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Gregg Popovich, Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs system, and the final say

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What started as a routine quad injury has developed into something that could shake the very foundations of San Antonio’s lone professional franchise.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This week on ESPN’s First Take, in a conversation about the minor tension and rift between Coach Bill Belichick and Tom Brady after the star quarterback indicated he might not feel as “appreciated” as he should be, Max Kellerman said the following:

Bill Belichick’s judgment is imperfect. It’s not perfect, he has made mistakes, however, it is better than everyone else’s in the world about football. That’s why he’s the best coach and GM in football for over 20 years, and that’s why the Patriots way is to defer to it… Bill Belichick is usually right and that is why he’s final…It’s process, the Patriots way is process, and that process is really about Belichick’s process, and here Tom Brady didn’t like the results that were going to come from the process, so he circumvented it and undermined it and he’s continuing to make comments about it when asked…

Sound familiar? It should.

The Spurs and Patriots have often been compared. There are similarities, and of course there are differences. But there are some significant core values that both teams: share: strong, clear leadership from the top, a well thought-out process for player identification and development, players who buy in to the system, and surrounding star players with the right complimentary players.

Things must also be done the right way, and when it is apparent that the complimentary pieces either become too expensive to keep or no longer help the team advance, new pieces are brought in. If things are not done the right way, players do not stick around.

For both the Patriots and the Spurs, the system and the right way is that of the coach. And it is final.

Popovich has adapted over the years. He has not unreasonably stuck with a single style. By turns, the Spurs have been a low-scoring, smothering defensive team that grinds down opponents, a motion offense team, an iso-team. When it was apparent the roster needed to change, personnel changes took place.

Some experiments worked out spectacularly well, such as the risk in trading one of Pop’s favorite players, George Hill, for Kawhi Leonard. Others worked out pretty well, whether it was signing an unknown Argentine player named Fabricio Oberto or bringing over Tiago Splitter. Some, like Richard Jefferson, didn’t work out as well as the front office envisioned. Others, like LaMarcus Aldridge, for the most part have worked out.

But even in times of change, there are some things that have been non-negotiable. Process, rightness and finality are chief among those things. Popovich has more than earned the right to state, “This is the system. This is the right way. And that is final.”

The Patriots are undergoing a bit of drama with Brady and Belichick, but it’s nothing compared to the almost Shakespearian drama unfolding between Leonard and Popovich, as well as between Leonard’s group, and the Spurs front office. It’s not just whether Kawhi stays a Spur. It’s not simply a matter of how much longer Popovich wants to coach. At stake here, is system, and who will be right and have the final say.

The differences between Popovich and Kawhi and his group appear to grow exponentially each week if the headlines are even a fraction true. Unlike the drama with Aldridge last season that may have been smoothed over with a conversation and dinner, this may require some kind of peace accord.

Here are just some of the things that may or may not be factors in this mess: market size, geographical preferences, differences of medical opinion, a quad issue that may or may not be a chronic or at least prone to recurring, a loss of trust (on both sides), a layer that certainly includes Kawhi’s Uncle/agent Dennis, and narratives that have reflected poorly on Kawhi (the silence of his camp as the rumor mill went into overdrive) and the Spurs (pushing Leonard to return when perhaps he wasn’t healthy).

But wait, there’s more!

Throw in a closed door team meeting that may or may not have been tense, at least by Spur standards, along with concerns that Kawhi’s group is trying to force a trade. Add things said to the media by Pop, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili that expressed frustration and contributed to nearly non-stop speculation on the national level about possible partners for a Leonard-based trade. There are also the multiple supposed ‘leaked’ pieces of information from anonymous sources stating several teams are interested in acquiring Leonard through a trade.

Some of these things may not be true, some partially true, and no doubt there are other things that have happened we know nothing about.

This situation has ‘complex’ written all over it. Yes, it could be something that somehow is made right with conversation and maybe a supermax deal. Then again, the Spurs could be reluctant to offer the supermax to a player that may never be 100% and has missed close to two full seasons worth of games in his short career.

This is a standoff, and a lot is at stake. This is not the kind of thing that is supposed to happen in San Antonio. This kind of thing does not happen in the system. This is something that happens to the system, and if it happens to the system, then matters of ‘rightness’ and ‘finality’ are also up for grabs.

Ultimately that is what is at stake: the system, rightness and the final say. Regardless of the outcome of this situation, the repercussions will reverberate through San Antonio for years to come.