One big question surrounding the Spurs entering the season was how free agent signee LaMarcus Aldridge would fit into the San Antonio system. While Aldridge's addition filled people's minds, no one wondered if Kawhi Leonard would take his game to another level. The 2014 Finals MVP was already a great player, but he's making an early statement for a regular season MVP this year.
Leonard currently ranks in the NBA's Top 20 in five separate categories (scoring, rebounding, steals, blocks and free throw percentage) and he's scored in double-figures in the first five games of the year for the first time in his career. He continues to steal people's souls on defense, notably Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony already this year.
That's bad news for Nicoluas Batum, Leonard's likely match-up on Saturday night. Batum is coming off a poor shooting night in Charlotte's win against Dallas, but his impact on this team goes beyond his shooting numbers. The Frenchman is only the fourth player in team history to have 60+ points, 30+ rebounds and 20+ assists through the first five games of the season. The last player to do that was on the original Hornets franchise, Jamal Mashburn in the 2001-02 season.
The Hornets enter San Antonio with a two-game winning streak after dropping their first three games of the season. Earlier this week, Charlotte had a shooting performance against Chicago that made the game unlosable. You expect them to come down to Earth after a game like that, and they did, but they handled the Mavericks pretty well on the road. They built a lead in Dallas that never really became threatened as the Hornets held a 20+ point lead for much of the fourth quarter.
Al Jefferson proved Thursday night in Dallas that if you put one guy on him, he'll make you pay as he scored 31 points, looking like he time-traveled from 2013 the other night. As my friend Chris Barnewell pointed out after Thursday's win, Jefferson has adapted his post-game to a fit the modern offense Charlotte is searching for.
The Hornets attempted 37 three-pointers against the Mavericks as they continue to adopt the style we saw all preseason. While Charlotte is just 2-3, we can see the benefits of the team's new long-range approach. They're averaging 10.4 three-point makes a game this season, which is the third best mark in the NBA currently and tops in the Eastern Conference.
Jeremy Lamb and Marvin Williams are big reasons for the Hornets success from deep. Lamb scored 16 points on just seven shots against Dallas as he's beginning to make people question Steve Clifford's decision to start P.J. Hairston. While Hairston hasn't been a disaster or anything, Lamb has surprised most of the team's followers. According to ESPN's Player Efficiency Rating system, Lamb is ranked third in the NBA in efficiency overall, and first among shooting guards, with a PER of 30.3. He only trails Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin in that category.
Williams has increased his performance on the offensive and defensive end while creeping into Clifford's heart with his improved rebounding ability. Williams already has three double-doubles this season after earning five total last year. He's brought down 10+ rebounds in four of Charlotte's five games so far but only accomplished that feat five times in 2014-15.
Williams may be forced to defend out of position on Saturday night as the Spurs will likely start LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan, two 7-footers that will hold a slight physical advantage over Charlotte's starting power forward.
The Spurs largely own the Hornets. San Antonio has won 9 of the last 10 matchups, including the last five in a row. Last year, the teams got their season series out of the way in January, playing twice in a two-week span. On January 14, the Spurs outlasted the Hornets at the Hive 98-93 behind a vintage Manu Ginobili performance. Two weeks later, without Kemba Walker, Charlotte fell 95-86 in San Antonio despite double-doubles from Jefferson and Cody Zeller.
The last time the Hornets beat the Spurs? January 15, 2010. The last time Charlotte won in San Antonio - November 15, 2006. While the wins over Chicago and Dallas were impressive, there's an even larger opportunity here. A road win against history and a title contender would quickly make everyone forget the 0-3 start.