Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard is set to return to San Antonio to battle the Spurs for the first time since he was traded from the Spurs to the Raptors over the summer, with the two teams getting ready to clash on Thursday night.
You probably can’t expect a very warm welcome for Leonard from the Spurs faithful, as Leonard’s whole situation in San Antonio that ended in a trade certainly rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.
So, what caused Leonard to have such vitriol for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs that he asked for a trade?
Well, that’s kind of a long story.
It all started in Game 5 of the Spurs’ 2017 second-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, when Leonard tweaked his ankle in an overtime win and proceeded to miss San Antonio’s closeout win in Game 6.
It didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time. Popovich rested Leonard in that Game 6 because the Spurs had a 3-2 lead in the series, so, worst-case scenario, San Antonio would have a Game 7 on its home floor, and Kawhi would likely play.
But then, things got worse.
In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the heavily favored Golden State Warriors, the Spurs held a 23-point second-half lead before Zaza Pachulia “accidentally” slid his foot under Leonard while he was landing after a jump shot, resulting in Leonard aggravating the ankle injury and missing the remainder of the postseason.
Of course, the Warriors would rally for the Game 1 victory and would proceed to sweep the Spurs, who looked absolutely helpless against the Kevin Durant-led Dubs without the services of their best player.
Still, the future looked bright down by the River Walk.
Leonard was still just 25 years old, after all, and LaMarcus Aldridge appeared to have plenty left in the tank. Plus, San Antonio had young point guard Dejounte Murray, who looked to be oozing with potential.
The Spurs were no world-beaters, but they were a possible 60-win team entering the 2017-18 campaign and probably had the best chance of any Western Conference team to dethrone the Warriors at that time.
However, Leonard developed a mysterious quadriceps injury that kept him out of the first 27 games of the year. He returned and played nine games, but that would be it.
There was constant chatter about Leonard’s fractured relationship with the Spurs, as Popovich took multiple veiled shots at him through the media and his teammates held a meeting with Leonard in which they pointedly asked him if he would be returning at all in 2018, to which Leonard was steadfast in his defense that he was, in fact, seriously injured.
Day after day, Leonard’s frustration built, and day after day, more and more tension accumulated between Leonard and the Spurs’ front office.
It did not help that Leonard’s uncle, Dennis Robertson, was reportedly in his ear constantly, and many feel that Robertson drove an even larger wedge between Leonard and the Spurs.
But, in reality, the real cause of the whole Leonard-Spurs drama seems to be this: Kawhi said he was hurt, and the Spurs questioned the veracity of it. In layman’s terms, San Antonio essentially felt that Leonard was faking an injury because he did not want to play, as the Spurs’ medical team cleared Leonard to get on the basketball court.
The Spurs weren’t the only ones who felt that way.
Many surmised that Leonard was actually healthy enough to play but did not want to risk further injury because of his impending free agency in 2019. Some even felt that all of the problems would be solved if San Antonio offered Kawhi a max extension.
Clearly, though, there were deeper issues at play, issues so deep that Leonard did not seem to want any part of resolving them over the summer, asking for a trade rather than coming to some sort of an agreement with Popovich.
With Leonard wanting out, the Los Angeles Lakers appeared to be the top potential destination, as Leonard apparently wanted to play in Los Angeles. However, the Spurs refused to deal him to their bitter rivals, instead sending him to Toronto in a deal that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio.
So, here we are, in January 2019, and no one has any idea as to what Leonard is going to do this offseason. The prevailing thought is that he will not stay in Canada and will end up signing in Los Angeles, but whispers are that LeBron James’ presence on the Lakers has caused Leonard to prefer the Clippers.
Regardless of what Leonard does now, the San Antonio situation will never escape him.
We will likely never know what really happened. Was Kawhi exaggerating his injury, or was he seriously compromised to the point where he could have hurt himself further? What type of communication—if any—did Leonard have with the Spurs’ front office throughout the 2017-18 campaign?
All we do know is that it seems like San Antonio messed this up.
You can say whatever you want about Kawhi, but the fact of the matter is that Popovich did not handle this all that well. Being upset over Leonard’s rumored lack of communication is one thing, but constantly taking pot shots at Leonard through the media is another, and it seems like that is what pushed Leonard over the edge.
Not to mention the fact that Popovich does not have Leonard’s body. It doesn’t matter what the medical team was saying; if Leonard said he was hurt, then maybe, you know, he really was hurt? Taking that into consideration, imagine being in Leonard’s shoes and having an injury you are worried will affect you long term if you attempt to play through it, and then having your coach rip you through media quotes and your teammates all ganging up on you in a meeting and essentially calling you a faker?
Also, let’s remember that former Spur Stephen Jackson said that the Spurs players do not do anything without Pop’s blessing, so it seems like Popovich was actually the organizer of the players meeting behind the scenes.
Had San Antonio handled this a bit better, perhaps Leonard would still be wearing the silver and black rather than donning Raptors colors, and maybe Leonard would end up being a Spur for life instead of getting set to take his talents to Hollywood.
And you know what’s one thing to really admire about Leonard? The fact that he never once bashed anyone through the media. He kept silent throughout the whole ordeal, and to this day, he has never badmouthed Popovich or the Spurs organization.
The same cannot be said for Popovich.
Something tells me we would be more inclined to listen in that case.
Sure, the Spurs are a model organization and one of the top franchises in sports, but they are not infallible.
The Kawhi Leonard saga was a perfect example of their imperfection at work.