Kawhi Leonard appears to be pushing his way out of San Antonio, and no one seems to know why.
The notoriously quiet 26-year-old is staying true to his nature: lips are sealed. Leonard, who’s missed all but nine games this season, has been dealing with a quad injury so shrouded in mystery even teammate Tony Parker questions its validity. In his month-long stint with the 2017-18 Spurs, Leonard averaged 16.2 points on 46.8% shooting, 4.7 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block in 23.3 minutes. The team went 5-4 in the games Kawhi played; a minutes restriction limited the effectiveness of the 2-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 Finals MVP. Then, as soon as Kawhi came, he was gone again. The Spurs have mentally prepared for him not to return to play this season.
We haven’t seen a healthy Kawhi Leonard play a basketball game since Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. He’d scored 26 points in 24 minutes before the Warriors’ Zaza Pachulia closed out recklessly on him as he shot a three during the third quarter. Pachulia did not allow Leonard sufficient landing space; Leonard came down hard on Pachulia’s foot, spraining his left ankle badly enough to keep him out of the remainder of the series. The Spurs were up 21 points at the time of the injury; they’d lose the game by two points and were subsequently swept out of contention without their superstar.
The Spurs can only do so much without their defensive anchor and budding playmaker. So why can’t Kawhi and the Spurs agree on his injury?
More than four months after Leonard’s ankle sprain prevented the Spurs from reaching the NBA Finals, it was revealed in the 2017-18 preseason that Kawhi had sustained a thigh injury, though it was not specified when; Gregg Popovich indicated that the issue had developed the season before. The Spurs confirmed that while there was no timetable on his return, Kawhi would definitively not play in the season opener. Popovich said at the time, “when he’s ready, he’ll be ready”. By November, Popovich began to share in the confusion over Kawhi’s injury, saying “it’s just been more difficult for him to get through the rehab routine.”
On December 12, Kawhi Leonard, at last, made his season debut. He scored 13 points in 16 minutes against the Dallas Mavericks. He’d play sparingly over the next month, but in a January 2 win over the Knicks, Kawhi had his best game since returning: 25 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 4 steals.
Kawhi was looking good but wasn’t feeling great. On January 17, the Spurs announced that Leonard would be out “indefinitely” to continue rehabbing his still-lingering right quadriceps tendinopathy. At the time, Gregg Popovich explained, “he’s given it a shot. He’s frustrated as hell. He wants to play badly.”
On January 22, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski broke the news that Kawhi’s slowed progress had “a chilling impact” on the franchise, indicating that Leonard was growing disconnected from the Spurs. GM R.C. Buford rebutted this report, telling ESPN, “there is no issue between the Spurs organization and Kawhi,” insisting that Kawhi’s rehab has just been an unexpected challenge.
WOW. We went into this season thinking Kawhi Leonard could be MVP. Instead…he may finish with only 9 games played and a boatload of questions about his future. https://t.co/djx0Rj8xHH
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) February 21, 2018
Come February, Popovich would finally tell the media, “I’d be surprised if he returns this season.” With fewer than 25 games remaining in the regular season, Popovich made clear that “wishing and hoping” for Leonard’s return would be a waste of energy for the team, who had completely shifted their focus to securing a playoff seed. The Spurs had no choice but to march forward without him.
Days later, it was revealed that Leonard had been “medically cleared” to return to action by the Spurs’ medical staff; instead, he left for New York, seeking advice from privately hired doctors.
Never thought I’d be so comforted by the monotone interview stylings of Kawhi Leonard. *Great* to hear his voice again! pic.twitter.com/QoSFXv3QHk
— Robert Price (@RobertPriceTV) March 7, 2018
In March, Kawhi met with the media for the first time since January. He called his progress “great,” and said he planned to return “soon.” He referenced the nine games he played as a way to “test” out himself and the quad, and shared that he’d ultimately decided that he wasn’t ready for a full return if unhealthy. Additionally, Leonard denied any friction between himself and the Spurs organization and maintained that he’d like to retire a Spur.
