This Klaw is sharp!

That San Antonio Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard has an opportunity to figure on a select list, featuring Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, speaks volumes of how far he has come as a player and his elite status in the game today.

Averaging a career-best scoring average this season (25.0 plus), Kawhi Leonard has steered the Spurs to more than 50 wins this season again.   -  AP

Tim Duncan bid adieu to the NBA, having completed a most scintillating 19-year-career with the San Antonio Spurs, in the 2016 off-season. Duncan was the cornerstone for the Spurs over this period, with the team winning five NBA titles in his time at the franchise. He was an inspiration to an entire bunch of players around the league, including on his own team. With him at helm, the Spurs won an NBA-best 50 regular season games every season since 1999. And so with the ‘The Big Fundamental’ calling it quits on his career, it was almost expected that the Spurs would experience some kind of fall in his absence.

But tell that to Kawhi Leonard. The 25-year-old Spurs forward made heads turn almost every season since he joined the Spurs after being traded by the Indiana Pacers, who selected him as the 15th pick in the 2011 draft. Leonard, who, like Duncan, doesn’t exhibit much emotion, is as much a ruthless competitor as the league has ever seen, and a versatile player who contributes on both ends of the floor. Leonard is nicknamed the ‘Klaw’ and one would do well to believe that on most nights opponents feel the scars of being on the receiving end of Leonard’s play. He is efficient, athletic and comfortable doing just about anything that is expected of him to put the Spurs in a winning position, which is what he has done.

With a career-best scoring average this season (25.0 plus), Leonard has steered the Spurs to 50+ wins this season again. By the end of the 82-game 2016-17 season, the Spurs should have 60-plus wins, which should give them the second-best record in the league. This, while they play in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. The Spurs are also snapping on Golden State’s heels and may actually end up knocking them off the top spot with only a few games separating the two teams.

The Spurs’ enviable record would have been difficult to imagine at the start of the season had it not been for Leonard’s play. The forward is not only in the conversation for league Most Valuable Player (MVP) alongside Russell Westbrook, James Harden and LeBron James, but also in the reckoning for the Defensive Player of the Year honours for which his closest competitors are Draymond Green and Utah’s Rudy Gobert. The league has witnessed a player win both honours in the same season only two times — Michael Jordan did so in 1987-88 and Hakeem Olajuwon did likewise in 1993-94. The fact that Leonard has an opportunity to win both honours and figure on a select list, featuring Jordan and Olajuwon, speaks volumes of how far he has come as a player and his elite status in the game today.

Tougher battles

The journey does get tougher from here on, though. At 25, Leonard has already won two Defensive Player of the Year awards (in 2015 and 2016). He has the 2014 Finals MVP accolade to his credit, when the Spurs defeated the Miami Heat in five games. But all these individual achievements aside, the key differentiator for Leonard now will be whether he can take the Spurs to an NBA title in the post-Duncan era all by himself. The ability to put a team on one’s shoulders and carry them to a title is what makes good players legendary. It is what made Jordan an icon. It was what made Olajuwon a Hall of Fame inductee.

This won’t be easy for Leonard. For starters, there are a bunch of teams that can upset the Spurs’ chances this post-season. The Golden State Warriors are certain favourites to go through from the West should Kevin Durant return from injury. But even other than the Warriors, teams like the Houston Rockets and the LA Clippers could prove to be tough opponents for the Spurs. Even if they go all through the West to come out on the winning end of the Western Conference Finals, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will not be easy pushovers.

But if there’s one thing we’ve come to know about the reticent Leonard, it is that he loves to underplay and overachieve. Somewhere, Tim Duncan must feel comfortable that the Spurs’ fortunes, with Leonard in charge, are in good hands.