As two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard returns on Thursday to the AT&T Center for the first time since demanding the trade that sent him from the San Antonio Spurs to the Toronto Raptors in July, members of both organizations have been asked to put his transition in perspective. Their responses will make you wonder if Leonard has an NBA home or is merely passing through.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and his players were asked at Wednesday’s practice how the San Antonio crowd might receive Leonard, offering little more than a tacit acknowledgement of the superstar’s contributions to the team, which include Finals MVP honors on their 2014 NBA championship run.
“I don’t speak for other people, but I hope we treat everybody with kindness and respect. We always have in the past, so we’ll see,” said Popovich. As for how the Spurs will treat the reunion, Pop added, via the Associated Press, “A lot of people, because of the trade, will add fuel to it and try to make it this, that and the other, and that’s fine. But for us, it’s about just trying to get better, create better habits on both ends of the floor. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. Those are the goals every game.”
You can bet Tony Parker’s welcome will be warmer when his Charlotte Hornets come through San Antonio on Jan. 14, which is only natural, considering he was a member of four title teams over 17 seasons on the Spurs, and his departure was not laced with acrimony. And that’s the point. Even as he was leading the Spurs statistically to the last of their five rings, Leonard was always several rungs below Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan on the respect scale in San Antonio, and now we are left to wonder if he will be booed mercilessly upon his return to the city where he spent his first seven seasons.
Popovich, who normally takes an egalitarian approach, even slotted Leonard behind Patty Mills.
“Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader or anything,” the Spurs coach conceded this past November, between his better attempts to support his former player. “Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn’t his deal at that time.”
Meanwhile, as the Band-Aid is being torn off the wound in San Antonio, Raptors players, coaches and front-office folks are facing the reality that their hopes of retaining Leonard may be gashed soon. The Toronto brass remains optimistic they can re-sign him, but general manager Bobby Webster openly admits that this season is a yearlong recruiting effort, and they have no indication how they’re faring.
“When we came aboard six years ago, we wanted to bring this organization to a level where you can make this pitch,” Webster told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps, selling Toronto on the investment. “So you have strength in excellence around the organization — the basketball side, the coaching staff, the medical and support staff, obviously ownership — to where when we have a superstar player, an MVP-candidate-type player, now we can go to him and say, ‘We are really confident in who we are, we’re really proud of what we’ve built, and these are all the reasons why we think you should stay.'”
That, of course, does not mean he will stay. For his part, Leonard has done everything right for the Raptors, playing at an MVP level and leading them to a league lead in victories at the season’s near midway point. (The Raptors, by the way, are on pace to win 59 games, the same total they finished with when DeMar DeRozan was at the helm last season). They look like viable Finals contenders, and the trade of DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick will be well worth it if they were to actually win.
But Leonard has given Toronto no commitment, outside of some mild plaudits for the city, which matches his mild-mannered persona. During his media availability entering the San Antonio reunion, he refused to answer questions about both his past (“I’m not going to discuss that here today,” he said, according to the San Antonio Express-News) and his future (“I’m not thinking about that,” he told ESPN. “I’m focused on right now, what this is bringing for me and focused on the opportunity that I have here and what we can do this season. Later down the road, that’s when I’ll make my decision.”)
According to Bontemps, “The popular opinion among league executives six months before Leonard makes his decision is that he’ll choose between the Raptors and the Clippers.” Leonard’s hometown Clips were his preferred destination as recently as September, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. Los Angeles has made no secret of its interest in Leonard, reportedly sending representatives, including team president Lawrence Frank, to roughly half his games this season, just to let him know he’s wanted. As The New York Times’ Marc Stein recently wrote, the Raptors “know that they almost certainly have to win it all to convince Leonard to spurn a return to his native Southern California.”
It feels like Leonard is taking the Raptors out for a test drive, and the salesmanship of this whole thing makes his relationship with Toronto a little awkward. He is, as best I can tell, not as beloved as DeRozan was, which puts him in an even more precarious position than Kevin Durant, whose mercenary mission to Golden State fortunately did not include replacing the face of a franchise.
Such is the opportunity cost of the player empowerment era. Leonard is free to choose what team feels best for him, but at what cost to his fandom? A booing from Spurs fans on Thursday would make his exile from San Antonio official. The same fate will await him in Toronto, should he leave them with nothing in return and DeRozan already gone. And what awaits him in L.A., should he end up there, where anything short of toppling LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers will be overshadowed.
Leonard reportedly seeks superstar treatment and superstar acceptance. He will get the former from every team courting him, because players of his caliber can change a franchise’s fortunes overnight, but the latter is harder to come by when your relationship to a team is an open one. Entire cities can fall out of love with you in an instant. His partnership with San Antonio once seemed so comfortable, but he got the seven-year itch, and Toronto now feels like a rebound. L.A. might be his trophy wife.
How does he want to be remembered? Who does he want to be remembered by? Those are questions he now faces. These are heavy times for Leonard. It’s a credit to him you can’t tell by his performance.
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