- A divide has grown between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs over a disagreement about his injury and rehab.
- Leonard spent the latter part of the season away from the team, rehabbing with his advisors and doctors, despite the Spurs clearing him to play, a development that surprised the NBA world and seemed to annoy the Spurs.
- The Spurs reportedly plan to meet with Leonard this offseason to mend the relationship, but the team is nonetheless at a crossroads.
- Leonard is eligible for a max contract extension with the Spurs, but there is hesitancy about giving that kind of contract to a player who might not be healthy and might not want to be there.
- The Spurs could potentially look to trade Leonard if he indicates he no longer wants to be with the team.
To understand Kawhi Leonard’s current chasm with the San Antonio Spurs, consider the last time the organisation faced a crossroads with its franchise star.
In 2000, Tim Duncan, then 24, was a free agent and heavily considering leaving the Spurs for the Orlando Magic.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and Duncan had several meetings in which they discussed the future of the Spurs, with Duncan expressing concern about the direction of the franchise. As Popovich told Ian Thomsen in his new book, “The Soul of Basketball,” one factor, in particular, made the meetings productive and eventually led Duncan to re-sign with the Spurs.
“And so it was just like that, back and forth, but we sat there together,” Popovich told Thomsen of his meetings with Duncan. “It wasn’t like he was with his agent, and I’m calling, and we’re doing the separate kind of baloney. We did it together. Just figuring out what would be best.”
Popovich’s memory of the discussions reflects on where the Spurs currently stand with Leonard. Leonard, a two-time All-Star, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and Finals MVP, missed all but nine games this season while rehabbing a quadriceps injury. He spent the latter weeks of the season away from the team, rehabbing with his advisors and doctors in New York City.
Consider what Popovich told reporters about Leonard’s status in April following a Game 1 playoff loss to the Golden State Warriors.
“You’ll have to ask Kawhi and his group that question,” Popovich told reporters. “So far, they say that he’s not ready to go.”
The quote caught the NBA world’s attention. “Group” not only indicated that Leonard was working outside of the Spurs’ domain but suggested a detachment from the Spurs. Popovich didn’t sound thrilled about the arrangement. He continually referenced Leonard’s “group” when asked about the star forward.
Leonard’s group reportedly included outside doctors, his agent, and his uncle, who is advising him. The Spurs had staff members there, too, but it wasn’t the typical setup teams are used to – certainly not the Spurs, who have been the face of stability in the NBA for two decades.
At the root of the issue is a disagreement over Leonard’s injury, as ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright outlined. The Spurs and Leonard’s camp viewed Leonard’s injury differently, and as Leonard struggled to recover last summer, his camp felt the Spurs dragged their feet on getting second opinions. It has reportedly turned into an issue of what’s best for Leonard, and to whom he is listening. Spurs doctors cleared Leonard to play in 2018, but he did not return, feeling he wasn’t ready. Since then, the gulf has only seemed to widen.
According to one league source, there’s a sense of schadenfreude around the league that the Spurs, seemingly invulnerable to drama and inner-turmoil, are at last dealing with what the source described as “living the life everyone else has had to live for 20 years.”
Now, the Spurs head into an offseason that puts them at a crossroads unlike anything we’ve seen from the NBA’s model franchise. At the center of it is a top-five player that seemed primed to steer the Spurs from the Duncan era to the next without a hitch.
A meeting with Leonard is reportedly the Spurs’ top priority this offseason. From there, nobody is sure what’s next.
There’s no doubting that Leonard is injured.
NBA Hall of Famer and Turner Sports NBA analyst Grant Hill can understand the pressure Leonard may be feeling.
Though Hill emphasised he doesn’t know any specifics of Leonard’s situation, he can understand ignoring a team’s medical staff. Hill played just 135 games of a possible 492 from ages 28 to 33, his prime, while dealing with ankle issues. He has some regrets about how it was handled.
“I think in my case, I always sort of deferred to our team doctors to whether I was cleared to play,” Hill told Business Insider. “And I never went against the team and said I’m trying to play when they’re trying to hold me out. And I think everyone knows what happened to me.
