There's a joke in here somewhere about Kawhi Leonard actually being made of liquid metal and incapable of human emotion, but this does bear emphasizing: this is not quite a big deal.
According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Michael C. Wright and Zach Lowe, Leonard's frustrating rehab and possible comeback from a right quadricep injury has had a “chilling impact” on the relationship between the All-Star swingman and the San Antonio Spurs. The report included words like “rift” and “distant” and “disconnected,” which has Spurs fans responding today with their own words, everything from, “Yeah, but remember LaMarcus Aldridge? to “OMFG OMFG OMFG.”
Leonard played just nine games this season before the Spurs shut him down indefinitely last week. In limited minutes, Leonard was still productive, nearly matching his career-high PER from last season and with a usage rate among the league's top 15. However, the team struggled to win just five of those games and the 26-year-old admitted to the team's brass that he didn't feel confident in his body.
“You've got to be confident in your body to go out there and play at the level he's expect to play,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told ESPN at the time. “We didn't feel he was ready. His confidence level wasn't there. So we decided to give it some more time.”
On the eve of the season, we watched as San Antonio announced Leonard would be out for the entire preseason and perhaps more, only to eventually hear Popovich admit he'd never seen anything like Leonard's injury. Then we saw Tony Parker return from a similar, though even more severe injury. Since September, there's been a weird Belichickian mystery surrounding Leonard. The Spurs haven't offered answers. Neither have some of the world's best tendon experts. General manager RC Buford has denied any rift, but he did acknowledge the entire process has been difficult for both sides.
There is no real precedent for a star player growing frustrated in the vacuum of San Antonio's safe haven. Popovich tried to sign Jason Kidd in 2003, effectively telling Tony Parker thanks, but no thanks. Parker didn't bolt. He's played his entire career with the Spurs. Popovich sent Manu Ginobili to the bench in 2007, even though Ginobili was already an All-Star. Manu embraced it. Tim Duncan took repeated lyrical undressings in practices over the years and never once did he respond with, “Pop, I'm a 15-time All-Star and five-time champ, the undisputed best power forward of all time. I'm allowed to miss one defensive assignment.” Even LaMarcus Aldridge, after asking for a trade last summer, ended up submitting to some weird Pop voodoo. The veteran is now playing perhaps the best ball of his career.
Leonard's camp has since denied the report. Leonard does hold a player option for the 2019-2020 season, which might make things interesting. Knowing the Spurs, though, they'll take Leonard to some off the radar bunker if necessary, sit him down, and not let anyone out until a resolution is found. Until then, everything surrounding one of the NBA's best players will likely remain a mystery.
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