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The Spurs’ mystique is dead

Kawhi Leonard is not special, and thus, neither is San Antonio.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

As Kawhi Leonard’s camp works to get their man traded out of San Antonio, and Tony Parker jumps ship for Charlotte, something has become painfully clear: the Spurs’ mystique is dead.

For 20 years the Spurs have competed for NBA championships playing by rules of their own, bending the rest of the league to their will with some regularity. It’s not a constant dominance — the franchise won no titles from 2008 through 2013, nor since 2014. It’s a dynastic power without an actual dynasty to speak of.

But the Spurs always lurk, always do things right and do things under the radar, and pop up deep in the Western Conference Finals, right when opponents least expect it.

The normal rules of team-building never really applied, not once San Antonio drafted Tim Duncan in 1997 and Kawhi in 2011. These unassuming superstars didn’t require any special privilege (so we thought), and their satisfaction with being treated like every other Spur by the demanding Gregg Popovich helped build a camaraderie rarely found in the NBA.

The Spurs struck gold with Duncan, a perfect team-first superstar. That got them four titles in 10 years. It looked as though the Spurs had struck the jackpot again with Kawhi. They added another ring in Year 3 with him, amid Duncan’s twilight. But now that’s all over.

Kawhi isn’t the son of Duncan after all. He’s like any other NBA superstar, and his ego won’t submit to Popovich any longer. And because Kawhi isn’t Duncan, we now realize that it wasn’t the Spurs who were special all these years. It was Duncan and Popovich who were extraordinary.

The most peculiar thing about Leonard’s trade request is that we really have no idea of the reason for it. There’s bad blood over how Kawhi’s injury was treated this year, and that’s somewhat understandable. Spurs players appeared to be losing patience with Leonard as the season wore on, and even Popovich had an edge when discussing the expected timeline for Kawhi’s return at times.

But a trade request away from the team that served as the platform for your Finals MVP and multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards over ... this? Something more is happening.

It’s starting to look as though Kawhi didn’t really want to be the new Tim Duncan. He fit into that role because in his youth he was quiet, unassuming, and ready to work hard. Duncan was the perfect guide for a player like that.

Remember that Kawhi wasn’t a super-elite high school recruit — he wasn’t in the top 50 in his class — and that he wasn’t a one-and-done meteor out of San Diego State, where he played for two seasons. Remember that Kawhi was the No. 15 pick in a shallow draft. He had a lot to prove once he arrived in San Antonio.

His arrival collided with the Spurs’ rejuvenated run in the suddenly open West, after the Lakers had fallen (again) and before the Warriors rose. The Thunder were the presumptive heirs to the throne, and went to the 2012 Finals in Kawhi’s rookie season. But misfortune, the James Harden trade, and Kawhi’s rise subsumed Oklahoma City, and the Spurs quickly reigned supreme again. That early success with Duncan as a guiding light — along with Popovich’s effusive praise for the young star — shaped how we think about Leonard. All of that built an aura of Duncanism around Leonard. It built the Spurs’ mystique as something beyond Duncan. This magic was now applicable to multiple generations of NBA superstars.

Now that is proven to be a lie. Kawhi is no Duncan. He is a fairly normal NBA superstar with a perfectly understandable, normal ego and normal desires that don’t include sticking around San Antonio for his entire career. Being borne of the Spurs did not imbue him with a Duncanian attitude.

Leonard’s reported interest in going to Los Angeles is the tell here: if he were truly a different flavor of superstar — something like a Duncan — he wouldn’t close off the options to only his sunny homeland. He’d be happy wherever he could compete for titles with an excellent coach. Kawhi is showing himself to basically be Paul George with more hardware and a better reputation.

And because Kawhi is no Duncan, the Spurs’ mystique is dead. That franchise was believed to be the reason there could be a second Duncan. The franchise has been seen, in a way, as a protective cocoon that allows its prospects to blossom into monsters in a safe environment, requiring only undying loyalty once they reach maturity. But really, it was always just Duncan and Popovich building a truly special symbiosis, with other faithful, exceptional talents like Manu Ginobili, David Robinson, and, to a lesser extent, Tony Parker augmenting the relationship and imbuing it all with an added mysticism.

That’s all gone now. Robinson left years ago. Parker is on his way out, and it appears Manu has just one more year left (if that). There are rumors abounding that Popovich will retire by 2020. One wonders if he would have quit this summer had he not promised LaMarcus Aldridge to stay when recruiting him.

I have long discussed exceptionalism in the NBA in the context of the Lakers, given that usual norms don’t usually apply to that franchise. Lakers exceptionalism died in embarrassing fashion circa 2011. Only now, under the guidance of Jeanie Buss and Magic Johnson, is L.A. beginning to find the kernel of its mystique again. Lakers exceptionalism may be reborn any minute now.

Quietly, Spurs exceptionalism has also existed for 20 years now. The normal rules of NBA team-building and title-chasing didn’t apply to San Antonio in the reign of Popovich, Duncan, and, for a while at least, Kawhi. But that’s all over, as it is revealed that the last couple years of the era have been a lie. It was always just Duncan and Popovich after all. Kawhi’s catastrophic year has broken the facade, and his trade request has turned the Spurs’ aura of exceptionality into rubble.

Finally, after all these years of excellence, the San Antonio Spurs are just another NBA team. What a pity.