Kawhi Leonard reminded everyone last night why he's a max player with a fantastic performance against the Clippers. He didn't receive his extension like others in his draft class but that has everything to do with the Spurs' cap management plan and is not an indictment on his value to the franchise. The question that remained after reports emerged painting his agent as being frustrated with the negotiations was whether Kawhi understood that or felt slighted. Well, we can stop worrying about that now. Here's what Kawhi said last night to the great Sam Amick of USA Today:
"I was never upset about (the extension)," Leonard said. "I mean they explained to me what their deal is and why they didn't do it yet. That'll play out. I'm just here to play basketball and have fun and try to win another championship. If I think about that, then I'm not going to be the same player that I am and will be just out of it."
Leonard understands the Spurs' stance and is fine with it. And more importantly, he made it clear that he wants to stay in San Antonio:
"I don't think I'm going anywhere," Leonard said. "I mean they love me here. I like the organization, and if it was up to me, I want to finish out with one team like a lot of great players have done, to stay with one organization their whole career and just be loyal to that. You never know. We'll see what happens next summer, but I'm pretty sure I'll be in a Spurs jersey for my whole life."
And after that quote, every Spurs fan breathed a sigh of relief.
It was never likely for Leonard to leave the Spurs after this season. He will be a restricted free agent, which means the Spurs will be able to match any offer sheet. And players coming out of their rookie deal don't usually sign the qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent the following season. Greg Monroe did it but the Pistons have been a franchise in disarray which spent millions of dollars on a free agent that played the same position he plays.
The only realistic worry was for Leonard to feel spurned by the lack of an extension and going the Chandler Parsons rout. Parsons felt undervalued by the Rockets and decided to sign an offer sheet designed to engineer his exit from the franchise while providing him short term financial security and the ability to enter free agency soon after signing. Unlike the Rockets, the Spurs would surely match a three year deal with an opt out after the second season to retain Kawhi. But that's hardly how you want to have the contracts of your stars structured.
If Leonard is serious about understanding the Spurs' position and being fine with seeing how things play out -- and we have no reason to believe otherwise now that he's expressed his opinion on the record -- it will provide the Spurs with some very intriguing options next off-season. If Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili retire, the Spurs could carve up enough cap room to fit a top free agent at the max or near it without renouncing Leonard or Danny Green. That puts them in play for guys like Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol, Greg Monroe and LaMarcus Aldridge, among others.
Of course we are months away from that and in the middle of a season in which the Spurs are attempting to defend the title. So having Leonard fully committed to the team instead of having an eye on free agency (looking at you, Reggie Jackson) is huge. San Antonio needs Leonard to deliver the type of performance he had against the Clippers consistently if they plan to survive their early season injury woes and finish at the top of the ultra-competitive Western conference.
The Spurs didn't start the season particularly well but Monday night brought a lot of good news. Not only did San Antonio get a quality win on the road but we also found out that Splitter doesn't have back issues and that Kawhi Leonard is happy to wear Silver and Black and hopes to do it for his entire career. It looks like things are beginning to slowly turn around for the defending champs after a tumultuous first couple of months.
You should read Sam Amick's story in full. There are some great nuggets there.