Couldn’t be anymore incorrect lol https://t.co/xo4yVyOvn2
— Danny Green (@DGreen_14) March 22, 2018
On March 22, it was reported by Wojnarowski that the Spurs roster engaged in a players-only meeting. Its purpose? To get answers out of Kawhi. Woj says that the meeting was “tense and emotional at times,” though Danny Green openly refuted this both on Twitter and the next day at shootaround; Green told the media that the meeting wasn’t specifically about Kawhi, and denied that anyone was frustrated or emotional. The same day, Popovich responded as well, even though he was not involved in the meeting: “It’s been frustrating. You don’t think he wants to come back? You don’t think we want him back? But the fact that he’s not back, it frustrates everybody for all the obvious reasons.” Without confirming or denying anything, Popovich made clear that the team will continue to practice and play as if Leonard won’t be rejoining them; if Leonard does feel ready to return, “well that’s great.”
So is it frustration, or is it something else?
On April 2, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst divulged the unthinkable: “At the end of this season, teams will call the Spurs and inquire about the availability of Kawhi Leonard.” Calling this a “dramatic shift,” Windhorst implies that the Spurs are no longer confident that Leonard is as willing to spend the remainder of his career in San Antonio as he indicated in March. If there was ever any certainty that Leonard is committed long-term to the Spurs, there isn’t any now. The Spurs could very well trade away their superstar before even offering him the supermax contract extension they’re expected to negotiate in the coming months.
While he’s often been touted as the model Spur–an unassuming, spotlight-repellant fundamentalist with an old-school work ethic–it’s evident that Kawhi is challenging the organization that put everything on the line to have him. Meanwhile, Kawhi is putting his reputation on the line–not to mention millions of dollars. Leonard’s actions indicate that he is ready to assert his worth, and that he and his representation are recalibrating their priorities. He’s expressed an implicit distrust of the Spurs’ medical staff, jetting between San Antonio and New York for outside opinions. Kawhi recently made headlines when he pushed against Jordan Brand, stalling talks on a new long-term shoe contract; Leonard and his camp did not feel that the figure they were offered reflected Leonard’s status. Kawhi is taking control. He’s a quiet killer on the court, and becoming a deadly negotiator off of it. Whether or not he’s exaggerating parts of the injury and intentionally leveraging himself is unclear, but it seems like the reserved Leonard could be opening himself up to any number out of 29 other possibilities. Could he be setting his sights on Los Angeles? Blazers guard C.J. McCollum doesn’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility.
The harmonious, dependable, consistently excellent San Antonio Spurs have been the NBA’s representative pinnacle for two decades. The mystery of Kawhi Leonard’s injury is making tsunami waves simply because his assumed discontent appears to be threatening their legendary culture. Under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have made the playoffs every year since 1998, winning their first NBA title in 1999 and proceeding to win four more between 2003 and 2014. Leonard, along with Spurs for life Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili and retiree Duncan led the Spurs to back-to-back Finals appearances against the Miami Heat in 2013 and 2014. Avenging the Spurs’ 2013 loss, Leonard’s championship performance in 2014 earned him MVP honors behind 17.8 points on 61.2% shooting and the title-clinching defense on LeBron James.
The 2017-18 season has largely been uncharted territory for the Spurs. Their up-and-down year no doubt has been affected by defensive gaps once filled by Leonard. Adjusting to losing a high-usage All-Star isn’t simple, even for The System. The Spurs haven’t finished worse than 7th in the Western Conference since 1997, the same year they went 20-62 and converted their lottery pick into Tim Duncan. For the first time in two decades, they’ll neither win 50 games (except the shortened 1999 season, when they won 37 of 50) nor have a winning road record. In 2018, the Spurs have owned every Western seed from 3 to 10; as of April 4, they sit in 5th place with a record of 45-34. The Spurs have exceeded expectations while Kawhi keeps them waiting, but how much can they really accomplish without him?