Kawhi Leonard’s tenure with the Spurs may officially be over after the report that he wants out of San Antonio after seven seasons with the Spurs. Leonard and the Spurs have both wanted the best in the process of his injury, but they haven’t been on the same wavelength.
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright published a story detailing the problems between the two sides last month, which resulted in the first Spurs’ season without at least 50 wins since 1999. That piece inspired a lot of questions. Because of Leonard’s injury, the state of his supporting cast, and the murkiness of Gregg Popovich’s future plans, it’s hard not to wonder whether the Spurs’ window is closing, something that would have seemed inconceivable just a year ago.
The Spurs are not supposed to have these types of problems, and Leonard isn’t the type of player to be involved in them. At least that used to be the belief, but we may be seeing the end of what seemed to be an ironclad bond.
As confused as everyone in this situation seems to be, it’s not hard to understand how we got here.
The Spurs got frustrated when they lost control, which is understandable.
On the surface, it might seem that the Spurs’ main frustration is Leonard isn’t playing. There’s that, but also frustration from discussing the exact nature of the injury, and how they’ve lost control of the diagnosis.
Shelburne and Wright reported that this particular frustration began in August:
Initially the Spurs’ doctors were calling the shots, with Leonard following their protocols for most of last summer in his workouts in San Antonio with team staffers and San Diego with his longtime personal trainer. But things began to change in August as Leonard continued to experience discomfort, according to sources.
From that point, Leonard’s agent, Mitch Frankel, and his uncle, Dennis Robertson, started pushing for the Spurs to get outside opinions. After playing his nine games between December and January, Leonard saw Dr. Jonathan Glashow, an orthopedic surgeon at New York City’s Mount Sinai Medical Center.
Since then, Glashow and his team — and not the Spurs — have been steering Leonard’s rehabilitation process. A Spurs staffer told ESPN, “It’s out of our hands.”
The situation feels eerily similar to the reported frustration between the Patriots and Tom Brady over his body coach, Alex Guerrero. The Patriots didn’t like having any part of Brady’s health out of their hands, and kept Guerrero out of team facilities.
The situations are alike — both franchises are considered a model for every other team in their league, and their biggest success is an unmatched consistency. But that consistency didn’t shield them from second-guessing in the way they thought it should.
The Spurs’ frustration takes another leap when you consider that Leonard is one of the best players in the NBA when healthy. In two of the past three seasons, he’s finished in the top three in MVP voting.
The Spurs have not only previously cleared Leonard, but have seemingly lost control over the return over their star player, who could get a $219 million supermax extension this summer. Of course they’re not happy.
But the disconnect from Leonard’s perspective towards the Spurs makes sense, too.
Leonard’s father was shot to death in 2008, allowing Leonard’s relationship with Robertson (his maternal uncle) to blossom to the point where Leonard is, according to ESPN, “devoted and loyal” to him.
It’s easy to understand why Leonard would listen to the other people closest to him in his life when getting a second opinion for the injury, which continued to nag him even after he was cleared by team doctors. Many have pointed to Isaiah Thomas’ hip injury to explain why Leonard should take his time. Thomas did not initially have surgery on his hip after first injuring it with the Celtics. After rough stints with the Cavaliers and now with the Lakers, he’s just now going under the knife. That delay will cost him a lot of money as a free agent.
Another big part of the awkward situation around Leonard has to do with Leonard’s quiet personality. His unwavering facial expression (yes, there’s just one) is something that Spurs fans and NBA fans in general love him for having. He’s viewed as the ultimate Spurs player — his game face never leaves, he’s a phenomenal talent, a team-first guy who doesn’t beat his chest or yell on big plays. He’s quiet. He’s Kawhi Leonard.
Shelburne and Wright get to the crux of the issue here:
Like Duncan, Leonard was always focused on basketball and left the business stuff to his representation.
And further explain the issue here:
Over the years, the only endorsement he seemed genuinely excited about was a deal with Wingstop, because he liked eating there.
No one can question that Leonard doesn’t care about basketball. Leonard’s doing this because that’s all he cares about. He’s a simple guy. He trusts his uncle and the rest of his representation, the doctors they’ve chosen, and the rehabilitation process they’ve come up with to ensure his health, which in turn ensures his NBA future.
But in trusting his representation and keeping quiet, Leonard also allows others to imprint their agenda onto him. It feels, at times, like the reason his situation has spun out of control is that Leonard’s demeanor invites speculation.
The conclusion of this is going to be big, and we don’t know what it will be.
This impasse is a fixable one. The clock is ticking, however, because of the approaching offseason approaching and Popovich’s uncertain future.
ESPN reported Popovich has contemplated retirement for the past few seasons, but because of promises to players and being attached to coach Team USA through the 2020 Olympics, he’s sticking around for now.
Not all love is lost between Leonard and Popovich. Shelburne and Wright show that the bond is still very much intact:
Leonard had intended to leave New York, join the team and support Popovich if he coached one of the games after his wife’s death, according to sources close to both men. When Popovich did not return, Leonard decided to stay and train.
Of course, Leonard’s situation with the Spurs is meaningless in comparison to Erin Popovich’s death. Yet, some sort of confrontation seems unavoidable.
The Spurs have previously fixed a hurt relationship. They did it with LaMarcus Aldridge last summer, who had a nice turnaround in the 2017-18 season. But this seems different, if only because both sides feel, without question, that they are in the right.
Either Leonard and the Spurs are going to figure this thing out in the coming months, or their relationship will continue to bend until it breaks.