By Andy Roth, Contributing Editor - Archive - Email
The Pulse of the NBA
New York, NY (Sports Network) - Following the San Antonio Spurs' first-round elimination in the playoffs last season, most NBA observers, including myself, thought their days as championship contenders were behind them.

But coach Gregg Popovich's team is firmly entrenched atop the Southwest Division with a 7 1/2-game lead over the Dallas Mavericks and its 36-14 record is the fourth-best in the league.

The Spurs have accomplished this despite the fact former All-Star guard and leading scorer Manu Ginobili missed 29 games with a broken bone in his left hand, which kept him sidelined from early January to almost mid-February. (Editor Note: Ginobili was leading the team in scoring prior to his injury.)

"It's going to be tough for us because he was playing at an All-Star level," said teammate Tony Parker at the time of Ginobili's injury. "And now we're going to have to have everybody pick it up."

One of the guys that picked it up when he got the opportunity as a result of Ginobili's absence is rookie Kawhi Leonard.

As a matter of fact, after his first career start, Popovich used Leonard's name in the same breath as a former Spurs player who was one of the best defensive players of all time.

"It's huge for us to have a guy on the team that can do similar things to what Bruce (Bowen) did in the past," Popovich said. "This young man's got a lot to learn, but he's very willing, very versatile, and I think he's got the ability to be one heck of a player."

The 6-foot-7 Leonard, a versatile defender who can guard multiple positions, is aided in that effort by his tremendous length (his wing span is 7 feet, 3/8 inches) and freakishly large hands which measure 9 3/8 inches from wrist to middle fingertip.

The rookie swingman was a big-time rebounder in college (10.2 rpg) and has done a nice job in that area, too, on the next level, averaging 5.4 per game in just under 25 minutes of playing time.

When the Spurs dealt their starting small forward, Richard Jefferson, to the Golden State Warriors, Popovich moved Leonard into his slot. He's responded really well, averaging 11.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, while shooting 53 percent from the floor. But the stat that really stands out is in the win column, as the Spurs are 8-1 and currently riding a seven-game winning streak since Leonard replaced Jefferson.

The Spurs reportedly targeted Leonard in the draft and thought enough of him to deal their young, backup point guard George Hill to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for his draft rights. The Spurs apparently didn't want to tip their hand and show their interest in Leonard prior to the draft, so they didn't even have him in for a private workout.

What a surprise that the Spurs seemed to have scored another really good talent in the draft. I don't think any other franchise does a better job of evaluating and finding talent all over the globe.

A lot of the credit has to go to general manager R.C. Buford, who has been with the Spurs in various capacities since 1994 and has played a vital role in building one of the league's most successful franchises during his tenure.

Ginobili was the next-to-last pick (57th overall) in the 1999 draft. Tony Parker was taken with the 28th pick in the first round in 2001, while Tiago Splitter was selected at the very same spot in 2007. George Hill was the 26th selection in the first round in 2008 and DeJuan Blair was taken with the seventh pick (37th overall) in the second round in 2009.

Last year's find by Buford wasn't even via the draft. Guard Gary Neal, who went undrafted in 2007 and played one season in Spain and two in Italy, was signed by the Spurs after an impressive showing in the Las Vegas summer league.

Despite the fact the careers of Duncan (who's 35) and Ginobili (34) are winding down, Spurs fans should always feel confident that they'll have a quality team on the floor as long as Buford is at the helm.

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