Once Kawhi Leonard’s relationship with the San Antonio Spurs had soured to the point that the team mercifully granted the two-time Defensive Player of the Year’s trade request in July, ending a strange season-long stalemate between the two sides, coach Gregg Popovich defended his former star player against claims that he was a bad teammate and insisted that their partnership ended on good terms.
As Leonard has spearheaded the Toronto Raptors’ rise to the league’s best record and the Spurs have struggled to reach .500, Popovich injected some spice into the divorce proceedings over the weekend.
“Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader or anything,” Popovich told reporters in Milwaukee on Saturday, when asked about Patty Mills’ leadership in the absence of departed Spurs stars Leonard, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. “Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn’t his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus [Aldridge] came a long way in that regard also.”
At first glance, those remarks seem like a jab at Leonard with disrespect to his absence for all but nine games amid questions about his quadriceps injury status last season, considering he was the Finals MVP on San Antonio’s 2014 title run and the dominant force on a team that was poised to challenge the Golden State Warriors before his ankle injury in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals.
Popovich’s comments also ring true, given that future Hall of Famers Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were the leadership council on that 2014 squad, and Leonard never finished either of the seasons following Duncan’s retirement. The window of opportunity for him to emerge as a leader was small. He was never a willing voice of the team in front of the camera, and Popovich’s statement only served to confirm what we assumed — that Leonard wasn’t the Knute Rockne type behind closed doors, either.
As you might expect, given his acrimony toward the Spurs for what he reportedly believed was their mistreatment of his quad injury, Leonard didn’t view Popovich’s comments beyond a first glance.
“It’s just funny to me,” Leonard said in response to a question about Popovich’s comments after Sunday’s 125-115 victory against the Miami Heat, via the Canadian Press, “because I don’t know if he’s talking about last year or not but I guess when you stop playing they forget how you lead.”
Leonard described his style as leadership by example, “coming into practice every day, just going hard,” offering advice and encouragement to teammates on the floor.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse came to his star’s defense, saying that, while Leonard has “a little bit of a reserved personality, he is a little bit more gregarious than everybody thinks.” Nurse cited examples of Leonard inviting teammates to work out with him in the offseason as evidence of his leadership.
Of course, Nurse is part of the Raptors contingent trying to convince Leonard to re-sign as a free agent this coming summer, so it comes as no surprise that he had the two-time All-Star’s back. Popovich no longer has to appease Leonard and can elaborate without as much risk of alienating his former star.
Maybe Popovich and Leonard have different definitions of leadership. Maybe Leonard has grown as a leader over the past six months. Or maybe Leonard just feels more comfortable in that role in an environment free from the veteran Spurs culture. Whatever the circumstances, the results speak for Leonard, whose team has three more wins than any other through the first quarter of the NBA season.
Leonard will lead the Raptors into San Antonio for the first time on Jan. 3.
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