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Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich beefing about leadership is really awkward

It’s strange to think of these two actually feuding, but here they are debating Kawhi’s leadership ability.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In public comments atypical of both parties, both Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and his former superstar forward Kawhi Leonard had a (sorta) war of words last week, just months after Leonard was traded by the Spurs. The focus of this argument was on Kawhi’s leadership, or as Pop put it, the lack thereof.

Clearly the tides haven’t settled after San Antonio dealt its disgruntled star to the Toronto Raptors in July.

What’d Pop say?

Before San Antonio’s game against the Bucks, Popovich was asked about Patty Mills’ role as a leader without Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi this season.

Here was his response, according to the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald:

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 was noting the tendency of vets to assume leadership roles, as Kawhi is just 27 years old. But in doing so, he took a shot at Leonard, opening another odd chapter to the bizarre back-and-forth drama between the pair.

What’d Kawhi say?

A day later, Kawhi, surprisingly, responded to Pop’s statement and defended himself.

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.

Reporter: What kind of a leader would you say you are?

Kawhi: I lead by example. I come into practice everyday and go hard. Come into these games and stay focused. You can’t see things once you’re playing on the floor. Guys ask me questions about their matchup or if I see something on the floor, I’m telling guys, ‘Go here, go there,’ just motivating people, you know what I mean? just trying to lift people’s spirits up off the floor.

The term “leading by example” is a played cliche, and its effectiveness is debatable. Can a “leader by example” conduct the floor in crunch time? What about during an internal dispute?

There are a million ways to interpret leadership. Kawhi may not have been the traditional one, to Pop’s point.

So who’s right?

Both? Neither?

Leadership roles are up for debate, and with both speaking out after what happened last year and this summer, it’s hard to gauge who’s right.

How spicy is this?

Kawhi was always known as the rare star who avoided the spotlight off the court, but now he’s starting to slowly push that notion aside, especially after he forced his way out of town.

This is low-key drama — like really, really low-key until you remember the parties involved — and pales in comparison to the NBA’s more fiery characters. But this meant something to both, and we still don’t know the full story behind their split.

Mark Jan. 3 on the calendar for when their teams face off for the first time this season to get a true read on what, if anything, this back-and-forth means.