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Here’s what we already knew about Kawhi Leonard’s lost season: He arrived at training camp with a right leg injury that even San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich couldn’t explain, and somewhere between doctors clearing the two-time Defensive Player of the Year for a mid-December return and the Spurs shutting him down again indefinitely in January, the esteemed superstar and franchise got “disconnected,” leading to the panic of players-only meetings, contract demands and trade rumors.
The saga cost Leonard all but nine games this season, and we’re still not sure of his status. Popovich maintained a vague stance: “When he and his group feel he’s ready, then he’s ready.” But we never did hear from Leonard, other than when he told reporters in March that he planned to return “soon” and “for sure” wanted to stay in San Antonio. He then watched the rest of the season from New York.
So, here’s what we learned on Tuesday, when ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright published a weeks-long investigation “inside the tension between Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs,” replete with details that both clear up some of the confusion and muddy the waters even further …
1. The Spurs and Leonard disagree about both what the injury is and who should treat it.
You probably inferred this since the Spurs cleared him to play in December and he watched them lose in the first round from 3,000 miles away, but Shelburne and Wright really nailed down the details.
According to the ESPN report, Leonard’s camp believes he’s suffering from an ossification of the right quadriceps muscle he’s bruised multiple times before, which has resulted in some atrophying, while the Spurs are sticking with the initial tendinopathy diagnosis. The treatment and timeline for each ailment are reportedly different, but everyone can agree that Leonard is suffering from something.
The Spurs, of course, wanted their doctors to treat Leonard’s injury, but he sought a second opinion from a New York orthopedic surgeon while the team was in town to play the Brooklyn Nets, according to the ESPN report, and that’s precisely when they shut him down for what turned out to be the rest of the season. That surgeon, Dr. Jonathan Glashow, now reportedly oversees Leonard’s rehab process.
2. Both sides think the other is alienating them.
“They’re alienating him,” someone in Leonard’s camp told ESPN, citing Popovich’s public commentary and San Antonio’s medical monopoly. “They’re making him look bad. You have this seamless transition from the Duncan era to the new era, this homegrown superstar. Like why would you alienate him?”
In addition to Popovich repeatedly putting the onus on Leonard’s “group” and the team’s alleged resistance to seeking second opinions, Kawhi’s camp is bothered by what they believe to be leaks from the organization about the Spurs medical staff clearing him to play and his whereabouts in New York, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
And here’s the Spurs’ take on the whole situation, as someone in the know put it to ESPN: “Kawhi is the same person. The only thing that has changed about him is the people speaking for him now.”
Hence, the divide.
3. Kawhi’s camp has some issues.
There are two prominent members of Leonard’s “group” — his agent Mitch Frankel and his uncle Dennis Robertson — and I’m not going to lie: Neither of them comes off great in this ESPN piece.
Frankel is a longtime football agent recently turned basketball representative whose decades-old business, Impact Sports, now ceases to exist, is in debt to multiple parties and lost its other two NBA clients (Taurean Prince and Will Barton), according to the report. A lot seems to be riding on Leonard’s stalled Jordan Brand negotiations and the $219 million extension he’s eligible to sign this summer.
And then there’s Robertson, whose plan to create a brand in Leonard’s likeness (a la LeBron James) so far includes, as best we can tell from ESPN, a real estate investment into some apartments in Harlem.
4. The Spurs are worried Kawhi’s camp wants him traded to a bigger market.
Shelburne and Wright cited multiple sources in reporting that the Spurs are concerned Leonard’s “group” may intentionally be sabotaging his relationship with the team in order to force a trade to Los Angeles, New York or Philadelphia. ESPN made note that Leonard is from L.A. and Robertson is from New Jersey. (It seems wild that Leonard would want to join the Knicks or Nets simply because his uncle is from the tri-state area. Philadelphia, on the other hand, is understandable, but I digress.)
However, Leonard’s camp told the San Antonio Express-News that they have not entertained trade discussions “with the Spurs or internally.” Whether that will change this summer remains unclear. If the Spurs do entertain offers for Leonard, the 76ers are reportedly among the teams ready to pounce.
Leonard is under contract with the Spurs for $20.1 million next season and can decline a player option to become a free agent in 2019. He could potentially sign with the Lakers or Sixers then, but he will not be eligible for the supermax extension unless he re-signs in San Antonio. The difference numbers in the tens of millions of dollars, which seems like a lot when you reportedly have an agent who is trying to save his agency and an uncle who would like to build a marketing firm.
5. Neither side is ready to commit to the other.
According to the ESPN report, San Antonio general manager R.C. Buford is losing sleep over this entire situation, as the Spurs contemplate whether they want to commit $219 million to a player who essentially just missed an entire season and Leonard considers whether he wants to commit five more years to a team he doesn’t completely trust. The Spurs reportedly remain confident that Popovich can mend fences, as he did with LaMarcus Aldridge last season, but a cloud of confusion still lingers.
According to the Express-News, Leonard is waiting on the Spurs to make the offer before deciding.
6. Leonard planned to join Popovich on the bench if the coach returned after his wife’s death.
Following the death of Erin Popovich, the Spurs coach took a leave of absence from the final three games of their first-round series agains the Golden State Warriors. Had he returned, though, Leonard planned to join the team as a show of solidarity, according to ESPN. This could be interpreted as a reflection of the still-close ties between the 26-year-old champion and the coach who helped transform him into a Finals MVP, despite criticism of Leonard’s decision not to join the team earlier.
7. Something is definitely weird here.
Much like those who refuse to acknowledge a growing divide between the New England Patriots and Tom Brady despite mounting evidence to the contrary, there are surely Spurs fans who believe this is all much ado about nothing — that Leonard is simply hurt, and he will return whenever he’s healthy.
But even Spurs mainstay Tony Parker will concede that not all in San Antonio is sunshine and roses.
“It was definitely the most unusual, toughest season by far since I’ve been here,” Parker told ESPN. “I will keep it at that.”
And that’s saying something, considering Parker reportedly engaged in a sexting relationship with a teammate’s wife in 2010 that ended in two divorces and threatened to fracture a once tightknit locker room.
Feel better about the drama in San Antonio now? Me neither.
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