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The many layers of the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard onion

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Disagreements are like onions. Or ogres. Either way, this is a dated movie reference for a stinky situation.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

As we await the next spasm of news to surface on the Kawhi Leonard front, the latest from the Express-News’ Tom Orsborn took a different angle on the situation, looking at the kind of PR moves the Spurs star could make to help fans move on from a frustrating season of minimal on-court time and substantial radio silence. It also included one notable aside: the two sides have yet to meet formally:

“Still, the Spurs hope to meet with Leonard and his representatives soon in a bid to mend fences and pave the way for Leonard to come to terms on a five-year $219 million supermax contract that he will be eligible to receive starting July 1.”

For us, it’s an update of sorts, highlighting the work that still needs to be done four weeks following the Spurs’ elimination from the playoffs.

Over the course of a full season we’ve been exposed to various layers to this situation by piecemeal. An uncooperative inner circle of influence. A lack of communication between star player and his teammates. A looming payday. On their own, none would individually have brought us to this current impasse, but each represents an obstacle you encounter when navigating the fog of an increasingly murky injury situation.

With Leonard, the player-fan relationship is one of the easier fences to mend. Even if he did nothing at all on that front, most fans would move on, because that’s what fans do. The other dynamics, however, are important to note because they could actually matter in how and if Leonard and Spurs are able to get on the same page again. It also helps us break down the biggest bridges that need to be crossed. Let’s start with the thinner outside layers and work our way in.

Leonard and coach

It’s been thought that Gregg Popovich lobbed a veiled shot or two in Leonard’s camp’s direction during the season and playoffs.

Whether you subscribe to that or not (I don’t) shouldn’t really matter — if the other chips fall, this one shouldn’t be a concern.

Leonard and fanbase

Do players owe fans more than just the on-court product? While that question has felt moot through the Spurs’ two decades of greatness — and while Leonard’s lowkey nature seemed to make him fit perfectly within that paradigm — the 2017-18 season highlighted the limits of the taciturn superstar. Leonard’s camp grappled with the financial realities of his muted brand, while fans grew weary of a star who said nothing amid various rumors of discontent and, um, Fortnite jokes.

Leonard’s camp and the Spurs organization

On one side, you have a group that is presumably seeking a five-year, $219 million extension (unless you want to believe the reports of a desired trade to a bigger market). On the other, you have a front office that seemed prepared to give it through most of this season. In between is plenty of room to posture, negotiate, and open up a much-needed dialogue for a mutually beneficial agreement.

But none of that matters if the two sides can’t bridge the next rift.

Leonard’s medical team and the Spurs’ medical team

We’ve long considered the possibility of differing diagnoses being at the center of the Kawhi situation, but Wright and Shelburne’s piece not only affirmed that but detailed how fundamentally different the disagreement is:

“The treatment course for each diagnosis (a muscle issue vs. a tendon issue) is different, which has become another source of tension in the relationship.”

That was the line that stood out the most in last month’s deep dive by Michael Wright and Ramona Shelburne, and the one that should concern us the most.

“Leonard’s camp believes his condition is the result of a series of contusions to the quadriceps that began with one very deep bruise in March 2016 that caused him to miss three games,” the article states. “According to multiple sources, Leonard’s camp has come to believe the issue has more to do with an ossification, or hardening, in the area where the muscle has been repeatedly bruised, and then an atrophy, which in turn affected the tendons connecting the muscle to the knee.”

Families fight, and opinions differ, but when a dispute’s fact is at the center of that rift — and when there are hundreds of millions of dollars tied to the veracity of that fact — things can get complicated. Leonard’s camp, the article points out, sought a second opinion and then a third, eventually leaving final say on the player’s condition with an NYC-based medical team who has, presumably, backed the diagnosis of an ossification of the muscle.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that, from the player’s point of view, a treatable diagnosis that counters a chronic one is preferable. It should also not go overlooked that the Spurs shifted their designation of Leonard’s injury status from the previously agreed Right Quadriceps Tendinopathy to the much-maligned (and more vague) Return from Injury Management.

In amending Leonard’s injury status, the Spurs medical team may have already begun accommodating for a pivot in diagnosis — or they were simply trying to be diplomatic towards Leonard’s team. But this is a group with a strong reputation and track record, and we saw a rehabilitated Tony Parker going to bat for them well after the injury status was changed. There’s also more to this than just saving face or who blinks first — it would be a bad look for either side to be in the wrong given how much time has transpired and the potentially damaging effects that a counterintuitive rehab approach may have on Leonard’s health, his next contract, and the length of his playing career. If no extension is agreed upon, team and player could go into another season, the last guaranteed one of his contract, without any middle ground agreed upon.

Conversations still need to be had, and it’s always worth noting how little I know about injuries, contract negotiations, or anything — still, the disconnect around Leonard’s quad would appear to be the geographic center of the situation as we know it, and one that could stand in the way of any other fences that still need mending.