Victor Wembanyama, Kawhi Leonard and Spurs franchise faces — past and future

LOS ANGELES — The San Antonio Spurs are in the nadir of their franchise history. Or at least they were until they won the lottery ticket that is Victor Wembanyama.

The Spurs have missed the playoffs the last four seasons after never missing the playoffs in franchise history and only missing the playoffs four times total in the team’s first 43 NBA seasons. Of teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB, the Spurs were the last franchise to miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

And yet, the entire Spurs pregame baseline was filled Sunday with media members and other influencers to watch Wembanyama warm up more than an hour before the game against the LA Clippers. When the Spurs starting lineup was announced, the arriving sellout crowd greeted him with cheers.

Wembanyama is tasked with turning the Spurs around. Sunday night in downtown Los Angeles did not just mark the 7-foot-4, 19-year-old phenom’s first road game, it was Wembanyama’s first head-to-head meeting with San Antonio’s previous homegrown franchise player, current Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard.

There weren’t many instances of Leonard and Wembanyama facing each other. Leonard was guarded mostly by Spurs point guard Jeremy Sochan, while Wembanyama was taken on by Robert Covington. But there was the first play of the game, when Leonard switched onto Wembanyama and helped Paul George get the first of his five steals, displaying the kind of physicality the Clippers deployed on the 210-pound rookie all night.

Later in the opening quarter, Leonard tried to throw an inbound pass to George, only for Wembanyama’s standing reach to interfere with Leonard’s effort. This was after Leonard missed a point blank layup after spinning off Sochan, likely being thrown off by the mere presence of Wembanyama.

The buzz of Wembanyama’s first road game ultimately eroded under the weight of a devastating showing by a Clippers team that was upset with its Friday night performance in Utah. The game was basically over by the middle of the second quarter, with the Clippers taking a lead of as many as 21 points.

“Everybody’s going to be physical with him, try to knock him off balance, and that sort of thing,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Wembanyama following LA’s 123-83 win. “He’s got to get used to that. That’s probably the biggest difference for him, all of that physicality.”

Wembanyama ended Sunday with only 11 points (4-of-10 shooting, 0-of-2 3s), five rebounds, two assists (five turnovers), one steal and a block in 26 minutes. But Wembanyama’s first game against Leonard left an impression on the five-time All-Star.

“I mean, pretty much what everybody sees, you know?” Leonard said when asked about Wembanyama being the face of a franchise that he is familiar with. “He’s big, long, you know? His wingspan is crazy, he can dribble the basketball. He can shoot. He also wants to defend. And that’s what you need from a franchise player … it’s his third game of the season, so I feel like he will continue to get better once he figures out defenses, the way people are guarding him. He’s just going to get more and more confident.”

That is high praise from Leonard. The Spurs drafting Wembanyama is special not just because of the talent Wembanyama possesses, but also because of Wembanyama’s appreciation for the Spurs’ history and culture, including Leonard.

The lineage of Spurs franchise players is well established. Arguably, five players have their own defined eras. When the franchise merged into the NBA from the ABA in 1976, George Gervin was in the middle of his Hall of Fame run of buckets, and he ultimately led the league in scoring four times with the Spurs while being named an NBA All-Star nine times.

The Spurs traded Gervin to the Chicago Bulls ahead of the 1985-86 season. That started a four-year streak of consecutive losing seasons, the only time the franchise had consecutive losing seasons prior to Leonard’s departure in 2018. Miraculously, the Spurs managed to make the postseason twice between 1985 and 1989. But they won the draft lottery in 1987, enabling them to draft Navy center David Robinson first overall. Robinson did not debut until 1989 due to his military service commitment. But his debut resulted in a 35-win improvement for the Spurs and started a seven-year postseason streak, highlighted by Robinson’s 1995 MVP season that ended with a Western Conference finals appearance.

Robinson’s injury-marred 1996-97 season sent the Spurs to a 20-62 record. That season, also notable due to Popovich adding head coaching duties to his general manager role that December, was the only time the Spurs missed the playoffs in a 30-year span. It also resulted in another winning lottery ticket, as the Spurs were able to select Tim Duncan first overall in the 1997 NBA Draft. Like Robinson before him, Duncan was a first-year All-Star and helped the Spurs to a massive win-total turnaround (36 games). Unlike Robinson, Duncan did not have to handle the franchise by himself, pairing with Robinson to help the Spurs to their first championships. It was certainly Duncan’s team by time the Spurs beat the New York Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals, with Duncan being named Finals MVP. By Robinson’s 2003 retirement, Duncan was a two-time MVP and two-time NBA Finals MVP.

