The latest word on Kawhi Leonard is that he’s expected to return tonight against the Mavericks. We’ve heard his return is imminent for the last week, but whether he suits up in Dallas tonight or not, it’s about time we looked at how the Spurs will fare with him in the rotation.

The story of 2017-18 so far

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the Spurs have managed to float around the top of the West in Leonard’s absence. There was already a relatively strong argument for Gregg Popovich being the greatest coach of all time, and the last two months have only added to it.

Their current 19-8 record is good for third in the West; it’s two wins ahead of their 17-10 projected win/loss record.

Popovich will get the majority of the praise, and so he should. In saying that, he needs his players to perform, and LaMarcus Aldridge in particular has been especially impressive.

Per Game Table
Season Pos G MP FG% 3P% 2P% eFG% FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS
2017-18 PF 26 33.4 .501 .381 .513 .519 .852 3.3 4.8 8.1 2.2 0.5 1.2 1.5 22.7
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/12/2017.

Aldridge’s level of play has not only allowed the Spurs to remain competitive, but it will also give Leonard time to acclimatize without needing to rush into an MVP level of production.

What changes when Kawhi returns?

The Spurs are getting back a top-six player in the league, so it’s safe to assume the changes will be positive.

In terms of how they look on the floor, The Ringer’s Danny Chow points out that the offense itself won’t change as Popovich has already had his guys run the plays generally reserved for Leonard in his absence:

Pop may have erased Leonard’s presence from the team to cultivate a sense of self-sufficiency in his absence, but the sets he’s run recently to free up Kyle Anderson and Rudy Gay on the block suggest Pop’s well underway in finding ways to incorporate Leonard seamlessly.

If we look back to San Antonio’s 2016-17 numbers, Leonard significantly improved their offense. When off the court, their offensive rating was a meager 102.6, which would have otherwise ranked dead last. With Leonard on the floor, their offensive rating shot up to 112.6.

Thanks to Aldridge’s stellar play to start the season and to a lesser extent Rudy Gay off the bench, the Spurs haven’t suffered offensively without Leonard. Their 107.7 offensive rating isn’t outstanding, but paired with their 103.5 defensive rating is a significant reason why they have been able to function so well without their All-Star.

With the offense already in place and an elite and efficient scorer ready to be inserted, we can expect the Spurs to get straight into running their usual sets. They may start slow and continue to lead the league in post touches while Leonard settles back in, but it won’t be long before the small forward is the primary target on offense.

The addition of Leonard isn’t going to put the Spurs on par with the Warriors or Rockets offensively — but his defensive ability does bring the two down a peg.

As an elite two-way player, Leonard is always responsible for neutralizing the opponent’s biggest threat. His numbers weren’t astounding last season, but he still led the team (and was sixth in the league) in defensive win shares with 4.7.

Overall, the Spurs are going to be much better.

They gain consistency and another go-to guy with Leonard’s inclusion in the rotation. He offers up an elite perimeter option to work alongside Aldridge in the paint and adds to the headaches of opposing coaches trying to defend one of the great systems.

Given Leonard’s nature as a person and Popovich’s genius as a coach, the process of instilling him within the rotation will appear seamless. It’s been a work in progress all season, though.

How does Kawhi’s return impact the books?

Leonard opened the season on the second line of betting at +410 to win the MVP. Those odds have now blown out to +3330, and unless The Silent Assasin explodes to produce historical numbers from here on out, missing two months will all but prevent him from winning the award.

Bill Walton is the only other player ever to take home the MVP missing over 20 games. He managed the feat in 1977-78 playing just 58 games, but with the like of James Harden and Lebron James in the way, anybody that bet on Leonard in the preseason can start to count their losses.

The lack of an MVP trophy won’t faze Leonard, though. He’s returning in the hope of taking the Spurs to the Finals.

We all know the Warriors are overwhelming favorites to win the West, but try telling the Spurs they can’t beat Golden State. Consider one of the great “what if’s” in NBA history: What if Kawhi didn’t get injured in Game 1 of the Conference Finals last season?

They had dominated the game — at Golden State — and had a 21-point lead before Leonard went down.

stats.nba.com

The Spurs had the Warriors beat.

Perhaps it was the “what if” that had the Spurs open the 2017-18 season on the second line of betting to win the Western Conference at +1000.

Those odds have since dropped to +800 after their promising start to the season without Leonard.

Despite the drop, the Spurs have been hurdled by the Rockets (+500), who now sit behind the heavy favorite, Golden State (-333).

The Spurs are unlikely to jump the Rockets and Warriors in the standings before the playoffs start, but get them in a seven-game series and anything can happen.

All stats provided by Basketball-Reference and NBA Stats as of 12/12

All odds provided by William Hill as of 12/12

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