“Like I said, I want to qualify by saying I don’t know the situation [in San Antonio]. I can only speak on my own experience. So, I just do know that just because a team doctor says it’s ok, I had times where I was cleared by team doctors, and in retrospect, had no business being out there and contributed to my whole ordeal. It was horribly mismanaged. And so I wish I had someone, whether it was an outside doctor or someone on my team or my behalf, speaking up for me and saying, ‘No, big picture, we want you to get right.’ I missed a good portion of my career, and it fully affected my career afterwards.”
Not everyone has been so understanding of Leonard’s situation.
In March, Tony Parker took a not-so-thinly-veiled shot at Leonard, saying he went through a quadriceps injury that was worse and still returned.
“I’ve been through it,” Parker told reporters. “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.”
Parker also insisted that he trusted the Spurs’ team doctors and did not need to seek outside counsel.
Frustration within the Spurs boiled over during the season when there was a players-only meeting with Leonard in which his teammates asked him what was going on. ESPN reported the meeting was “tense” and “emotional” at times, though some Spurs players disputed that. Leonard reportedly held strong that he was doing what was best for him and was not swayed to return to the court.
One source with knowledge of the Spurs noted how bizarre the situation has been because the Spurs have historically been one of the most cautious teams with injuries. They famously sat Duncan out of the 2000 playoffs after he tore his meniscus. Duncan could have returned, but the Spurs did not bring him back out of precaution. Many think it paid dividends in Duncan’s longevity.
According to this source, Popovich will sometimes make players come to him and ask to return to the court, even if doctors have cleared them. At times, players have to beg to return to show they’re truly ready to get back out there. Popovich has also kept players on the bench for an extra game or two even after they have been cleared, just to be safe.
Leonard’s situation is the opposite. The Spurs cleared him, and he hasn’t returned. Not everyone has understood that decision, only fuelling the fire. A league source noted that by publicly declaring that they had cleared him, the Spurs left Leonard out to dry. They made it appear as if his agency was more concerned with his well-being than the team.
“If someone’s hurt and they don’t have peace of mind, and they’re not ready, then they shouldn’t come back,” Hill said. “It’s never for someone else to try and say if someone’s hurt or not. I know because I lived it. I went against my better judgment at times and went against what my gut and my instincts were telling me at times because the so-called experts said I was good.”
He added: “Your body talks to you. You just have to learn to listen to it.”
In the NBA, disputes between players and teams seldom fail to grow bigger than the initial issue. In Leonard’s case, it’s not just a question of if he’s going to return – it’s if he will return as a member of the Spurs.
The entire NBA world has wondered if Leonard has his eyes on other teams and is using his injury to force the Spurs’ hand. Multiple reports have indicated that other teams plan on making a run at Leonard this offseason.
A league source told Business Insider that Leonard’s agency and family have never been fond of Texas and feel that San Antonio, a small market, has hurt Leonard’s marketability when it comes to sponsors. The same source said Leonard’s shy personality is more to blame for his inability to get more sponsorships than San Antonio’s market size.
The source with knowledge of the Spurs disputed that claim. The person was never aware that Leonard’s camp was ever unhappy with San Antonio.
In March, ESPN reported that talks between Leonard and Jordan Brand over a new shoe deal had stalled over a contract dispute, with Leonard’s camp feeling the $US20 million offer from Jordan did not match Leonard’s standing in the league. Shelburne and Wright reported that Leonard has never seemed to concern himself with marketing, leaving his representation to handle the business side of things.
Leonard’s agent, Mitch Frankel, did not respond to several requests for interviews from Business Insider.
ESPN reported that Spurs GM R.C. Buford has lost sleep over the Leonard saga, with a team-wide fear that Leonard could have his eyes on a bigger market.
In some of his only public comments while injured, Leonard told reporters he was happy with the Spurs and could “for sure” see him ending his career there.
It wouldn’t be the first time a player has imposed his will on a franchise to move to another location. For instance, Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon reported that when Kyrie Irving asked for a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers last summer, he threatened to sit out the season to get knee surgery if they did not trade him. Irving still had two years left on his deal, not much leverage by some standards, but the Cavs eventually acquiesced and traded him to the Boston Celtics.
