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Can Pop work his 2000 magic on Kawhi Leonard?

Pop’s honesty helped bring Tim Duncan back in 2000. Can he do the same with Kawhi this summer?

NBA: Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

If the Summer of Kawhi feels familar, it’s because the Spurs have been here before. Most fans will remember the Summer of Tim Duncan (a.k.a. 2000). Duncan was worried about the state of the aging Spurs (among other things), and Gregg Popovich was tasked with convincing him to stay and proving he could build another championship squad.

Suffice it to say, he succeeded. Duncan stayed after some serious flirtation with the Orlando Magic, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili soon followed, and together The Big 3 formed the arguably the greatest basketball trio of all time with four championships and near-unmatched success.

So how did Pop do it, and can he perform the same magic with Leonard as he did with Duncan 18 years ago? In his new book The Soul of Basketball, Ian Thomsen details all the conversations Pop had with Duncan that summer and provides the key to their now-unbreakable bond: brutal honesty.

“We’d sit there and we’d get to the point where it’s like being slap happy,’’ recalled Popovich in my new book The Soul of Basketball. “I’d say, ‘Okay, there’s a guarantee, sure you’re going to win there — so go! Yeah, that’s fine, we’ll be fine here.’ That kind of thing. And he’d say, ‘David’s getting older, what are you guys going to do? Who are you going to bring in?’ We’d joke with each other, but then we would lay it on the line. And I’d say, ‘Timmy, I can’t guarantee. I don’t know if we’re going to win a championship. Hell, I didn’t know—did I know, did you know we were going to win in ’99? Did I know? I didn’t know. It just happened. Are we going to win again? Maybe not. I can’t guarantee it.’”

“I think our relationship grew stronger. Well, I know it did,” said Popovich of his private talks with Duncan in the summer of 2000. “Because we were both—and this is a huge key—we were both totally, totally honest in every single respect. Even if I was going to lose him, or even if he was going to hurt my feelings by leaving, it didn’t matter. We were still going to lay it all out there.”

“There were some real reasons why Timmy might go,” Popovich explained in The Soul of Basketball. “David was in his later years, and he wasn’t ‘David’ anymore. David was on the other side of performance and still playing, so there were a lot of things to think about. And so it was just like that, back and forth, but we sat there together. It wasn’t like he was with his agent, and I’m calling, and we’re doing the separate kind of baloney. We did it together. Just figuring out what would be best, and he came to me one day and he said . . . what a jerk . . . he goes, ‘Yeah, I’m going to Orlando.’”

Popovich remembered holding his breath.

“And I just, I just stared at him,” Popovich said. “And about five seconds later, then he smiled and he said, ‘I had to do that.’”

Duncan was punking him. That was how he told Popovich he was staying in San Antonio.

“‘You asshole. You had to do that,’” recalled Popovich. “But that’s Timmy. He just wanted to screw with me. And I do the same thing with him. But the relationship grew stronger because of it.”

There’s no saying if the same approach will work with Leonard or not, but the only way for both sides to work things out is to be completely honest with each other, as Tim and Pop were back at the turn of the century.

Only time will tell what happens with the Summer of Kawhi, but this is only one story of many in The Soul of Basketball. If you are interested in reading more, click here to see where you get can a copy.