San Antonio is rightly viewed as the model franchise of the NBA and possibly all of team sports. Despite being a small-market team, they have compiled 21 consecutive years in the playoffs, with five NBA championships in that time and still managed to draft particularly well using their European contacts and improvement from within.
Under Popovich, they have been a close-knit squad, where big egos are not welcome and the senior core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili set the standard with their professionalism to excellence.
A controversy-free dressing room is like a godsend to a professional sporting team, and despite the core of the team getting older, you could still depend on the Spurs making the playoffs in the highly competitive Western Conference.
The Quiet Superstar
More so than ever before, the NBA has become a business. Marketing opportunities for players do not just lie through television commercials, but also through the range of social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter where they can enhance their brand and income outside the sport.
Players also use these outlets to speak their mind on the key issues of the moment, be it in their own sport or, indeed, on a political and social justice spectrum. While it is great to hear from the heroes from the hardwood, speaking out is certainly not for everyone. A case in point being San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard.
The 26-year-old has established himself as one of the greatest players of this current generation. San Antonio had their eyes firmly fixed on the Los Angeles native in the 2011 draft, and went as far as to trade into the middle of the first round to obtain him. That was a rare move by their standards, and even more so when you consider they traded fan favourite George Hill.
It was a steady incline to greatness by Leonard: a player who worked tirelessly to plug his flaws on the training court and pragmatically stepped away from the bright lights. The small forward does not have a social media account and very rarely gives more than a cursory few words in his interviews.
However, his actions spoke louder than words when he became an NBA Champion and Finals MVP in just his third season at the tender age of 22. He followed that by becoming a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and eventually an All-Star. By the end of the 2016/7 season, it was widely thought that Leonard, who was rightfully classified as the best two-way player in the game, would add the league MVP to his collection in the upcoming season.
A Season of Frustration and Confusion
The vibe from the Spurs camp heading into this season was a touch different to what we had seen previously. Firstly, we learnt that star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge had asked to be traded in the off-season, leading to a heart-to-heart between Aldridge and Popovich. Parker then returned to the court after a long absence in December due to a torn quadriceps tendon, and it was believed that Leonard would soon be joining him after suffering from his own quadriceps injury. While the small-forward did return for two separate stints in December and January, it was clear that he was far from the major presence he had been for the majority of his career. In mid-January, he was put on injury reserve for an indefinite period.
The following three months can only be described as an unfortunate spectacle on all sides of the equation. The Spurs have consistently said that Leonard had been cleared for a return since early March, but instead, his camp have maintained that he was still not ready for action and instead was rehabbing the quad with his medical team in New York.
What made the situation even more frustrating for the fans and the team in general was the virtual non-communication by Leonard regarding his overall status. There was the occasional vague statement that he was working his way to full fitness, but when fighting for a playoff spot, the uncertainty of the situation was becoming a growing factor.
With the absence of Leonard and Popovich (due to the passing of his wife Erin) during the first round playoff series against Golden State, the Spurs had plenty of obstacles to overcome. The fact that San Antonio did not go down without a fight is a credit to them. While the Warriors were ultimately successful, the Spurs did not let them get it easily after a highly competitive game five which Golden State won by eight points.
A Summer of Decisions
San Antonio usually go under the radar when it comes to free-agency and trade talks, but there is little doubt that general manager R.C Buford will be getting plenty of calls over the availability of Kawhi. Leonard and the Spurs front office will certainly come face-to-face to speak about their differences, and not let this unfortunate situation drag out any longer. Another intriguing factor to remember is that Leonard is eligible for the five-year super max deal worth $219 million, so both parties will have to be 100% happy to commit to the new deal.
Spurs fans across the globe will be hoping that a positive resolution can be found between the two parties. You certainly do not want to give up an elite talent like Kawhi Leonard. However, it is also a case of doing what is best for the team. If Kawhi signals an intention to head home to L.A, for example, then the Spurs must get the best deal possible. With Parker and Ginobili rapidly nearing the end of their stellar careers, San Antonio needs a new wave of strong leaders.
The main question is whether Kawhi Leonard wants that responsibility?
The ball is certainly in his court now.