In the spring of 2017, Kawhi Leonard was the MVP candidate of a 61-win model Spurs franchise, with a legitimate case for being the best player in the league. He was cementing his place as the heir to Tim Duncan’s throne, the next in a long line of San Antonio legends.
A year and a half later, he’s a Toronto Raptor, making his first appearance in his old city since skipping town. It did not end well for him, as he was serenaded with boos and chants of “TRAITOR” in the Spurs’ 125-107 victory.
Here’s why the vitriol was so intense.
With one year left on his current contract, Leonard fulfilled a right of passage for many superstars: convey your intentions not to re-sign in order to force a trade to your preferred destination. We just never expected that he’d be following that same path one year ago, or that he’d head north to Canada to a team not on his list.
In the days leading up to this rematch, both sides were cordial about the split. Leonard issued a thank you to Spurs fans for supporting him, while Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said he hopes Spurs fans don’t boo Leonard and instead treat him “with kindness and respect.”
That did not happen, even though Leonard and Popovich shared in an embrace afterwards.
Their relationship deteriorated so quickly that hard feelings have been expressed, either publicly or through back channels, throughout the last 18 months.
How we got here centers around a mysterious injury and goes even deeper.
To sum it up: Kawhi never recovered from a nagging 2017 quadriceps injury, and the Spurs and Leonard’s representatives quarreled about how to best treat the ailment. Those quarrels eventually spilled over enough to sour the relationship.
Leonard only played in nine games in the 2017-18 season and didn’t touch the court after Jan. 13. Charting his injury, which Popovich said he’d never seen before, was nerve-wracking: one week he was expected to return soon; the next, he was still out rehabbing his quad. He wasn’t even with the team during their five-game first-round loss to the Warriors.
There were other factors that explain Leonard’s desire to go elsewhere, but the deterioration with his relationship with the Spurs starts there.
Here’s a timeline of this injury and all the friction that occurred because of it:
Sept. 30, 2017
“We’re still rehabbing his thigh,” Popovich said, “He’ll probably miss the beginning of preseason or a good deal of preseason, and we’re not going to put a timetable (on a return). But he’s working at it, and we’ll get him back as soon as we can.”
It was later revealed that the Spurs allowed Leonard’s representation to manage his injury progression, a decision that later proved to be ominous.
Oct. 13, 2017
Two weeks later, the Spurs confirmed Leonard would miss the season opener and there was still no timetable on his return.
“I don’t gauge it,” Popovich said. “He’s still rehabbing and when he’s ready, he’ll be ready. I try not to qualify it.”
Oct. 20, 2017
Leonard was filmed walking up the stairs of a plane, and he was struggling. The context was Leonard had just come back from a rehab workout, but still. That’s tough to watch.
Nov. 7, 2017
Popovich said Leonard’s slow progress was confusing to him, too.
Pop on Kawhi's slow progress: "He’s just coming along more slowly, for whatever reason. It’s just been more difficult for him to get through the rehab routine. His body hasn’t reacted the same way."— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) November 7, 2017
But Popovich also said Leonard was “going in the right direction.”
Nov. 15, 2017
The Spurs finally gave what appeared to be good news about Leonard’s injury, saying he would be back “sooner than later.”
Of course, Popovich immediately walked back slightly on that quote. From the San Antonio Express-News:
Asked if there is “light at the end of the tunnel” for the Spurs’ linchpin player, Popovich said, “Oh, sure. He’s gonna be back sooner rather than later.”
The coach then paused before adding, “Whatever nebulous (stuff that was). As soon as I said it, I thought, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ “
Dec. 12, 2017
Leonard returned to the court, and he looked good. For nine games, The Claw averaged 25 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 3.2 steals and just under two steals a game.
Leonard did not play in the second of Spurs’ back-to-backs.
Jan. 17, 2018
Jan. 22, 2018
ESPN reported that there was a growing rift between Leonard and the organization. General manager R.C. Buford refuted the rift, but did admit that the injury recovery process was challenging.
“This has been difficult for everyone,” Buford told ESPN. “It’s been difficult for Kawhi. He’s an elite-level player. It’s been difficult for the team, because they want to play with a great teammate. And it’s been difficult for our staff. Historically we’ve been able to successfully manage injuries. This rehab hasn’t been simple, and it hasn’t gone in a linear fashion.”
Feb. 5, 2018
Leonard went to New York, where he spent three weeks seeking further consultation on his quadriceps injury, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Leonard isn’t expected to immediately start engaging in full 5-on-5 practices with his teammates, but the goal is to advance toward that level of engagement in the near future, league sources said.
