The Summer of Kawhi finally reached it’s conclusion in the wee hours of July 18, 2018. After a long, grueling season of Kawhi Leonard only appearing in nine games for the Spurs while rumors slowly leaked of his discontent in San Antonio, fans had to go through the 7 stages of grief for much of the season while waiting for some kind of resolution. It finally came with the team’s cornerstone being traded.
Still, that doesn’t mean fans haven’t been left to ponder how things went from Leonard being the quiet, unselfish heir-apparent to Tim Duncan’s throne to being so incompatible with the organization that he would leave a super-max contract extension on the table. The best way to put it all together is to create a timeline made up of everything we now know based on the best information we have. Our story begins at the Western Conference Finals of 2017, also known as the point at which everything started going downhill.
May 14, 2017: Leonard’s last meaningful game as a Spur
It’s the third quarter of Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. Leonard has returned from a sprained ankle from the series against the Rockets, and he went on a tear, scoring 26 points while the Spurs led by as much as 25. Then, Zaza Pachulia happened. The Warriors center’s foot ended up under Leonard as he came down after a jumper, and his season was over. The Spurs blew the lead and were swept from the playoffs.
While the Spurs have stated before that Pachulia’s play had nothing to do with Leonard’s quad injury, it still begs the question of what could have been. Would he be so disgruntled if the Spurs had somehow pulled off the upset, maybe even winning a championship? A second ring certainly would have given him the boost in branding he reportedly wants, and it would have been a happier ending before all the trouble started.
August 8, 2017: Spurs give Leonard’s group authority over injury rehab
This information didn’t come to light until early July, 2018, during Michael C. Wright’s appearance on Tom Haberstroh’s podcast (at the 11 minute mark), but just weeks after Leonard’s ankle was healed and before the Spurs were able to see if their rehab plan for his quad would work, the Spurs handed over control of Kawhi’s rehabilitation to his group (namely his uncle Dennis Robertson, and agent Mitch Frankel) before he even went on his Brand Jordan promotional tour in China on ...
August 18-24, 2017: A trip to China
Leonard participated in a week-long trip to China to host a camp at The NBA Academy Zhejiang. This included a visit to The Great Wall of China, which consists of, as Kawhi admitted surprised him, “a lot of stairs”:
The Spurs couldn’t get in touch with Leonard during that trip. According to Wright, some people in the organization consider it the turning point in the relationship. “When he went away to China, the Spurs couldn’t get him on the phone...Everything changed after that.”
September 30, 2017: Injury revealed to public
To the surprise of everyone in attendance, Leonard did not appear in the Spurs’ Silver and Black scrimmage. The Spurs announced:
Kawhi Leonard continues a rehabilitation program for right quadriceps tendinopathy. He is expected to miss the 2017 preseason. A timeline for his return to the court will be determined at a later date.
October 20, 2017: Limping Leonard
Leonard is seen making a painful climb up the steps to the team plane as the Spurs head to Chicago for their first road trip of the season, causing concern and much speculation over his health status.
December. 12, 2017 - January 13, 2018: Leonard plays his final games as a Spur
After a long wait, Leonard finally returns to the floor, appearing in nine of seventeen games over a month’s span. While he looked decent, it was obvious he was at least out of shape as he only had one speed, and shots often fell short. After a blowout win over Denver on January 13, he shut himself down due to the persisting pain in his quad.
January 22, 2018: “The Rift”
In the Woj Bomb to end all Woj Bomb’s, respected ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski released a seemingly out-of-nowhere report that there was a growing divide between the Spurs and Leonard over the rehabilitation of his quad. The next day, Jalen Rose reported that Leonard “wanted out” of San Antonio. While both sides originally denied this to be the case, R.C. Buford acknowledged that the process had been frustrating for everyone involved. In the wake of this revelation, teams began to contact the Spurs about possible trades, but were turned away.
Winter 2018: Shenanigans at N.Y. Rehab
This one is difficult to place a precise date on, but it was certainly no sooner than the pre-All Star Break time frame. While Leonard was in New York to continue his rehab, his group began its game of hide-and-seek with the Spurs. Although this wasn’t revealed until later, Spurs representatives reportedly arrived in New York to check on the player’s rehab status, only for him to be rushed to another part of the building and sequestered until the Spurs brass couldn’t find him and finally left.
February 14-22, 2018: All-Star Break revelations
News broke that Leonard had been seeking at least a second if not a third medical opinion in New York and spending much more time there than with the Spurs. Gregg Popovich also revealed he didn’t expect Leonard to return during the season, which was somewhat surprising considering it was almost simultaneously reported that he had been medically cleared to play but was electing to sit due to lingering pain.
As it was later reported, the Spurs tried several times to declare him out for the season in order to save Leonard from speculation that he wasn’t returning when he could have, but Kawhi’s Group wouldn’t allow it. Maybe they felt he would eventually make it back — even though being declared out wouldn’t have prevented him from returning.
March 4, 2018: Brand issues?
Talks between Leonard’s group and Nike’s Jordan Brand stall as they feel a 4-year, $20 million extension on his shoe deal doesn’t match his accomplishments. It’s the first time that “branding” has appeared to be an issue for the introverted star.
March 7, 2018: Kawhi’s only public appearance
In his first public appearance since he stopped playing and what would turn out to be the last time fans would hear his voice as a Spur, Leonard denied there was any friction between him and the Spurs and answered with the now infamous “Yeah, for sure,” when asked if he could see himself finishing his career with the Spurs.
