Averse as they are to contract drama, the San Antonio Spurs will spend the duration of the 2014-15 season with a massive question mark looming over their post-Duncan future.
Will the organization ultimately keep reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard for the long haul?
"Leonard plans to explore restricted free agency next summer after contract extension discussions ended, his agent Brian Elfus told Yahoo Sports on Friday afternoon," Adrian Wojnarowski reported.
'We feel Kawhi is deserving of a max contract, and we are disappointed that something couldn't get done,' Elfus told Yahoo Sports. 'There's no debating Kawhi's value. The market has been set. He's done everything the Spurs have asked of him, exceeded all of their expectations.
'Coach [Gregg] Popovich has gone out of his way to call Kawhi the future face of the franchise. We have great respect for the Spurs organization, but here, we simply agree to disagree.'
Elfus went on to indicate Leonard would "explore" his options in 2015, the kind of ominous rhetoric that casts some measure of doubt on the small forward's long-term commitment to San Antonio.
Not since Tim Duncan flirted with the Orlando Magic (as a free agent in 2000) has this franchise seriously had to consider losing a prized player entering his prime. Ultimately, general manager R.C. Buford will have the final say over what happens; because Leonard is a restricted free agent, the Spurs can match any offer he receives from another team.
The danger is that he could receive an offer structured like the one the Dallas Mavericks gave Chandler Parsons this summer. Wojnarowski notes the deal included a player option for its third season, after which Parsons will become an unrestricted free agent able to sign anywhere.
So even if the Spurs can lock Leonard up for another two seasons, there's some risk he could still go elsewhere in the long term.
That said, this is no time for panic.
The Popovich regime has plenty to offer Leonard, from a winning culture to a veteran point guard with a few more years left. San Antonio is a known commodity for the 23-year-old swingman, one poised to feature him as a star two-way player for years to come.
And to be sure, there are sound business reasons for holding off on a deal from the organization's perspective.
"Sources say that San Antonio prefers to wait until the offseason to address Leonard's future in the name of maintaining maximum financial flexibility, " ESPN.com's Marc Stein reported.
Duncan turns 39 next spring, and sixth man extraordinaire Manu Ginobili will turn 38 next July. That means there's a chance the Spurs will have to replace one or both of them, potentially via free agency. As a sequential matter of preserving cap space, it makes sense to wait on Leonard—if only for a short time.
Eventually, San Antonio will almost certainly pay Leonard max money.
The hope is that it can also keep him around for a full five years, something that depends on how restricted free agency shakes out next summer.
As it stands, Buford and Co. will have another season to evaluate the San Diego State product and determine the height of his offensive ceiling.
Having mastered the spot-up three-pointer early in his young career, Leonard is still diversifying his game to include more in-between play and post-up opportunities. He's beginning to initiate more of his own offense and add an off-the-dribble scoring ability he rarely displayed his first two seasons.
The still-open question is whether Leonard can consistently carry the scoring load, a question that may be as much about mentality as skill level. Popovich addressed this issue during the team's media day, according to a report from Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News:
'I'm probably going to talk to him more about consistency now,' Popovich said. 'He's reached a certain level, and if you look at those last three games [of the Finals] he played, they were pretty special.
'But to be in that top echelon of players in our league, it's a huge responsibility to have to come and do that every night. The Duncans, the Durants, the Jameses and all those kinds of guys do it night after night after night, and it's a huge responsibility.'
A couple of hours later, Leonard tweaked the narrative a bit with some analysis of his own, per McCarney.
'In the Finals I'm playing 35 minutes a game, so I'm on the floor more and able to score the ball more and get more rebounds,' he said. 'So I'm going to have to get consistent minutes to play at a consistent level like that. ...Like I said, if I'm going to get seven more minutes on the floor, that's going to be important. We'll see what happens. I mean, my role was supposed to expand last year, and we played pretty much the same basketball. So we'll see what Coach Pop has.'
It's not exactly the dispute of the decade, but it seems not everyone is on the same page when it comes to Leonard's role and opportunities—a kind of discord that's rare in San Antonio.
Odds are we won't see any manifestations of it on the court, but it's a subtext to the broader concerns about Leonard's future with the franchise. Are these just growing pains, or are they signs that San Antonio somehow isn't the right fit?
Given how well things have gone so far, the latter conclusion seems unlikely.
The Spurs have done worlds for Leonard's growth, and he had a little something to do with that fifth championship.
One would think Popovich will give Leonard the minutes he wants—or at least some increase over the 29.1 he logged per game a season ago. Having already established himself as an elite defender, Leonard made the most of those minutes and averaged a career-high 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per contest.
Combined with the defensive chops, Leonard's increasing production places him firmly among an upper echelon of swingmen behind superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and James Harden.
And his ability to thrive with or without the ball in his hands makes him especially valuable for the Spurs, a team that privileges ball movement at the expense of individual accolades.
That collective commitment to sacrifice has perhaps obscured Leonard's potential ability.
But he's still getting better, and it's probably only a matter of time before he begins looking the part of a max-salary contributor. Popovich discussed Leonard's development in October, per SI.com's Chris Mannix:
'It's amazing what [assistant coaches] Chad [Forcier] and Chip [Engelland] do with him,' Popovich said. 'There is never a day that he's not working on a drop-back jumper or a jump hook.
'They keep pumping him with more, and he keeps absorbing it. I don't know where the upper level for him is, but it's going to be pretty significant.'
In true Spurs fashion, Popovich doesn't care how many points Leonard scores. For him, things will work out so long as the young star continues to commit himself.
'Our mantra with him isn’t learning new moves or upping scoring averages,' Popovich said. 'It's going to be about him being a unique player who has an impact on both ends of the court. It's going to be about having that impact on a consistent, night-to-night basis.
'Whatever the numbers are, you don't care. If he can bring that consistency, he will elevate himself onto that next level of players.'
And, presumably, into the rarified company of players San Antonio is willing to pay big money for.
The organization has historically kept its core intact with deals that sometimes appear below market value. It treats its personnel well, and in turn, they're typically more loyal than your average professional athlete.
San Antonio is hoping that remains the case with Leonard.
He may not offer any discounts, but this relationship has come too far for monetary matters to get in the way—which is one reason they probably won't when backs are up against the wall.
The Spurs' chances of avoiding a protracted rebuilding process likely hinge on keeping Leonard in silver and black. They'll pay what they have to pay.
Just not a moment too soon.