More than the Golden State Warriors' recent NBA championship and the upcoming draft, the 2018 offseason has been defined by the uncertainty surrounding one superstar's free agency plans. But another headline stole the spotlight from LeBron James over the weekend: the drama between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs seemed to have escalated.
Just days after it was reported that their relationship could be nearing the "healing stage," the latest development tells that the 2014 Finals MVP "wants out of San Antonio," according to league sources via ESPN. Apparently, Leonard "has grown frustrated" with the handling of his quad injury and prefers to end up in Los Angeles (Lakers) if he were to be traded. He also isn't worried about missing out on the supermax—a five-year, $219 million contract extension, which only the Spurs could offer him.
Despite being in constant communication with coach Gregg Popovich, the All-Star forward has yet to speak with him in person. We imagine Pop's office phone ringing off the hook with inquiries about Leonard, from the Lakers and the Clippers to the Boston Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But before exploring the ideal landing spots for the two-time Defensive Player of the Year, or even dream up a Leonard-LeBron James-Paul George scenario in LA, it's crucial to look back at the statements that may have aggravated the Kawhi-Spurs situation.
Oh, the irony of a model organization, known for dealing with such matters privately, on the verge of being jettisoned by its franchise cornerstone, thanks to one too many wayward interviews.
Following the season-ending ankle injury that Leonard sustained in last year's Western Conference Finals, his right quadriceps tendinopathy recurred right before the season began. Almost a month into the basketball calendar, Popovich revealed, "It's just been more difficult for him to get through the rehab routine. His body hasn't reacted the same way. Tony is at the point where he has been going five on five and that sort of thing. He's not totally confident. It will be a few more weeks. But he's definitely going in the right direction, and so is Kawhi. It's just been taking a little bit longer."
From December 12, Leonard would suit up for a number of games on a minutes restriction, until suffering a partial tear in his left shoulder on January 5. A couple of weeks after, San Antonio announced that he is out indefinitely due to his quad condition. Talks of a rift between Kawhi and the Spurs started to surface, with his decision to get a second opinion on his injury and stay away from the team, despite being medically cleared, fanning the flames. This led to Pop saying, "You know, with Kawhi, I'll be surprised if he returns this season. We only have 'x' number of games left in the season, and he's still not ready to go."
Leonard finally dismissed reports of friction between his camp and San Antonio, hoping to return soon and finish his career with his maiden franchise. A couple of weeks later, veteran Manu Ginobili stated in an interview: "He is not coming back. For me, he's not coming back because it's not helping [to think Leonard is returning]. We fell for it a week ago again. But we have to think that he's not coming back, that we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him."
Ginobili's statements were seconded by longtime teammate Tony Parker, who described his own injury as the same kind as Kawhi's but a "hundred times worse": "I've been through it. It was a rehab for me for eight months... You just stay positive." He added, "I could have gone anywhere, but I trust my Spurs doctors. They have been with me my whole career. They know my body better than anybody. I feel like we have the best medical team in the world."
Leonard went to New York again for rehab, leaving the West's seventh seed clueless about his comeback, according to Popovich. He admitted, "I don't know when he's going to feel, he and his group are going to feel like they're ready to go. If I knew, he'd be here. When he and his group feel he's ready, he'll be ready."
After falling to the Warriors in Game 2 of the 2018 playoffs' first round, Popovich only had nice things to say about LaMarcus Aldridge with a curiously worded praise: "LaMarcus has been a monster all year long. He doesn't complain about a darn thing. 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 after night." On May 1, ESPN published a detailed report of the internal turmoil in San Antonio, which the organization shrugged off, along with the numerous trade offers for Kawhi. If the top priority of the Spurs is indeed "mend fences" with Leonard, the people from their side should have been more careful with their words and not let frustration get the better of them.