(Photo Credit: USA Today Sports via Reuters/John Glaser)
The Kawhi Leonard injury saga has been hands down the most controversial situation that’s surrounded the San Antonio Spurs in decades. The former Finals MVP played all of nine games this season due to his mysterious quadriceps injury.
Not much is known about the injury, in part because Leonard and his camp have disclosed little of anything to the public, or even the Spurs. It’s known that Leonard has suffered from lingering quad problems in the past and that the Spurs medical staff has cleared him of his injury. But despite the supposed clean bill of health, he remained sidelined.
According to an in-depth report by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright, the Spurs medical staff and Leonard’s camp have been at odds over the exact nature of the injury, which could be where some of the friction has come from. It’s certainly possible that the main reason for Leonard sitting out virtually the entire season was that he didn’t feel right and feared exacerbating his injury if he played through it.
However, it doesn’t seem as if he and his camp’s actions have satisfied the Spurs. Veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have also sounded off publicly on the Leonard issue. Meanwhile, head coach Gregg Popovich has gone basically the entire season passive aggressively answering questions about Leonard and his “group.”
There have been whispers that this group, which includes his agent, Mitch Frankel, and uncle, Dennis Robertson, might be using this growing rift between Kawhi and the Spurs to nudge away from San Antonio and into a bigger market.
That all leads to this summer where things could get interesting with Kawhi’s future. But exactly what are the chances he decides to stay or go? Let’s take a look at the various factors that will impact that outcome.
The case for Kawhi staying
Leonard will be eligible for the $220 million super max extension this summer by virtue of him being in an All-NBA team in two of the last three years. That’s around $70 million more than what any other team can offer him in free agency.
Moving to a bigger market like Los Angeles could certainly help raise Leonard’s profile significantly and may land more endorsement deals, but $70 million is still a huge chunk of change that will be hard to turn down. If Kawhi and co. were concerned enough about his injury that they sat out the year, they would be foolish to walk away from so much cash given the question marks about his longevity.
There has been bad blood between the two sides over the past few months. But the relationship between Kawhi and the Spurs likely isn’t irreparable. Pop and LaMarcus Aldridge also had their problems, but they fixed those during the summer, and Aldridge ended up having a terrific year. There’s also the small matter of him being one of the five best players in the entire league and is a franchise cornerstone when healthy. And on the other side, Leonard’s group has $70 million reasons to make nice.
The case for Kawhi leaving
Maybe Kawhi and his group just have their sights set on leaving San Antonio. If they didn’t initially feel that way right from the start, maybe the Spurs’ treatment of them throughout this season has soured them on the franchise and just want out no matter what. The fact that Leonard didn’t even bother being with the team during their playoff run was particularly concerning for the state of their relationship.
The Spurs may refuse any trade for Kawhi, who is still under contract for another year. Unless there’s just something wrong with Leonard’s leg, he likely won’t sit out a second straight year ahead of free agency. However, are the Spurs really going to risk Leonard leaving for nothing in free agency?
While the Spurs have had an unprecedented run of sustained success, their path back to championship contention would be a lot quicker if they traded Kawhi to a team like the Lakers or 76ers who can offer valuable pieces in return for Leonard instead of watching him walk away for nothing and starting from scratch.
For years, the Spurs have been held up on a pedestal as the model NBA franchise, and they deserved to be. They have consistently made some very savvy decisions which have led to their success — decisions like trading for a certain Kawhi Leonard. However, they are not perfect and must also take their share of the blame for how they’ve handled this whole saga.
Chances are they make it work. Kawhi will not get the money the Spurs can offer anywhere else. Whether that is actually the right decision for the Spurs moving forward given the question marks with Leonard’s health remains to be seen.
But this is the type of difficult decision the Spurs have generally gotten right for years. They must make the right one again, as it’ll significantly impact their team — for better or worse — for years to come.
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