At a time when personal issues between coaches and players become public consumption, reconciliations are media fodder to a worldwide audience as well. That was the case when Kawhi Leonard and his former coach Gregg Popovich shared an intimate moment on the court when they hugged it out after the game between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs at the AT&T Center on January 3.
It was an important moment, even if only it establishing a small form of acceptance.
With Leonard likely to opt out of his contract in the summer to become an unrestricted free agent, fans quickly started making up stories about how the conversation between the two could be a conspiracy that would lead up to his return to San Antonio:
Pop: You can come back now. We finally got (DeMar) DeRozan.
Kawhi: Got it, Pop. Wait for me in the summer, OK?
Pop: See you!
As hilarious as this may made-up conversation may be, there really is a chance that Leonard can return to the Spurs especially now that they have a greater chance at winning a championship with DeRozan on board. The question is, should Leonard even try?
That moment between player and coach shut a lid on the longstanding drama between Leonard and the Spurs organization in general that lasted for about a year before it was resolved when the Raptors visited the Spurs at the beginning of the year. The Spurs got their revenge on Kawhi after they defeated the Raptors 125-107 but the ceasefire between him and Pop at the end made up for all the tension that transpired over the past year.
For now, it appears that there will be no more revenge games when the Spurs and Raptors meet except perhaps for shooting guard DeMar DeRozan who likely still feels the pain of being lied to by Raptors management when they traded him for Leonard last summer. But things could start to become testy between the two teams again if Leonard somehow ends up in a Spurs uniform in the offseason. The NBA is, after all, primary all about entertainment and nothing could be more entertaining than reality TV playing out before its fans.
But if there is any chance at all that Leonard is considering a return to San Antonio, then Popovich, general manager R.C. Buford, and the rest of the management team should find a way to make it happen.
Why Leonard Should Give It a Shot
The Raptors risked a lot by trading for Leonard to try and make it to the Finals with a new superstar in charge. DeRozan was beloved in Toronto, was the team’s cornerstone and he wanted to stay on the team. But he was shipped off regardless despite assurances that he wasn’t on the trading block.
Who would want to stay with an organization that turns its back on its most loyal player? There’s no guarantee that they won’t do the same to Leonard once they believe that he is no longer valuable to them.
The Spurs could have handled Leonard’s injury situation better when he was with them. But at least they still didn’t want to give up on him in the offseason when Pop tried to convince him to stay despite everything that happened.
Another thing Leonard should consider is how long the Raptors are going to be a contender versus the Spurs who have stayed contenders virtually every year since David Robinson’s rookie season in the 1989-90 season.
The Spurs Core
Imagine a core trio of Leonard, DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. That’s as good a trio as you’ll find in Spurs history, one that could be a contender for the foreseeable future. The 33-year old Aldridge has kept his status as one of the league’s best power forwards and he should maintain that for at least three more years. With his polished post up game, he should age gracefully going into his twilight NBA years. As with Tim Duncan who shared the spotlight with others as the offense shifted from him to the younger players around him, the Spurs know how to stay competitive even as their stars get older.
If Dejounte Murray returns healthy next season and he continues his growth as the team’s point guard of the future, the Spurs have four of five starter positions all set to compete for a championship.
How to Sign Leonard in the Offseason
Unfortunately, in order to sign Leonard to a max contract next season, the Spurs will have to let go of veteran center Pau Gasol and his $16 million salary. Gasol may no longer be the player he once was but his veteran savvy and locker room presence will be missed.
Another player who has to go is Patty Mills who is set to earn $13 million next season but his contract runs all the way to 2021 which will make it difficult to deal him. There’s also small forward David Bertans who could also be traded to make room for Leonard’s massive incoming salary of roughly $32 million next season. Buford has his work cut out for him if he wants to re-acquire Leonard but it’s not impossible. If he gets this done, the Spurs should be among the league’s elite teams once again.
It’s not like Leonard is without options other than the Raptors and Spurs. Among the teams looking to recruit Leonard are the two L.A. teams, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. They are going to be aggressively looking to recruit the two-time Defensive Player of the Year awardee. Then you’ve got the New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics and New Jersey Nets who are all going to try to land a max-level talent in the offseason and they don’t get any better than the Klaw.
All these teams play in a big market but Leonard doesn’t seem to be the type of player and leader who will thrive in the brighter lights. Based on how he handled his injury situation last season with San Antonio when he refused to address questions with the media head-on, I have no doubt he will be more effective with a certain anonymity. Playing in San Antonio had afforded him that and he would do well to come back to the Spurs where Popovich gets most of the attention.
It’s a dream scenario for sure but it is very much rooted in the realm of possibility.