SAN ANTONIO -- Reminiscing about the trials and tribulations he went through early in his career with Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, Tony Parker had to take a moment to express his disbelief at the relationship Kawhi Leonard has with their usually ornery coach.
"Kawhi has it good." Paker said with a smile, jokingly criticising Leonard, who offers little to be critical about. He also added Popovich treats Leonard a little softer compared to the veterans.
This season, Leonard became a first-time All-Star, taking on a larger role in San Antonio. He increased his scoring average by five points (16.5 to 21.2) and became one of the better 3-point shooters in the league, connecting a career-high 44.3 percent of his treys, which ranks third overall in the NBA.
Leonard also maintained his status as a top perimeter defender, averaging 1.78 steals, 5.5 defensive rebounds and a career-high of a block a game. Due in large part to Leonard, the Spurs finished the regular season as the top defensive team in the league, allowing 96.6 points per 100 possessions. Via NBA.com/Stats, when Leonard was on the court, the Spurs had a defensive rating of 94.9, as opposed to 99.2 when he was on the bench.
For his efforts on the defensive end, Leonard won the Defensive Player of the Year award on Monday, beating out Golden State Warriors big man Draymond Green for the second straight year. Leonard received 84 first-place votes and 547 total points to take home the award.
Leonard is now the only non-center to win the award in back-to-back years since Dennis Rodman, who won the award twice when he played for the Detroit Pistons in 1990 and 1991. Also, Leonard is the only player not named Hakeem Olajuwon to have won multiple DPOY awards and a NBA Finals MVP. And Leonard is part of some elite company, as one of nine players to win multiple DPOY awards. This list includes Hall-of-Fame players like Olajuwon, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.
Yet while the award is an individual one, Leonard shifted the praise from himself to his teammates.
"I just hide behind them [his teammates] in the game really," Leonard said. "Just playing my hardest basketball and being focused on the defensive end. They give me the confidence to pressure my man, get into the ball-handler. The bigs are there on the help-side if the guy goes by me, and I'm able to switch to other offensive players. Them just having that confidence in me just makes me want to strive harder and be the best basketball player that I can be."
Popovich agrees with Leonard's assessment of the San Antonio's defense, but he also acknowledges that the now two-time Defensive Player of the Year is an exceptional player in his own right.
"He's a team-oriented individual, for sure," Popovich said. "He's definitely not full of himself or anything like that. But I've got to tell you, I don't think he knows that those guys are back there or not. He just goes and does what he does. He just plays.
"He's giving credit to everybody, as he should. He's a wonderful young man. But the things he does amaze me, night after night. And the fact that he does it at both ends really is something. Then, he rebounds on top of it, so he's a pretty special guy."
So special that even the Memphis Grizzlies, -- a team that just got punked by San Antonio, losing by 32 points in Game 1 -- were effusive in their praise of Leonard.
"I like that kid," Zach Randolph said with a big smile on his face. "He's going to be a Spur for life. He does everything, on both ends. He's a beast. He deserves it. He's very humble and I'm happy for him."
"Well deserved. Matt Barnes said of Leonard's achievement. "He's the best defensive player in the league. Probably top-five player both ways. He does everything for that team and he gets them going."
"He's [Leonard] relentless. He's fearless. He plays hard." Vince Carter said. "He's a quiet assassin. He's definitely the centerpiece and corner stone of their team. For a guy who's a two way player that can also get [DPOY] is pretty special."
"Special" is the word that kept coming up from others when it came to describe Leonard. Carter and Pop said it. Manu Ginobili also mentioned it when describing Leonard's play in the 2013 Finals. For the Spurs, that was when they knew Leonard was going to be a future star.
"He competed against LeBron and [Dwyane] Wade and everybody as just another guy," Ginobili said. "That's when we all realized he was special."
A special player, who is a now two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner. A rare accomplishment that Leonard, who is just 24 years old, has seemingly a hold on for years to come.
"It's not easy to get a Defensive Player of the Year Award." Ginobili said. "There are 450 players out there competing every night. What he [Leonard] does, every night is superb."