'There's a Crack in the Spurs Way,' But Can the Team and Kawhi Make Peace?

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IMay 10, 2018

SAN ANTONIO,TX - MARCH 13:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs talks with head coach Gregg Popovic at AT&T Center on March 13, 2017 in San Antonio, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
B/R

These are strange times in San Antonio.

Usually, this is when the rest of the NBA dissects what went wrong, what they can do to change and how they will attack an offseason of coaching shifts, draft picks and free-agent moves. The Spurs, typically, have used this time to prepare for another playoff series.

But after the Warriors cut San Antonio's 21st consecutive postseason appearance short with a first-round knockout, it's the Spurs who are looking at the reset button. 

"There's a crack in the 'Spurs Way,'" a Western Conference executive told Bleacher Report. "The bottom line is, every team goes through it. And now they are."

The most prominent fault line is the ongoing rift between the Spurs and their best player, Kawhi Leonard. The two-time All-Star and supposed bridge from the Tim Duncan era to the next phase of Spurs greatness played only nine games this season due to a mysterious right quadriceps injury.

No one has publicly expressed what exactly is going on with Leonard's quad, or why it didn't respond as expected to a rehab protocol that began back in September. What we do know from a number of reports is that there are a lot of hurt feelings on both sides.

"I'm surprised beyond belief that this thing got to the point that it did," said a league source who has had frequent dealing with the Spurs.

With Leonard, 26, eligible for a five-year, $219 million "super-max" extension this summer, the key question circulating through the league is, "Can the relationship be salvaged?"

"I don't think it can," the Western Conference executive said. "At the end of the day, Kawhi wants out."

Leonard, as has always been his practice, has said precious little on the matter. He hasn't spoken at a Spurs game since March 21, when an ESPN reporter interviewed him briefly after a regular-season contest against the Washington Wizards. Those quotes were included in a massive story last week from ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright detailing the rift.

Kawhi Leonard spent all but nine games sidelined for the Spurs this season and didn't attend any of the team's playoff games.
Kawhi Leonard spent all but nine games sidelined for the Spurs this season and didn't attend any of the team's playoff games.Eric Gay/Associated Press

League sources confirmed a key detail in that story: Around the time the Spurs announced Leonard would be out "indefinitely" in January, he had begun consulting with Dr. Jonathan Glashow of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. Since that time, Leonard has engaged in most of his rehab under the guidance of Glashow, working frequently at the National Basketball Players Association headquarters in midtown Manhattan.

Thus, head coach Gregg Popovich's public comments on Leonard have been tainted with derision.

"You'll have to ask Kawhi and his group that question," Popovich told reporters on April 15 when asked whether Leonard would return at some point in the postseason.

Leonard wasn't with the team or even on the bench during the Spurs' 4-1 first-round loss to the Warriors. A league source told B/R that Leonard had planned to rejoin the team as a spectator, but the death of Popovich's wife, Erin, kept the Spurs coach away from the team and in mourning. The devastating news caused Leonard to re-evaluate his plans.

Still, multiple league sources advised not to underestimate Popovich's ability to repair the team's relationship with Leonard. Last season, a deep rift developed between the team and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, to the point where Aldridge called former teammate Damian Lillard and asked him to approach general manager Neil Olshey about bringing Aldridge back to Portland, a person familiar with the conversation told B/R.

"You can never say done because everybody thought that the Aldridge thing was over and that there was no chance to salvage that," one of the people said. "Pop went in and smoothed it over. You can't underestimate the power of the Pop in these situations."

Nonetheless, another Western Conference executive said teams are "lining up to try to do something" in the event the Spurs decide to trade Leonard this summer. Through back channels, those teams have gotten the brush-off from the Spurs.

"The Spurs want to try to make things work right now and aren't interested," the exec said.

Leonard is eligible for a five-year, $219 million deal this summer from the Spurs, but after a season filled with distrust, San Antonio's willingness to make the offer is in question.
Leonard is eligible for a five-year, $219 million deal this summer from the Spurs, but after a season filled with distrust, San Antonio's willingness to make the offer is in question.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

But the Spurs also aren't interested in having their franchise player's medical care out of their control.

When Leonard had a wrist injury that wasn't responding to treatment in 2014, his agents, Brian Elfus and Mitch Frankel, pushed for a second opinion. The matter was resolved without any hard feelings going forward, a person familiar with the situation said.

Elfus, now a coaching and management agent, ceased representing Leonard in 2016. The duties shifted to Frankel, a longtime football agent, and Leonard's uncle, Dennis Robertson. On their watch, Leonard's relationship with the organization has caromed off the rails.

Robertson, a former banking executive, has served as a father figure to Leonard after Leonard's father was fatally shot in 2008. But he has no experience navigating complicated NBA politics, especially when a star player and his looming free agency have created a flashpoint that calls for restraint and diplomacy.

Asked for comment via text message, Robertson responded, "Not at this time."

The strife has extended off the court as well. In March, Wright and Shelburne reported Leonard and his camp turned down a four-year, $22 million extension from Nike's Jordan Brand. The decision led to speculation around the league that Leonard—or, at least, his "group"had grown disenchanted with the low profile afforded him in San Antonio.

It's commonly heard on the front office grapevine that Leonard is eyeing the Lakers as a free agent in 2019. One of the Western Conference executives noted it's no accident that the Lakers reportedly have shifted their free-agent plans to focus on the '19 class (which Leonard may headline), according to Shelburne and ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, as opposed to a quick fix this summer.

"That's why [the Lakers] are spinning it into 'wait till next year,'" the executive said. "They know they can get Kawhi."

Though LaMarcus Aldridge was frustrated with his role last season, Gregg Popovich was able to smooth over any issues last summer with the big man.
Though LaMarcus Aldridge was frustrated with his role last season, Gregg Popovich was able to smooth over any issues last summer with the big man.Darren Carroll/Getty Images

But only if the Spurs let it happen.

When Leonard returns to San Antonio at some point this summer, Popovich will have his chance to mend fences. If not, what are the Spurs' options? And what are Leonard's?

One NBA agent estimated Leonard would stand to haul in about $70 million more by signing the "super-max" extension with San Antonio this summer rather than bolting as a free agent in 2019.

"That would be the smart thing to do," the agent said.

But with so much ill will flowing between the two sides, is Spurs ownership going to approve a nearly quarter-of-a-billion-dollar investment in a player whose relationship with the organization has cracked?

"If I'm the Spurs, I trade him to Boston for [Jaylen] Brown, [Terry] Rozier and a first," the agent said. "Strike when the iron's hot, with all these teams coming at you."

Therein lies the Spurs' leverage. Leonard can't go anywhere until 2019 unless San Antonio sends him somewhere in a trade. And it doesn't have to be a situation or a city as glamorous as Boston.

"If I'm them," the agent said, "I'm trading him to Siberia if that gets me the best return."

And that, like the relationship between the Spurs and Leonard, would be awfully cold.

   

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.

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