Gregg Popovich is entering into his 22nd year as head coach of the San Antonio Spurs. In those 22 years, he has established one of the strongest cultures of any major sports team, focusing on hard work and a team-first mentality. His approach has been dubbed the “Spurs Way” and players have a choice: the Spurs Way, or the highway. Pop, as he’s referred to around the league, hand selects his players based on their basketball ability, and their willingness to follow the Spurs Way, and not necessarily in that order. The culture that Pop has installed in San Antonio has brought a lot of success in the way of five championships since 1999.
In 2011, the Spurs drafted their next franchise player in Kawhi Leonard. The 6’7 power forward seemed to be a perfect fit in the Spurs culture because of his quiet nature and quickly established himself as a star in the league by racking up the hardware with honors like all-rookie first team, two-time defensive player of the year, and in 2014 he lead the Spurs to an NBA championship on his way to winning finals MVP. All that success made it even more disappointing when in 2017 Leonard suffered a severe quadriceps injury in the first game of the 2017 Western Conference playoff series against the eventual NBA champions the Golden State Warriors.
Kawhi missed the rest of those playoffs and entered the offseason with getting healthy as his first priority. The summer came and went, with Leonard’s quad not seeing much improvement at all. When the season started in October, the team’s doctors seemed optimistic that Leonard would be able to suit up soon. In mid-December, he made his debut against the Dallas Mavericks and was eased back into action. He played sparingly as to not further aggravate his injury, and weeks later he was ruled out for an indefinite period of time, despite the team doctors clearing him to play.
Leonard eventually sat out the entire 2017-18 season, leading his teammates to question his toughness and dedication to the team and the Spurs way. Point guard Tony Parker was injured in the same playoffs as Leonard, but he was able to rehab and make his season debut in November 2017 and play the rest of the season without any setbacks, despite having what many describe as a more serious injury. When asked about Leonard’s injury, Parker said, “I’ve been through it. It was a rehab for me for eight months. Same kind of injury, but mine was one hundred times worse.” Gregg Popovich had a similar way of thinking, seeming frustrated any time Leonards injury was brought up, referring reporters to the team doctors who cleared Leonard months ago.
All of the drama surrounding him and his teammates, and his coaches unwillingness to stand up for his rehab has made Kawhi unwilling to stay with the team, unofficially requesting a trade as of last week. No one knows where he would go in a trade, or whether the Spurs would be willing to make a deal, (they own his rights for the 2018-19 season) but if he does play for another team this next season, it will greatly affect his contract negotiations. Due to the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, a player is eligible to earn the most money, called a Supermax contract, when they sign with the team that they played with for at least the last two years. Leonard would be eligible for a Supermax of $218 million over five years if he stays with the Spurs, as opposed to only $188 million if he is traded and then resigns with that team in the 2019 offseason.
The relationship between Leonard and Popovich and the Spurs might be beyond repair. The aftermath could mean that one of the NBA’s best team over the past two decades is without a bonafide star, and one of the leagues youngest and brightest dons a new jersey. It’s not only likely, but probable that Leonard takes the highway, and leaves the Spurs way, way behind.