Down 0-2 in their first round playoff series against the Golden State, San Antonio practically has to win on Thursday night to keep their season alive. However, the most important game the Spurs have played all season continues to be the one they are playing with their franchise cornerstone.
Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs’ two-time All-Star and former Finals MVP, has been absent for most of San Antonio’s season. After getting injured in the Western Conference Finals last year, Leonard also missed the season opening game to recover from “right quadriceps tendinopathy.” Leonard made a brief return in December, playing nine games, but ultimately went back on the shelf to continue his rehab. From there, he began the ultimate game of he-said-she-said that has somehow ended with everyone Photoshopping him into a Lakers jersey.
The Spurs doctors declared that Leonard was able to return to the court. Leonard’s people said he wasn’t. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that there was a growing rift between Leonard and the Spurs. Tony Parker then said that he suffered a similar injury that took less time to heal and reports flooded in that Leonard’s teammates have implored him to return to the team.
It’s a timeline more confusing than Game of Thrones so let’s sort through some things.
First, let me be clear. Just because Leonard wasn’t at either of the Spurs’ two playoffs games in Oakland doesn’t mean that he is on his way out of San Antonio. DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t at either of New Orleans’ two games in Portland and I don’t see anybody ready to rip the Pelicans jersey off his back. Yes, Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving were at their respective teams’ playoff opening games. But both of their teams were playing at home so it’s much easier for those two to get to the arena. Besides, even if the Spurs’ games were at home, Leonard’s absence wouldn’t mean much. Gordon Hayward has been a rare sight at Celtics’ home games this season but everyone trusts that he’s doing his best to rehab on his own. Absence doesn’t ultimately mean that there’s a rift between player and team.
Next, a lot of people are pointing to comments that head coach Gregg Popovich made about LaMarcus Aldridge after the All-Star’s 34-point performance in their Game Two loss.
“LaMarcus has been a monster all year long. He’s led our team on both ends of the floor… He plays through everything. I can’t imagine being more proud of a player as far as playing through adversity and being there for his teammates night after night,” Popovich said on Monday.
There are three potential reasons for Popovich’s comments. The first, and the one that most people are clinging to, is that this is not-so subtle shade towards Leonard. The second is that the Hall of Fame coach was being completely genuine in his praise. After failing to live up to expectations in his first couple years in black and silver, the power forward has been a revelation this year. Aldridge made the All-Star team and averaged the third-highest point total of his career in what was easily his best season in San Antonio. Is it really that hard to believe that Pop was shoveling praise towards someone that stepped up in a huge way for the team this year, especially after reportedly asking for a trade this past offseason?
Lastly, there’s always the possibility that Popovich knew exactly what he was doing when he made those comments and is playing the media like a fiddle. This is a man that that has coached in the league for two decades, never hesitating to express his disdain for the media along the way. I wouldn’t be surprised if Popovich worded his phrasing like that just because he knew it would ignite the Twitter-verse on fire.
However it is undeniable that something is amiss in San Antonio. Woj is rarely ever off base on reports like this and at the very least, there’s plenty of evidence to show Leonard is in stark disagreement with the Spurs medical staff over his ability to return to the court (mainly the fact that he’s doing all his rehab in New York). But even a quarrel over a medical issue doesn’t automatically mean Leonard wants out of San Antonio.
It’s perfectly within Leonard’s rights to protect his best interests and not suit up if he still feels as if everything is not as it should be. Look no further than Isaiah Thomas, another player that fought through what should have been a season-ending injury with a year left on his contract. Thomas was in line to sign a near-max contract before he injured his hip last season, played most of the postseason and was sidelined to begin this season. Thomas’ best hope this summer is a moderate one-year “prove-it” deal. A far-fall from being the face of a franchise in the conference finals (sound familiar?).
Leonard could become a free–agent as soon as next summer if he doesn’t pick up his player option for the 2020 season. If Leonard were to rush back to the court and isn’t fully healthy, it could cost him millions of dollars. Just like Thomas.
So let’s all calm down. Yes, things could be better in San Antonio. Ideally, your franchise cornerstone and the front office never butt heads. But these things happen when there are two different sets of interests at work. The Spurs want Leonard on the court to win games. Leonard wants to make sure he’s ready to earn the next contract that will carry him through his late 20s, aka most NBA players’ prime years.
I just wouldn’t count on Leonard in a different uniform next season.
This is the Spurs, after all. And the Spurs will be one of the best organizations in sports until the world stops turning.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.