Leonard was not like Gervin, Robinson or Duncan. He was not expected to come into the league lighting up the scoreboard. He wasn’t expected to save the franchise, especially with Duncan still there with 2007 NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker and 2008 Sixth Man of the Year Manu Ginóbili still present. And Leonard wasn’t even a lottery pick, let alone a top overall pick (selected 15th overall in 2011 by Indiana and traded on draft night to San Antonio for George Hill). Leonard was drafted to be a Bruce Bowen replacement, a player who would defend at the small forward spot until his offense caught up. Leonard wasn’t a starter from the jump, playing 13:33 off the bench in his first career game following the 2011 NBA lockout.

“Kawhi’s situation was different; he came in and there’s Manu, Tony and Tim,” Popovich said before Sunday’s game. “So we’re not going to just give him the ball, he’s going to take over. In that situation, you are a role player in the beginning, and then you grow. So Wemby’s a little bit different. We don’t have that kind of talent on the team. There’s no Timmy, Manu or Tony there. So Victor, will pretty quickly, become The Man. It’s just a matter of time. When I stop holding him back.”

Leonard did, however, become an All-Rookie first-team selection and a rookie starter for the Western Conference’s top seed. In 2013, Leonard was starting with Duncan and 2007 Finals MVP Tony Parker for San Antonio’s first Finals team in six years. In 2014, Leonard made his first All-Defensive team and was named Finals MVP when the Spurs beat the Miami Heat, the franchise’s last of five championships with Popovich and Duncan. That Finals MVP was followed by the first of two straight Defensive Player of the Year Awards for Leonard, and by 2016, Leonard was a first-time All-Star and All-NBA selection. Leonard was a first-teamer, something only Gervin, Robinson and Duncan had achieved as Spurs. Duncan retired in 2016, and Leonard earned another first-team All-NBA selection in 2017. He was the clear-cut face of the franchise.

Leonard’s 2018 departure, a trade to the Toronto Raptors ahead of a contract year, was the beginning of the Spurs’ nadir. That trade also included Danny Green, while franchise stalwarts Parker (free agency) and Ginóbili (retirement) also left in the 2018 offseason. The franchise didn’t hit rock bottom right away, as DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge helped the Spurs reach the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season in 2019. But the Spurs haven’t reached the playoffs since then, and after Leonard won a championship and Finals MVP with the Raptors in 2019, he signed with the Clippers.

Perhaps if Leonard stays, he extends his legacy in San Antonio. But his departure, while giving San Antonio its leanest years, also led the franchise to Wembanyama. From an individual standpoint, Wembanyama can achieve all of the things his predecessors have: Rookie of the Year, scoring champion, Defensive Player of the Year, early-career All-Star selections and All-NBA selections. How much he achieves on a team level will come down to how the Spurs build around him.

And that is where Wembanyama’s burden is unlike anything Leonard had to deal with. Leonard, at a size (6-foot-7, 225 pounds) that is right around the league average, was tasked with being a role player on a great team before it was determined that he was the player the Spurs could build around. Wembanyama is being built around right now, as an exceptionally sized teenager. The Spurs are taking the slow approach with Wembanyama, and his averages of minutes (26.9), field goal attempts (12.7) and touches per game (45.0 entering Sunday’s game, sixth on Spurs) all reflect that.

“He just comes to work every day, just like every other player,” Popovich said. “We have a system, and he’s got to learn it. He’s got to learn the league. He’s never played against any of these guys or with any of these guys on our team. So this is a process. There’s no formula; you just try not to skip any steps. Luckily he’s an intelligent, coachable young man, and he’ll eventually get there. He will be a great player. But, you know, he’s got some learning to do first. Just like any other player.”

Leonard, a veteran of 13 NBA seasons, has not had a chance to develop a relationship with Wembanyama yet. Sunday night was the first time Leonard interacted with him. But he is open to speaking with Wembanyama.

“A little talk during the game, but nothing too crazy,” Leonard said when asked if Wembanyama has spoken with him already. “But yeah, I mean, if he wants, he can reach out. But I think he’s still going to get better.”

Whether that day comes remains to be seen. It is definitely not a certainty. Wembanyama is wired to compete, both on and off the floor. He acknowledges that players such as Leonard and Phoenix Suns forward Kevin Durant are “my idols, but they’re still my opponents.”

Wembanyama knows Leonard’s place in the game and what he did for the Spurs. But he’s not there now. So Wembanyama sees Leonard as an opponent, even if Leonard eventually becomes a source of advisory.

“I’ve known about Kawhi Leonard for years, watching him on TV, since I was watching the Spurs a lot,” Wembanyama said after Sunday’s game. “Of course, I’m always open to meet guys and to hear the advice. But as I told before, there’s a lot of respect, but they’re still my opponents. And I’m gonna get as much as I can from whoever is ready to give it to me. But that’s it.”

(Photo of Kawhi Leonard and Victor Wembanyama: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

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