The Divide Between Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs
In the first game of the playoffs, Kawhi Leonard made a statement. He didn’t show—not in the sports talk radio sense, but in the literal one. Leonard was nowhere to be found as the Warriors overwhelmed the Spurs, 113-92, adding one more conspicuous absence to a season full of them.
Officially, Leonard has played in just nine games this season, last appearing on January 13. Unofficially, his distance from the team has loomed over everything. The Spurs have done admirably to carry on without one of the league’s best players in the lineup, but any line of questioning regarding Leonard points back to the glaring disconnect between him and the team. When Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked about Leonard’s status on Sunday, he deferred to outside counsel. “You’ll have to ask Kawhi and his group that question,” Popovich said.
According to a report from Shams Charania of Yahoo! Sports, Leonard’s ongoing rehabilitation from a right quad injury is expected to rule him out for the remainder of the playoffs—a determination Popovich himself did not make. “Sideline” isn’t quite the right word, because as Charania notes, Leonard has taken his rehab work thousands of miles away from the Spurs:
Leonard has been rehabbing in New York because that is where his medical staff is located, and he has not been cleared by his doctors, league sources said.
His group. His medical staff. His doctors. The dividing lines between Leonard and the Spurs have never been so stark.
Since arriving in San Antonio in 2011, Leonard has been widely regarded as an extension of the franchise. Even then, his stoicism was a perfect front for one of the most reticent organizations in sports. Leonard quietly went about his business because he quietly went about all things, making him the rare, viable point of comparison for another Spurs legend. There is an unmistakable Duncanity to the way that Leonard carries himself. When he then built himself into a superstar—first by becoming one of the youngest Finals MVPs in league history—his triumph was also San Antonio’s.
“He changed the course of our organization,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told Lee Jenkins in 2016. “He gave us a second wind. He was the breeze in our sails.”
That was true then, but winds can change. No franchise and player are ever truly one. They might share goals and philosophy. The relationships involved may be rich and rewarding. But on some level, their interests will always diverge. Stephen Curry is not the Warriors. Russell Westbrook is not the Thunder. Even Tim Duncan, who will go into the pantheon of the game as a one-team player, was never the Spurs. He chose to stay in San Antonio because it made sense for him, but the idea of Duncan shouldn’t obscure the fact that he nearly bolted for Orlando the first chance he could. “I came close to leaving,” Duncan told NBA.com in 2010. “Real close.”
These connections between superstars and the teams they play for are easy to take for granted, especially when those stars have never played elsewhere. One can’t be blamed for seeing Leonard dutifully absorb Popovich’s instruction during a game and thinking it might last forever—or at leas the 19 years that Duncan did. Yet the situation in San Antonio has grown curious enough to earn the NBA’s collective attention. Other teams take notice when Popovich suggests Leonard wouldn’t be automatically activated, even if he were to return to the team. They see the thinly veiled shots at Leonard’s “group.” This is what teams wait for and plan for. This is why they talk themselves out of signing certain contracts for the sake of financial flexibility. You don’t know when (or if!) James Harden might become available, but the Rockets put themselves in a position to be there if he ever did. Success in the league comes on the whiff of possibility.
Every update and non-update is illuminating—not because Leonard will dramatically return to save the series, but because those bits are the only overt connection between a team in the midst of its playoff run and that team’s best player. There’s so much to learn from distance. It tells the story of the fissures we see, and those we don’t.