuilding, and being able to be a part of helping put it back together, it was really special,” he said. “We had an unbelievable star in Chris Paul, and you just don’t realize how much people lean on sports to get through tough times. We bridged that gap, and it was a real unique community to help refurbish the city of New Orleans.”

Coming back four years later, Pondexter had grown up a lot, and while a lot of his next few years with the Pelicans would be plagued by a torrent of medical problems ranging from knee issues to a staph infection, he did get to spend a lot more time in the city after having been there for only a year as a rookie in 2010-2011. That’s when he really fell in love with New Orleans.

“The culture, the melting pot culture, the rich history, it’s so much different from anywhere else in the country,” he said. “I grew up in Fresno, California, went to school at the University of Washington, and New Orleans is just something unique, and I could always say I learned so much from a city like that, about our country, about life, about so many things. About music, about food, about everything in that city, you just really learn so much. It’s a city where you get to put your hair down, and just enjoy being alive.”

Time passes quickly in any NBA career, but playing two times for one team several years apart can’t help but give a person some perspective, which is what it has done for Quincy Pondexter.

“You grow up, you learn the game of basketball, you learn a lot about yourself, and you see what you want in life more,” he said. “I think that was a really big pivotal moment in my life, one I’ll never ever forget.”

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The NBA’s Teams Should Fear How Good Spurs Will Be When Kawhi Leonard Returns

Even without Kawhi, the Spurs have been dominant. Imagine how good they’ll be when he returns.

Moke Hamilton

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Even a blind man couldn’t help but to see the irony.

On Friday night, the young-legged Boston Celtics were done in by an Argentinean geezer.

Manu Ginobili sunk the Celts in the closest thing to a early-season “must see” game as there is, connecting on a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 105-102 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.

For the Spurs, in the grand scheme of things, the win itself doesn’t mean much, but it sure has to make you wonder how much better the team will be once Kawhi Leonard returns from injury this week.

Despite not having him since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last May, the Spurs have begun the season by going 19-8. That Gregg Popovich’s team enters play on December 10 as the third-ranked team in the Western Conference isn’t much of a surprise. That they’ve done it without their top gun in Leonard, though, is.

“Whoever is not there, is not there,” Popovich said before the Spurs took on the Celtics on Friday night.

“We don’t worry about him [Leonard] or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much as the business as we can, just like Boston is doing,” he said.

So, of course, the Spurs went out and did exactly that.

What makes the team truly scary is their thriving without arguably the top two-way player in the game.

Aside from being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was named to the All-NBA First Team in 2016 and 2017. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons, including a 25.5 point per game average over the course of last season.

Leonard also finished second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry in 2016 and third last year to Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Despite his quiet nature, Leonard has become a transcendent superstar. Even without him, the Spurs enter play on December 10 with one of the league’s top defenses. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed (97.6) and third in points allowed per 100 possessions (103.5). The metrics aren’t nearly as good on the offensive side of the ball, but Leonard will help there—tremendously, at that.

With Popovich running the show, the possibilities are endless. His ability to connect with players of different personalities in unmatched. He’s humble enough to second-guess himself and take criticism from those around him, but enough of a taskmaster to extract the full potential from every talent that he gets his hands on.

Of the other top teams in the league—the Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—precisely none of them would be capable of winning two-thirds of their games without their top gun, much less without two of the team’s most important rotation players. Tony Parker, mind you, has played in just six of the Spurs’ first 27 games. The aforementioned Ginobili has missed five games, as well.

On Friday night, when Irving got off a clean look that would have answered Ginobili’s three and sent the game to overtime, everyone in the arena held their breath. When it rimmed out, the Celtics’ four-game win streak ended, and the team tasted defeat for just the third time in their past 25 games. It was the first time they’d lost to the Western Conference opponent all season, and it wasn’t for a lack of competition, mind you.

The Celtics had previously beaten the Spurs in Boston on October 30, won at the Thunder on November 3 and topped the defending champion Warriors on November 16.

So yes, they’re real—even without Leonard.

After the Celtics topped the Warriors in Boston, Stephen Curry made one of his more arrogant remarks, commenting that he was looking forward to experiencing the weather in Boston in June.

Word of advice to Curry: be more concerned with the spring in San Antonio.

Sure, it may have only been a partial game, but the Spurs badly outplayed the Warriors with Leonard in the lineup for the 24 minutes he played in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals. At the point where Leonard was forced to exit, the Spurs had built a 23-point lead on the Warriors. Obviously, this became a footnote since the Dubs erased the deficit and won the next three games in the series, but that short-lived dominance of the Warriors is something that the Spurs can hang their hat on, and it’s something that the rest of the NBA’s viewing public needs to be reminded of, even as the Rockets have surprisingly risen to the top of the Western Conference.

Make no mistake, James Harden, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, in some order, are the league’s Most Valuable Players to this point. But the MVP Award is a regular season one—Leonard, Popovich and the Spurs are more concerned with being the last men standing come June.

“[W]hen he gets there, he gets there,” Popovich said of Leonard and his impending return to the lineup.

“In the meantime, a lot of the guys are getting time,” he said.

“We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights it doesn’t work out really well. Other nights, it looks really good. But I think down the stretch it will help us.”

* * * * * *

When LaMarcus Aldridge walked into Popovich’s office before the season began, neither of the two probably knew what to expect. It was a poorly kept secret that Aldridge had grown somewhat unhappy with his role in San Antonio, and when a superstar-caliber player is unhappy, it’s difficult for itself to not manifest itself in his performance.

It was well-known that the Spurs had considered trading Aldridge over the summer—as the league saw an unprecedented amount of movement among the game’s elite class of players, as any front office would do, the Spurs looked for opportunities to keep up.

So when Aldridge and Popovich met behind closed doors, it came as a bit of a surprise that Aldridge emerged reinvigorated and the franchise decided to double down on their bet that the forward could be a part of their championship puzzle. When it was announced that the duo had agreed on a three-year, $72 million extension for Aldridge, many thought the move to be foolish on the part of the Spurs.

As usual, though, they are the ones laughing now.

Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs have gotten 22.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game from the star forward. As Aldridge has come to resemble the player he was on the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s because he and Popovich figured out how he can excel playing for the coach, while Popovich has altered his team’s offensive attack to allow Aldridge more elbow and low-post scoring opportunities.

If you know anything about Popovich, the way he’s traditionally coached his teams has been less about one individual player and more about incorporating the skills and talents of his rotation pieces. Part of what has enabled that to work has been his teaching that no one player is bigger than the team. So when Leonard returns from injury, rest assured that the Spurs won’t simply go back to being the team they were before he went down. Believe it or not, while Leonard will be entrusted with being the team’s primary ball handler and play maker, it’s going to be incumbent on him to figure out how to fit back into the team that the Spurs have become since he last took the floor with them.

That’s what makes them a dangerous, dangerous team.

* * * * * *

Entering play on December 10, most NBA teams have played about 25 games. We finally have sample sizes big enough to make determinations about what we’ve seen—both in terms of individual players and teams.

And we know, for sure, that even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are capable of being the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA.

Now, sit back and think about that, and then imagine just how good they’ll be when he returns to the lineup.

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