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The Kawhi Leonard saga has revealed cracks in The Spurs Way

Things have been spilling out into the open. Maybe it’s productive for negotiations, and maybe it isn’t — either way, it’s not what we’ve come to expect from the organization.

San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It had been months since Kawhi Leonard had played his last game of the 2017-18 season — although no one knew it at the time — and ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne caught up with him in the corridor and asked why, amid growing rumors and the uncertainty, he hadn’t been suiting up. Leonard’s response, which was recounted in Shelburne and Michael Wright’s deep dive into the situation, captured the spirit of the player-organization rift that has spilled over into late June:

Leonard nodded, then said, “I mean, why else would I not be playing?”
“People are just looking for spin,” Leonard continued. “I haven’t been here long. I’ve been here six years. The Spurs have been here way longer than that. People are gonna go with that take first.”

The Spurs have indeed been around longer than Leonard, who turns 27 on Friday. Unlike their enigmatic superstar, the organization can boast a subtle but well-known ethos, a set of cultural values that its fanbase has adopted for itself and which most around the league can reel off even as their eyes roll back in their heads: the Spurs prioritize success of the whole over the fancies of the individual; they believe in the long game and in prolonging player health; they do not handle family business in public; character, community, and mutual understanding all matter, greatly. Much like last year’s LaMarcus Aldridge situation, anything of substance occurs and is resolved behind closed doors.

It’s the kind of track record that makes picking sides in a murky debate easier. In the least, it lends credibility that the organization — regardless of everything that’s happened — will handle things the right way.

When all is said and done, a good portion of the blame for this impasse will potentially fall on Leonard. We know Uncle Dennis’ name for a reason, and reports that Kawhi’s camp has made communication difficult even as the organization has attempted to mend fences are too frequent (and the sources too scattered) to be easily ignored. From afar, the least cooperative party in a dispute usually appears to have forfeited the moral high ground.

But the politics of team fandom versus player fandom are complicated, especially when debates veer towards right and wrong. People are inconsistent — we contradict ourselves in our statements and actions all the time — but we can always claim to be acting in a manner that’s true to ourselves. Players aren’t expected to be absolutes in the same way as institutions — especially ones as famously principle-oriented as the Spurs.

Which is why when Spurs great, and minority team stakeholder, David Robinson goes on ESPN and says “[Kawhi has] gotta let people hear your voice, not someone else’s voice” and “LeBron doesn’t sit around waiting for people to talk for him,” the party line of not airing out one’s dirty laundry appears compromised. The quote may seem innocuous in a vacuum — it may even ring true — but within the context of a volatile situation already characterized by feelings of “betrayal” and believed to be exacerbated by comments by his teammates during the season, it’s counterproductive at best and inflammatory at worst.

Robinson went on to praise Leonard and express how much the team wanted him back, but it was packaged within criticism of how the player has let the situation get out of his hands, presumably to others in his camp. It also broke character.

That stoic, low-key character matters when we talk about the Spurs, who typically get a pass on everything from eyebrow-raising contracts to off-the-court matters as The System rolls on to another 50-win season. There is doubt now — enough for us to at least take a step back and assess the Kawhi saga after the dust has settled.

Like Robinson, Bruce Bowen‘s jersey also hangs in the rafters of the AT&T Center. He’s a Clippers color analyst now and doesn’t have any affiliation with the Spurs that I’m aware of (aside from his membership in the H-E-B Spurs Retirement Club). At the same time, the optics are unquestionably that of a former Spurs player and member of the old guard letting loose on how Kawhi has conducted himself:

“I think he’s getting bad advice,” Bowen said. “I think what you’re starting to see now is an individual given a certain amount of advice, and it’s not the right advice. Here it is: You were protected in San Antonio. You were able to come up during a time where you still could lean on Tim [Duncan] Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili].”

“There’s nothing but excuses going on . . . First, it was, ‘Well I was misdiagnosed.’ Look here: You got $18 million this year, and you think that they’re trying to rush you? You didn’t play for the most part a full season this year. And you’re the go-to guy, you’re the franchise and you want to say that they didn’t have your best interest at heart? Are you kidding me?”

The possibility of a misdiagnosis still looms over this story, dividing it into (at least) two wildly contrasting potential scenarios: in one, Leonard actually has the publicly stated right quadriceps tendinopathy the team listed him under, and the organization has patiently allowed him to seek other counsel in the interest of greater understanding; in the other, the reported diagnosis from his second opinion (that of an ossification of the muscle) is correct, and he has rightly listened to his body and followed a different path for rehab while taking a handful of indirect shots from his coach and teammates in the process. If it’s the former, the team could be absolved of how things turned. If it’s closer to the latter — and the situation actually mirrors that of Isaiah Thomas from last year albeit with a much more delayed admission of error — the conversations we normally have around the Spurs may begin to take on a different tone. From on-court success to off-court processes, the things long taken for granted may begin to change.