My news judgement must be off as the most interesting portion, by far, of Gregg Popovich’s recent was his disclosure that he’s a Led Zeppelin fan. (I’m also still shocked by the fact that he even agreed to pull himself away from his latest Russian historical biography to do one in the first place.)
Judging by the flood of news alerts to my BlackBerry, the rest of the media was more taken by his declaration that Spurs sophomore Kawhi Leonard is a future star who will one day be the face of the Spurs franchise. Said Pop:
I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge. When you consider he’s only had one year of college and no training camp yet, you can see that he’s going to be something else.
As Popovich noted, Leonard’s still so early into his career, that it’s probably silly to make any concrete judgments. But hey, that’s what we in the media do. So let’s examine whether or not this is a realistic expectation for Leonard, and whether or not that would be a good thing for the Spurs.
First things first: The “star” label is one of the most overused in all of professional sports, at least the type of which Popovich seems to be referring to. By my definition a true star is someone who draws people to the arena and/or provides a cornerstone around which a championship team can be built. Think Kobe, LeBron, Duncan, Garnett or Shaq. And there’s only five to 10 players of that caliber in the league at any given time.
Yet history shows that, in all but the most unique circumstances, you’d better have one, if not more, if you expect to compete for championships. Of the past 33 teams to win titles, 30 had past, present or future MVPs playing major roles. The only three exceptions were the Detroit Pistons, who boasted All-Star caliber players at every position in 2004, and the Hall of Fame backcourt of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars in 1989 and 1990.
At this stage, despite his significant promise and plenty of time for improvement, it’s a pretty big stretch to project Leonard as an MVP candidate. Massive, actually, considering he averaged 7.9 points with only decent advanced stats (16.6 PER, mediocre plus/minus numbers). At his best I’m seeing a lesser version of prime Ron Artest — elite defender, 16-18 points per game — without the mental issues. A quality player, to be sure, just not the face of a true contender.
That certainly would’t preclude the Spurs from finding someone who fits that bill; they did it in the past with George Gervin, David Robinson and Tim Duncan. And if any franchise can buck the NBA’s trend of star-driven champions, the Spurs would have to be at the top of the list.
But in regards to the question at hand, it would appear that Popovich was probably just a tad overzealous in his assessment of young Leonard.