How Spurs are finding success without Kawhi Leonard

With Kawhi Leonard still out with a quad injury, LaMarcus Aldridge has helped the Spurs stay afloat in the West. Soobum Im/USA TODAY Sports

Over the Zydeco flow of teeming conversation filling a cramped hall at New Orleans' Smoothie King Center, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich realized midsentence what lies ahead for his staff.

"When Kawhi [Leonard] does come back," Popovich said, "I've got some figuring out to do."

Dilemma might not be the right word to describe what Popovich and the Spurs face with the return of veteran point guard Tony Parker, who made his season debut Monday in the team's win over the Dallas Mavericks, and with Leonard inching closer to full recovery from quadriceps tendinopathy. But at the very least, Popovich knows the Spurs will soon "have to learn to play together again," as general manager R.C. Buford described.

Missing its best pick-and-roll player in Parker and its top defender and scorer in Leonard, San Antonio still managed to reel off a 12-7 record, good for third in the West, on the strength of dominating performances from a more comfortable LaMarcus Aldridge and a bevy of supporting contributors.

The Spurs will worry when the time comes about how to properly incorporate Parker and Leonard. For now, they continue to do more with less, knowing the current state of affairs could prove beneficial in the future once the team is again whole.

"The team's done a terrific job of coming together. A lot of new players," Buford told ESPN. "I think Pau [Gasol] and LaMarcus have obviously been significant and the contributions of other guys who have filled in and come together well. We're obviously not the best team in the league. But the group has taken care of its responsibilities in a way that puts them in a position to win.

"This is a group that has played together for a quarter of the season, and it'll be on everybody to figure out how to play well together [when Leonard returns]. We'll all need to learn how to play together differently. I don't think that there's trepidation. That's just part of team building, growing as a team."

Parker played 14 minutes in his debut Monday after returning from quadriceps tendon surgery performed in May, and he contributed six points and four assists. Parker and veteran Manu Ginobili both mentioned that the point guard could have rejoined the squad at least two weeks earlier. But the team's prowess in Parker's absence afforded him the luxury of working on "some little stuff that I wanted to get better," he said, adding that "they've been playing great basketball."

Popovich readily points out Aldridge and Kyle Anderson as "the real stalwarts" of San Antonio's maintaining its standard of excellence. On the verge of being traded over the summer, Aldridge requested a one-on-one sit-down with Popovich, and the two came away with a clearer path for the future: The Spurs would concentrate on feeding Aldridge in the post, even once Leonard returned to the fold.

That, in turn, has made Aldridge more comfortable about his niche. He beams now when discussing the "aura and confidence" with which he is playing. He can add to that a growing understanding of how to play with Gasol in the post, which has led to the duo working high-low action more frequently.

With Gasol as the passer in post-entry situations, Aldridge has knocked down five of 12 attempts so far this season, according to Second Spectrum. He hit six of 15 attempts in 2016-17, including the playoffs, under those same circumstances. Meanwhile, after Gasol connected for buckets on 10 of 12 on passes from Aldridge from the medium-high post last season, they have already attempted to convert in that situation on six occasions through the first 19 games, according to Second Spectrum.

"He's gotten us through this period of time without Tony and Kawhi in a wonderful way. We'd really be lost without him." Gregg Popovich on LaMarcus Aldridge

Aldridge and Gasol combined for 58 of the team's 115 points in Monday's win over the Mavericks.

"He's gotten us through this period of time without Tony and Kawhi in a wonderful way," Popovich said of Aldridge. "He's scoring, he's playing defense, rebounding, running the floor. We'd really be lost without him."

Then there's Anderson, who has taken on Leonard's starting role at the small-forward spot. The Spurs declined to extend Anderson's rookie contract by the Oct. 16 deadline, and the fourth-year pro has responded by averaging career highs in points (9.2), rebounds (6.3) and assists (3.2) in a starting role.

"Injuries happen in this league," Aldridge said. "You want all your guys healthy, but guys have to be ready to play. Kyle has been great for us playing that role. He worked hard all summer and came in ready to go."

Anderson poured in double figures in scoring in 11 of the team's 20 games after scoring in double digits in just four of 72 outings last season, and he's the only Spur to post 10 assists in a game this season.

