To overcome the trio of stars in the NBA Finals, the team needed Kawhi Leonard to play like a star on both ends of the floor.
Faced with the difficult task of defending LeBron James, Leonard was able to slow down the four-time MVP while creating scoring opportunities out of nothing.
After the Finals were complete, coach Gregg Popovich made it a point to tell the media that the team doesn’t even run any plays for Leonard but he still managed post 17.8 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per game in the series.
Most impressively, he shot 61.2 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from 3-point range during the five game series against Miami.
Three years ago, when he was entering the NBA after playing two seasons at San Diego State, Leonard was the size of a guard playing like a power forward.
Fourteen teams opted to select another player, fearing a 6-foot-7 small forward that shot just 25 percent from 3-point range in college wouldn’t have a position in the NBA.
When Leonard was still available to Indiana with the 15th overall pick, the Spurs intervened, sending George Hill to the Pacers in exchange for his rights.
Leonard became the first rookie to join San Antonio chosen with a pick higher than 20th since the team landed Tim Duncan with the first overall pick of the 1997 NBA Draft.
Seven days after being selected by San Antonio, the NBA Lockout prevented Leonard from even contacting his new coaches.
The Spurs had one week to go over a training regimen and trust he would put in the necessary work to improve his jumper.
Five months after the lockout ended, Leonard joined the rest of his team in practice, this time equipped with a reliable 3-point jump shot.
In his debut season, Leonard knocked down 41 shots from beyond the arc, equaling the total he made during his two seasons in college.
He finished the season shooting 37.6 percent from 3-point range and in regular season play, hasn’t wavered. In each of his three years in the league, Leonard has shot between 37.4 and 37.9 percent from downtown.
Once the post season begins, his shooting becomes even more potent.
The 22-year-old forward has made 41.6 percent of his attempts from 3-point range during his post season career and during 23 playoff appearances this year, he has connected 31 times.
His transformation as a shooter hasn’t been limited to 3-point range. A look at his personal shot chart from his rookie season, to last year’s run to the Finals, to his first career championship shows increased accuracy at the rim and in his mid-range game.
Even with his effective 52.2 percent shooting from the field, San Antonio refused to use him much in the offense, as his 645 attempts were the fifth most on the team.
The impact made by Leonard on the Spurs became apparent after he missed 16 games after fracturing his left hand.
In his absence, the Spurs posted an 8-6 record. With Leonard in the lineup, the team went 54-12 during the regular season.
The Spurs could replace the 12.8 points per game he averaged, but it was his defense that left an irreplaceable impact in the lineup.
Facing elimination, Miami turned its offense over to James and in the first quarter, with Boris Diaw serving as his primary defender, he dominated.
James scored 17 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field.
San Antonio waited to shift Leonard over, as James forced him into foul trouble during the opening two games of the series, but once the change was made, the his potency was diminished.
James still shot 57.6 percent from the field when being defended by Leonard, but had a much more difficult time releasing his shot.
When being defended by Leonard, the Heat couldn’t get the ball into James on one out of every three possessions and only 19 percent of his possessions ended in a shot attempt.
Three years after being overlooked in the NBA Draft, Leonard has established himself as the Most Valuable Player on a championship team.