The San Antonio Spurs enter the offseason with a lot of doubts and unanswered questions about the immediate and long term future of the franchise. The biggest one of all is what’s going on with Kawhi Leonard.
After an MVP-like season in 2016-2017, the Spurs seemed to be heading into their second year without Tim Duncan confident of the franchise player they can build around. Think about it. Heading into the series against the Golden State Warriors last year, many felt Leonard and the Spurs can take down the juggernaut from the bay area. Before Zaza Pachulia, deliberately or not, injured Leonard in the third quarter of game 1, the Spurs were in firm control of the game, giving Golden State all kinds of problems, mostly from the direction of Leonard.
That injury didn’t just give the Warriors an easy opponent to walk all over en route to their second NBA championship in three years, but perhaps change the trajectory of the Spurs’ franchise.
Leonard’s ankle was bugging him before Pachulia, and injury ruined the start of this season, with many choosing him as the MVP favorite. Leonard missed 26 games with a quad muscle injury, returning in mid-December. After less than a month he suffered from a partial tear in his left shoulder, causing him to miss more time. He returned a week later and played well in one game, but four days later was ruled out indefinitely after appearing to aggravate his quad injury.
This is where the problems really started for the Spurs and Leonard. About a month later, with Leonard spending the time in between rehabbing with his own medical staff, the Spurs medical group cleared him to play. But Leonard sought out a second opinion, no longer trusting the Spurs, or at least some in the organization, with his health and future. He spent the All-Star break in New York, talking to specialists and seeking more rehab options.
From here, everything depends on the version you believe. The facts are these: Leonard didn’t play another game for the Spurs after January 13, sometimes showing up for games, sometimes not. Gregg Popovich hasn’t been very clear about the whole situation, and while players have commented with a supportive spirit regarding their injured teammate’s situation, the perception of Leonard simply refusing to play for the Spurs despite being healthy has resonated as the more likely scenario.
So what now? Leonard is eligible for a super max extension this summer, and has one more guaranteed season before his player option of 2019-2020. Will the Spurs try to trade him? People who love playing the rumor mill are suggesting a Leonard-Kristaps Porzingis swap, as the latter is also quite unhappy with the situation he’s in. But by distancing himself away from the franchise in a bizarre manner, Leonard might have hurt his stock and value, if his goal is to leave the Spurs, hit free agency and sign a mega deal with someone.
Even injured, Leonard was terrific, averaging over 16 points per game in less than 24 minutes a night, appearing only 9 times for the Spurs this season. On a regular basis, it’s hard to believe anyone not wanting him, but the way things developed between Leonard and the Spurs is anything but normal.
Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, was the quintessential player for the Spurs in the post-Tim Duncan era: Stoic, ultra professional, coachable and above all, a fantastic basketball player. But turns out his connection to the organization isn’t as strong as believed. Whether his injuries this season are a case of misdiagnosis by the Spurs and rushing him back too soon, or simply bad luck, the chasm between the two sides might be too big to bridge at this point, and throws the entire planning of the Spurs future into serious doubt.