He also claims he plans on returning soon, but as the games pass with reports of Leonard possibly returning each night, only for him not to, frustrations and tension continue to grow.
F*ck it. Y’all want more? You fiends. Kawhi regularly told the Spurs he’d be returning from injury and then, morning of the game, just say, “nah, never mind.”— Matthew R Tynan (@Matthew_Tynan) July 6, 2018
March 17, 2018: Players-only Meeting
Led by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Spurs hold a players-only meeting in the locker room following a crucial home win over the Timberwolves, wanting to hear from Leonard himself, not the media, on when/if he plans on returning. Reports vary on how tense (or easy-going) the meeting was. Players who were present insist it wasn’t tense at all, but Leonard’s group would later claim he didn’t appreciate it and felt ganged-up on.
March 23, 2018: “100 times worse”
Parker discusses his own rehabilitation process from the torn quad he had suffered during the 2017 playoffs, referring to his injury as “100 times worse” while commending the Spurs’ doctors on the job they did to get him fully healed and back on the court within eight months, as well as throughout his entire career.
Tony Parker talked about the team's message to Kawhi during his rehab, and spoke about his experience dealing with the team doctors when recovering from his injury last season. pic.twitter.com/eVkYPxQCtC— John Elizondo (@johndelizondo) March 23, 2018
The media has a field day with that one line from Parker, representing his words as an attack on Leonard, while his group would also use this as a main reason to justify him wanting to leave, even though Parker signing with the Hornets apparently did nothing to make Leonard reconsider staying with the Spurs.
April 14-24, 2018: A playoffs no-show
Leonard remained in New York to rehab and did not join his team during their five playoff games against the Warriors, even after the passing of Erin Popovich between games two and three. While his group claimed he would have been there to support Pop had he returned to the bench, not being there to support his teammates both during an impossible series and trying times off the court raised eyebrows in the press. (He did show up at Erin’s funeral in May.)
May 1, 2018: Inside the tension
ESPN’s Michael C. Wright and Ramona Shelburne delve deep into the driving force behind “the rift.” Revelations include the disagreements both sides had over the exact nature of Leonard’s quad injury and how to treat it (was it tendinopathy or ossification?), and frustrations grew as Uncle Dennis began calling the shots, leaving the Spurs out of control and often in the dark throughout the season.
As it turned out, Robertson and Frankel had taken control of Leonard as far back as 2016 after firing his former agent, Brian Elfus.
After Leonard and Elfus parted ways, Robertson and Frankel took over the day-to-day communication with the Spurs, and the relationship hasn’t been nearly as healthy, according to Spurs sources.
Multiple league sources also told ESPN that the Spurs have grown worried that Leonard’s group has an ulterior motive to fray the relationship and get Leonard traded to a larger market such as Los Angeles (Leonard’s hometown) or New York or Philadelphia (Robertson lives in New Jersey).
Details also come out about Robertson and his prospective endgame:
Several current and former associates and colleagues describe Robertson as “difficult” and portray an ambitious family member trying to parlay his nephew’s success into his own marketing company.
According to multiple agents at other firms who met with Robertson in the past few years, he was interested in starting a business similar to LeBron James’ marketing company, LRMR, and enlisting their services because he was not a certified player agent.
Pre-2018 NBA Draft
A wide variety of reports come out, causing mass confusion. It is reported that a meeting would take place between the Spurs and Leonard before the draft, but they had trouble connecting with him in both New York and San Diego reportedly because his group didn’t want him alone with Pop. (Maybe they feared he could work his 2000 magic and convince Leonard to stay?)
Another report indicated he planned to sign an extension with the Spurs, but it never happened. Leonard’s group continued to air out dirty laundry on the Spurs, and while the Spurs still wanted to work things out and weren’t accepting any offers yet, they had at least started listening to trade requests heading into the draft.
June 21, 2018: NBA Draft
The NBA Draft came and went, and while Leonard remained a topic of conversation throughout the night, no moves were made, and the Spurs selected Lonnie Walker IV with the 18th pick.
Post-2018 NBA Draft: Turning the tables
Rumors continued to swirl about potential trades with teams like the Lakers, Celtics and 76ers. The Spurs remained adamant they would like to keep Leonard, and this is the point when the detail about Leonard’s group hiding him came out — one of the first details released from the Spurs’ perspective of the debacle.
July 5, 2018: The Lawsuit
Frankel was sued by Elfus for unpaid commission, including his role in helping negotiate Leonard’s 5 year, $94 million contract in 2015. The lawsuit also reveals that Uncle Dennis and Leonard’s mother have both been on his agency’s payroll for several years. (I can’t imagine if this were the NCAA . . .)
July 9, 2018: A new trade target
July 18, 2018: Leonard is traded
. . . and sure enough, that’s exactly what happens. The Spurs execute a trade that sent Leonard and Danny Green to the Raptors in exchange for four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, promising big man Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 draft pick.
Even if it’s only for a year, the Spurs succeeded in their goal of sending Leonard East and not helping a fellow West contender while also getting a star in return. There’s no way of knowing if the Spurs passed up on better offers before this one, but nonetheless the move allows them to start rebuilding while remaining competitive.
That’s how the entire saga played out, and The Summer of Kawhi came to a merciful end. The Spurs naturally wish they could have worked things out and kept the player they once envisioned as the future of the franchise, but they are likely relieved that it’s finally over. As Pop so eloquently put it in his post-trade press conference, it’s time to move on.