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Spurs in Kawhi Leonard’s Hands Now

If we know one thing about the San Antonio Spurs, it’s to take the regular season for granted. Gregg Popovich is not shy about resting his aging core, but even when they play at full strength, the Spurs tend to spend the season gradually rounding into postseason form. Yet despite this, opening night for San Antonio last week felt somewhat ominous.

The Spurs defeated the Mavericks 101-100 at home with budding star Kawhi Leonard sitting out with an eye infection. Again, the regular season, particularly the very first game, has never been the biggest indicator of the team’s success or trends. This game signified two things, though: first, the Mavericks are joining an already-crowded group of Western Conference contenders; and second, the Spurs need Leonard on the court.

imagesSo long as San Antonio retains its formidable core of Popovich and seasoned champions Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, it seems the sports community has learned to stop doubting them. Betfair took a look at the NBA from an oddsmakers’ perspective just before the start of the season and went so far as to challenge the notion that the Cavaliers should be the favorite for the NBA title. Writer Nick Shiambouros prefers San Antonio as the favorite this season, citing continuity in the rotation and noting that the Spurs have proven wrong the slew of critics claiming they’re getting too old. It’s impossible to disagree with this analysis at this point, and we should have learned that the experience of the Spurs should count for something against the raw talent of a roster like Cleveland’s. However, there’s one major factor looming over the Spurs’ shot at a continued dynasty.

At some point, the three players at the core of the Spurs’ success will have to show signs of being human. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker can’t lead this team forever. And just as the New York Yankees will play next season without Derek Jeter and tennis will one day wave farewell to the indomitable Roger Federer, San Antonio will face a new era.

In fairness, the Spurs’ front office has done a pretty strong job of preparing for that new era. They’ve turned former castaway Danny Green into a legitimate NBA shooting guard. Many believe they drafted a valuable future piece in UCLA point-forward Kyle Anderson, and they’ve developed Kawhi Leonard into a possible superstar. This is all without granting sizable contracts or surrendering draft picks. In fact, the Spurs have sacrificed remarkably little for their success and have a very strong foundation moving forward.

But if they’re going to avoid any sort of lull entirely (as seems to be their goal), they’ll need to do it with Leonard leading the way—and suddenly, that doesn’t feel like a sure thing. Leonard is a restricted free agent in 2015, and according to SB Nation he may well take advantage of the opportunity to explore other options. Kevin Zimmerman writes that Leonard sought a maximum-level extension from the Spurs, who opted to hold off on contract negotiations in order to maintain flexibility. Indeed, with Duncan and Ginobili likely to retire after the 2014-15 season and only a few players under contract, the Spurs will have a lot of choices to make, and flexibility is understandably appealing.

But here’s the issue: for all the positives, the Spurs may not be much of a free agent destination. If Duncan and Ginobili are gone (and perhaps Popovich with them), the Spurs will lose a great deal of their appeal. Flexibility is great, but retaining a homegrown star like Leonard is certainly the best way for San Antonio to continue competing at the top. It’s likely the Spurs would match any offer sheet signed by Leonard with another team, but this has become a situation to watch as the Spurs face the future—and the Western Conference nips at their heels.

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