Before Saturday’s matchup with the Bucks, Gregg Popovich was asked about Patty Mills’ leadership role with the Spurs this season, after the loss of veterans like Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard over the summer. His answer was certainly interesting:
“Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader or anything,” Popovich said, according to USA Today’s Matt Eppers. “Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn’t his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus (Aldridge) came a long way in that regard also.”
That statement can be interpreted one of two ways. On the one hand, Pop is right. Leonard was a superstar, but he was never the Spurs’ leader. Tim Duncan was the unquestionable leader in the locker room when Leonard joined the team and Manu Ginobili carried that mantle until he retired this past offseason. Mills, meanwhile, has been with the team for a while and his outspoken nature makes him a clearly beloved teammate, while Aldridge joined the team as a 30-year-old veteran. There’s nothing wrong with pointing out the fact that Kawhi was never a leader in San Antonio. He didn’t have to be one. Pop might have just been stating a fact.
Or he could be taking a shot at Kawhi. Pop has been known to choose his words carefully and to offer short, formulaic answers to questions he doesn’t want to answer. He could have easily said that yes, the team does miss the leadership of the veterans that it lost and leave it at that. Instead, he decided to go out of his way to point out that Leonard wasn’t a leader, despite Kawhi’s ascension as a stronger voice in the locker room being a regular topic of discussion in the years before Leonard’s departure. That doesn’t feel coincidental.
I wouldn’t personally make too much of Pop’s response here. He praised Kawhi’s playing ability and pointed out that he could become a leader going forward. It wasn’t all negative. He also didn’t mention Tony Parker as one of the leaders the team lost, which likely means Pop’s definition of leadership is more narrow that most coaches’.
That being said, I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking this was a jab at Kawhi, either. Maybe he’ll eventually clarify his comments but for now, both interpretations seem to be on the table. This statement will serve as a Rorschach test for how fans feel about Pop, Leonard and last offseason’s drama, which is clearly spilling over to this season.
Kawhi and the Raptors will visit San Antonio on Jan. 3.