While in New York, Leonard worked out at the NBA Players Association gym.
Feb. 21, 2018
Popovich told reporters it was unlikely San Antonio’s All-Star forward would return during the 2017-18 season.
“I’ll be surprised if he returns this season,” Pop said. “Well, we only have X number of games left in the season, and he’s still not ready to go. If by some chance he is, it’s gonna be pretty late into the season; and it’s going to be a pretty tough decision -- how late to bring somebody back. So that’s why I’m just trying to be honest and logical. I’ll be surprised if he gets back this year.”
March 7, 2018
Leonard addressed the media publicly for the first time since stepping away from the team. He told reporters he still intended to return to the court during the season. When?
Asked when he hopes to return, Leonard said, "Soon. I don't have a set date right now. I just have to keep doing what I'm doing. The progression that I am making has been great. I just have to keep doing what I'm doing." #Spurs— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) March 7, 2018
Asked if the pain in his leg has diminished, Kawhi said, "It’s diminishing. It’s— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) March 7, 2018
hard to explain, but I am definitely better. Feel better and am feeling more
Leonard also denied all reports of friction between he and the Spurs.
March 22, 2018
With Leonard’s status still in limbo, Manu Ginobili raised some eyebrows with the following comment:
“He is not coming back. For me, he’s not coming back because it’s not helping [to think Leonard is returning]. We fell for it a week ago again. I guess you guys made us fall for it. But we have to think that he’s not coming back, that we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him. That shouldn’t be changing, at least until he is ready for the jump ball.”
The Spurs also began listing Leonard’s status as “return from injury management” on box scores.
The next day, Tony Parker, who recovered from a similar quad injury in less time, said his ailment was “a hundred time worse” than Leonard’s.
Tony Parker on his return from the career-threatening quad injury he suffered last May: I’ve been through it. It was a rehab for me for eight months. Same kind of injury (as Kawhi), but mine was a hundred times worse. But the same kind of injury. You just stay positive."— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) March 23, 2018
The quote was taken out of context, as Parker was intending to use his experience as a rallying point for Leonard, not as a means to criticize him. But the proliferation of the “100 times worse” line was reportedly the last straw for Leonard. He knew he did not want to return after hearing that.
March 23, 2018
The Spurs held a players-only meeting asking Leonard to return, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The meeting was described as “tense” and “emotional.”
Multiple Spurs players disputed the reporting.
Player: I can't wait to get home & rest it's been a long week!— Brandon Paul (@BP3) March 22, 2018
Media: Player hints he's had enough & growing tensions begin to divide locker room also 100% for sure player has asked a for more meaningful role in selection of post game meals! Read more he....
Now that we know Leonard left, it’s even more important to understand whether it was tense or cordial. The truth is likely in the middle: Leonard’s teammates were only trying to gauge when or if he’d return to the court, but Leonard may have seen the meeting in a more negative light.
April 16, 2018
Leonard did not join the Spurs for any of their five playoff games, instead returning to New York to rehab the injury.
After a Game 2 loss in which LaMarcus Aldridge scored 34 points, Gregg Popovich raised eyebrows with the following postgame comment:
“LaMarcus has been a monster all year long,” Popovich said. “He’s led our team at both ends of the floor. He doesn’t complain about a darn thing out on the court. He just plays through everything. I can’t imagine being more proud of a player as far as playing through adversity and being there for his teammates night after night after night. He’s been fantastic.”
Was that a shot at Leonard? Popovich dodged the question the next day.
Asked about "a lot of people " interpreting his praise for LA after Gm. 2 as a “shot” at Kawhi, and if that was indeed the case, Pop said, “Who are these lots of people? Who are they? Did you count them? I think you just made that up.” Significant, though, that he didn't deny it.— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) April 18, 2018
May 1, 2018
ESPN’s Ramona Shelborne and Michael C. Wright released a story that detailed the growing tension between the Spurs and Leonard. Among the revelations: Leonard’s representatives — agent Mitch Frankel and uncle Dennis Robertson — were at odds with other members of Leonard’s camp.
June 13, 2018
Leonard’s former agent, Brian Elfus, filed a lawsuit against Frankel for allegedly failing to pay Elfus commission on his client.
June 14, 2018
With renewed optimism that the relationship could be repaired, Gregg Popovich traveled to New York to meet with Leonard.
June 15, 2018
It didn’t work. News broke that Leonard told the Spurs that he wanted to be traded. The Lakers were initially listed as Leonard’s preferred destination, but the Clippers were also in the picture. The Spurs did not immediately begin seeking offers.