The Spurs may be under more pressure, with Leonard hitting free agency in 2019.
The $US219 million question.
Hanging over all of this is that Leonard is eligible for the so-called “supermax,” a five-year, $US219 million contract that only the Spurs can offer, this summer.
Last season, when Leonard produced a career year and finished third in MVP voting, extending such an offer would have seemed like a no-brainer.
But the current saga has threatened the deal. ESPN reported that discussions over the deal are taking place now, with both sides unsure of what’s to come.
The league source said that giving Leonard the supermax this offseason might be unwise. The Spurs don’t have to extend the offer this summer, and there are questions about making such a commitment when the team is unsure of the state of his health and desire to be there.
Turning down such a deal would be unprecedented in the NBA, and it’s the reason some think Leonard and the Spurs will make amends if the Spurs do offer it. If Leonard still wanted out but couldn’t turn down the money, he could follow in the footsteps of Carmelo Anthony, who famously sealed a more lucrative extension with the Denver Nuggets in 2011 before requesting a trade to the New York Knicks.
There are other alternatives. Former Brooklyn Nets assistant GM and current ESPN analyst Bobby Marks told Business Insider that the Spurs could try to only partially guarantee the contract, similar to what the Philadelphia 76ers did with Joel Embiid. Marks noted that Leonard might not be open to such a deal, given his relative health and standing in the league, whereas Embiid had been injured for most of his career when he signed the agreement.
Marks also said the Spurs could wait out an extension until training camp next season to see how Leonard returned. Of course, by that time, they would have lost two to three months to deal Leonard. Opposing teams would have less time with Leonard, meaning they’d offer less in a trade than what Leonard is genuinely worth.
That’s another path this saga could take for the Spurs. What if the Spurs meet with Leonard and he tells them he’s done, that the relationship is irreparable and he wants out? The league source explained a contingency plan the Spurs should have.
“If you met him at the practice facility and he sat across from Pop and said, ‘There’s nothing you can do to keep me here, I don’t trust you, I don’t trust the medical staff, I’m out,’ I would have a deal lined up where I could trade him before he made it to his car. Because if you don’t do that, if you don’t trade him before it’s known that the reconciliation’s failed, you’ll get way less.”
The Spurs are on the clock, with Leonard’s free agency just over a year away. What they can’t afford to do is let Leonard’s deal run out without getting anything back for him. If he is uninterested in sticking around, the Spurs’ decision might be made for them.
There is faith in the Spurs’ way.
The situation isn’t apples-to-apples, but the Spurs faced a somewhat similar dilemma last offseason when LaMarcus Aldridge told Popovich he would like to be traded. Popovich openly told reporters this season that instead of following Aldridge’s wishes, he sat him down, talked out the issues, and convinced him to stay. Aldridge produced his finest season with the Spurs, and though the Leonard saga overshadowed it, led them to the playoffs. Sound familiar?
There’s some faith around the NBA that the Spurs will do the same this offseason. Such is the power of Popovich and Co.
“Pop and R.C. are masters at working through communication or misunderstanding or relationships,” said the source with knowledge of the Spurs.
“They have always been able to force the reality that they want to create into existence,” the league source said. “They have always been able to make things happen the way they want them to.”
ESPN reported that the divide between Leonard and the Spurs isn’t absolute – Leonard and Popovich reportedly still communicate and Leonard reportedly still talks to some other Spurs players.
But Marks noted that isn’t a typical situation.
“This is just a little bit different because it’s a player that has been injured since September, has been cleared at some point of the year and basically, there’s been an agreement between the Spurs and his camp that his doctor will clear him to return. I’ve never seen that before. I really haven’t,” Mark said. “And it’s a top-five player who’s going into a summer where he can get $US219 million. So it’s like all of the things [that could] line up have lined up here.”
Speculation abounds because there’s no sense of what will happen next. It seems unclear to both the Spurs and Leonard’s camp what the future holds, but there is potential for it to shake up the league.
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