This is where the "figuring out" part comes in for Popovich and Buford. Popovich said Anderson's ascension is no surprise to the organization and that when Leonard returns, Anderson "should still be on the court somehow or other." It would seem likely that the Spurs would want him to remain on the roster beyond 2017-18, too.

"Free agency happens this coming July, and he'll be in a better position because of the way he's played," Buford said. "We'll be in a better position because we know the role that he can fill with the team that we have. We'll evaluate Kyle's free agency as a part of the whole team, but he's clearly put himself in a position to be respected in free agency."

Timely contributions continue to come for the Spurs by way of free-agent acquisition Rudy Gay, too. Known throughout his career as primarily a scorer, Gay signed with the team in July and has molded his game to fit San Antonio's system. The Spurs have a net efficiency of plus-5.4 and a defensive rating of 98.4 with Rudy Gay on the floor.

"I've worked so hard to get that stigma out of my game of me just being a bucket-getter or whatever," Gay told ESPN. "I think this just shows that there's a lot more I have to give. I don't think a lot of people saw it because of the past teams I've played with or the rep I have around the league. So, yeah, I have way more to give than just putting the ball in the bucket."

Same goes for veteran shooting guard Danny Green, who is proving to be more than a three-and-D specialist. In his ninth NBA season, Green agreed that at this point in a career, you typically are what you are as a player. But he started to incorporate more movement into his offensive game last season and kicked that up a notch in the absence of Parker and Leonard.

Through the first 19 games of this season, Green had taken more shots out of isolation (five) than he did in 68 games in 2016-17.

"More opportunities," said Green, who made the NBA All-Defensive team for the first time in his career last season. "When you've had success in this league doing things a certain kind of way, a lot of players don't want to change what has made them successful. But if you're not constantly growing as a player, regardless of how long you've been in the league, you're getting left behind."

Second-year guards Bryn Forbes and Dejounte Murray know as much, which has allowed them to evolve from little-used rookies to important pieces in the rotation. Murray has started in seven games at point guard and has led the team in steals in five games and in assists on four occasions. Forbes now averages 15.3 minutes per night after averaging 7.9 as a rookie.

Veteran sharpshooter Patty Mills has started 12 games at point guard in Parker's place, while new additions Joffrey Lauvergne (3.3 points per game) and 26-year-old rookie Brandon Paul (10 points or more in three games) have also contributed.

"They've kept us above water," Popovich said. "[Injuries are] something that every team deals with from time to time during a season. But I think Dejounte [Murray], Bryn [Forbes] and Brandon [Paul] have been wonderful in that regard."

Still, this season hasn't advanced without some difficulties.

The Spurs dropped four in a row from Oct. 27 to Nov. 2 before going on to win five of the next six. Through the trying times, Mills mentioned that the squad needed to learn to play knowing they wouldn't "have Kawhi there to save us."

"That was the adjustment we made from the three or four losses we had, which was pleasing to see," Mills said. "We can do it [without Leonard]. We know we can do it as a team."

Parker's return certainly helps, but the plan the next few games is to limit him to somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 minutes per night. Popovich said Leonard is now participating in five-on-five contact work on the court, so his return could still be a few weeks away.

In the meantime, San Antonio expects to continue to conduct business the way it has all season: by taking advantage of contributions from the entire roster, which should prove beneficial later in the regular season, when depth becomes even more paramount due to inevitable attrition.

"It has been a lot of moving parts, but you've got to give our young guys and our new guys credit that they've blended in with the veteran guys who have been here pretty well," Popovich said. "We've had different guys step up on different nights and score for us or make stops on defense. [Aldridge and Anderson], those two guys have been steady, steady throughout this, and L.A.'s combination of scoring and playing D, running the floor, has been just outstanding. He's really been the key.

"And guys like Kyle have been special on top of it. Everybody else has contributed, different people each night. So it's a good, solid group of people, and they've hung in there pretty good. Hopefully we can continue to do that until Tony's full-speed and Kawhi's full-speed."

As Gay unlaced his shoes after a shootaround Nov. 14 in Dallas, the veteran leaned back in the front row at American Airlines Arena and pondered perhaps the scariest part of this whole equation, with the team having trudged along all season without two of its best players.

"For as long as I've been here, we haven't even all practiced together yet," Gay said. "It'll be fun to see us after we're at full strength."