June 28, 2018
The Spurs finally realized they needed to move on and began negotiating actively with teams on a trade package.
They initially were seeking a king’s ransom from teams like Boston or the Lakers, but those offers never came due to concerns about Leonard’s future intentions and his injury.
That eventually led to ...
July 18, 2018
Leonard was traded, along with three-and-D wing Danny Green, to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick that converts to two second-round picks if not exercised.
Toronto was whispered as an increasing possibility for Leonard in the days leading up to this swap, but the news still came as a huge surprise, especially to DeRozan.
The timing of the trade raised the awkward possibility that Leonard, DeRozan, and Popovich would all be together at Team USA’s minicamp, but Leonard sidestepped that by pulling out to continue rehabbing his injury.
July 24, 2018
In the inaugural episode of his new podcast, Green revealed that he, too, had an injury that ended up being more severe than the Spurs’ doctors let on:
So throughout the season we’ve monitored it, but we never went back to check on it again, because so many other injuries have happened. And I could have gotten a second opinion, so I see where Kawhi [Leonard] is coming from when he got his second opinion. Because a lot of times, you’ll get information from outside sources, and not saying the Spurs staff is not up to par, it’s just not everybody is a specialist in every area. So it’s not like they’re a specialist in the groin area or a sports hernia, maybe. So to go to a guy who may be in Philly to get a second opinion shouldn’t hurt.
So end of the season, come to find out, it could have happened that day or the playoff series against Golden State, we don’t know, but to end the season I had to get another MRI, because you get an exit physical. The strain was still there with a little tear.
Though Green was adamant in defending the Spurs’ medical staff, the fact that he, too, had a dispute with the team over the severity of an injury adds additional context to Leonard’s beef.
Aug, 9, 2018
Three weeks after being traded, Leonard finally released a statement thanking the Spurs and their fans. It was awkward.
Aug. 13, 2018
Former Spur and Clippers TV commentator Bruce Bowen sharply criticized Leonard’s handling of his injury, saying there were “nothing but excuses going on” and suggesting Leonard got “bad advice.” He was immediately fired by the team, likely due to its desire to sign Leonard as a free agent in 2019.
Spurs legend David Robinson also had pointed words for Leonard, saying he’s “a hard guy to understand.” Robinson also revealed that he tried to reach out to Leonard, but Leonard didn’t reciprocate.
Sept. 24, 2018
In an attempt to diffuse tension, Leonard laughed awkwardly at Raptors media day. This soon became one of the memes of the season.
Nov. 26, 2018
In a pregame interview, Popovich dropped a surprisingly cold line about his former star. When asked about Patty Mills filling a leadership void left by Ginobili, Parker, and Leonard, Popovich made clear that Leonard didn’t belong in that conversation:
Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader. Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but leadership wasn’t his deal at the time. That may come as progresses. Patty and Manu filled that role for us last year. LaMarcus Aldridge came a long way as a leader also.
Pop may not have meant that as a criticism, but Leonard certainly took it as such:
Kawhi: It’s funny to me because I don’t know if he’s talking about last year or not but I guess when you stop playing, they forget how you lead. Other than that it doesn’t matter. I’m here with the Raptors and I’m focused on this season and that’s what’s going on at this time.
Popovich has since admitted he regretted those comments, but the damage was already done.
Jan. 3, 2019
Leonard’s return game to San Antonio became a moment for Spurs fans to let out their frustration.
It began with loud boos in pregame introductions, which were especially poignant because they came immediately after loud cheers for Green.
Funny compare and contrast between Kawhi and Danny Green pic.twitter.com/WrCknDw2mC— Evan Closky (@EvanClosky) January 4, 2019
The boos continued every time Leonard touched the ball. They seemed to rattle the Raptors, who were blitzed thanks to a triple double by DeRozan and an inspired effort from the Spurs.
The venom for Leonard reached its highest point when he went to the free-throw line midway through the second quarter.
And now Kawhi Leonard has 18,581 people telling him he is a traitor... pic.twitter.com/bESXlFSn7g— Dime (@DimeUPROXX) January 4, 2019
But despite the boos, Leonard and Popovich shared a warm moment following the Spurs’ 125-107 victory.
Nothing but respect between Kawhi and Gregg Popovich. pic.twitter.com/tbiSvAtn39— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 4, 2019
Popovich later said the fan reaction made him uncomfortable.
“I felt badly about it. Kawhi’s a high-character guy. We all make decisions with our lives, what we’re going to do with our futures. He has that same right as any of us. So I felt badly, in all honesty.