Op-Ed: What if Kawhi Leonard is not who we thought he was?

SACRAMENTO, CA - OCTOBER 27: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs looks on from the bench against the Sacramento Kings during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at Golden 1 Center on October 27, 2016 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

As Kawhi Leonard has been mostly quiet over the course of his career, others (including myself) have talked about him as an ego-less basketball cyborg, purpose-built by Gregg Popovich in a lab deep under the AT&T Center.

Many cute anecdotes have supported the idea that Leonard is a no-nonsense superstar perfect for San Antonio.

One Sports Illustrated feature was chock full of stories like this. He still drove his 1997 Chevy Tahoe because it ran and was paid for. He freaked out when he signed his max contract for $94 million and Wingstop ceased delivery of his coupons.

He never says anything to anyone, and that silence draws praise for his humility. In an era dominated by audacious superstars, the Spurs have found the perfect cornerstone to build their team-first franchise around.


What if it’s all a little too good to be true? What if once it was true, but things have changed? This season, we haven’t heard those stories about Leonard.

Instead, the limited information about him during this season in which he has only played nine games seems to point to a trend in the opposite direction.

Adrian Wojnarowski’s reporting surrounding Kawhi’s injury indicates that he has been cleared to play by team doctors for some time, but he still doesn’t feel comfortable, even after receiving outside consultation.

Let’s take arguably the NBA’s best news breaker at his word. Let’s entertain the idea that the handling of Kawhi’s injury has caused friction between him and the team as has been reported by ESPN.

Over the All-Star break, Leonard was in New York getting a second opinion. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told the media that he would be surprised if Kawhi came back this season.

That message may have been intended for an audience of one, and it was soon followed by Kawhi telling teammates he expected to be back sometime in March.

It’s troubling that this isn’t being taken care of in-house, that the tension seems to be playing out so publicly.

Ramona Shelburne is also reporting that Leonard’s talks with Jordan Brand about an extension have stalled because Leonard’s camp wants more money considering he has been a top-three MVP candidate for the last two years.

It’s not like Leonard isn’t entitled to do all these things. He and his camp need to look out for his best interests, and that’s all they’re doing. Still, these are not the actions of a man (or robot) who only cares about putting the ball in the hoop and helping the San Antonio Spurs compete for a title. The Spurs and their fans have never had to worry about his goals and interests. It has been assumed that he is a perfect cog in the system and his goals are 100 percent aligned with the team’s. Is it time to challenge that assumption?

It is entirely possible that Kawhi wants everything that comes with being a top-five player in the league. He might want the signature shoe deal, and the mass appeal, and the recognition. He might feel like continuing to play in San Antonio gets in the way of that. It’s not that he needs a bigger market, but the Spurs are unquestionably the least sexy perennial contender in sports. This is not to say that he will opt out next summer and go home to the Lakers, where he would undoubtedly shoot more, score more, play on national TV more, and increase his marketability.

Leonard is prioritizing his long-term health, and his team is trying to maximize the amount of money they can get him, as is their fiduciary responsibility. This is perfectly normal for a player of Leonard’s stature to do, but it flies in the face of everything we thought we knew about him.


  1. I’m biased being a San Diego State fan. I know how hard Kawhi has worked since his Aztec days .
    I do know he is the MVP of the NBA . Spurs matched their losses from last year at ALL Star break with Aldridge who makes more $ than Kawhi but is somewhere between the 40th and 50th best player in the NBA. Last year LA didn’t play anywhere near as good as this season shooting 38% from 10 to 16 ft. The rest of the Spurs are and were G leaguers and Parker, Ginobili and Gasol. Their days are over. Simmons and Dedmon decent players but not ring caliber. Kawhi is human . He sees Okc loading up. Golden State fielding an all star team and a bought Thug. LeBron gets the players he wants whenever he wants. Minnesota and Okc get the stars but won’t get a ring . Other teams get what looks like all stars . Kawhi sold himself out to the Spurs. Let the Spurs and Pop make the decisions.
    Then they get Rudy Gay? That’s it? Kawhi was on the verge of Legend against All Star Warriors in game 1. They didn’t trade LA. So Kawhi is like ” This is what I’m running with?” I’m supposed to take these G leaguers and Old School to the Finals? How? Kill myself? Ruin my career with injuries ? For what? Plus what articles were published when the Spurs ,with an easy first half of the season schedule , equaled their losses from last season w/o Kawhi? None. Is not Kawhi the NBA MVP ?
    The NBA doesn’t deserve Kawhi Leonard the only forward in NBA history with MORE steals than fouls . Warrior Dirty Dray has almost 600 MORE fouls than steals. The Spurs didn’t invest in Kawhi
    so Kawhi shouldn’t invest in them.

    • Aldridge between 40th and 50th best player this year? Maybe last year.. but he’s been great this year. Also, this team isn’t full of G-leaguers. Kawhi is great, but the spurs have not done him wrong. They have the opportunity to sign him to a supermax deal this summer(can only be offered by SA period) the next summer they will have lots of cap space. Barring resigning to longer deals, Danny green, Parker, and Gays’ contracts will be up and only 6 million of Paus deal is guaranteed. So they could add a third big contract. He would be turning down 70 million if he doesn’t sign the supermax and I don’t see it happening. Kawhi 2019 and 2020 Finals MVP GO SPURS GO!!!!!! ?

  2. Kawhi is for real, I have been associated with 53 teams as a coach and 11. More as a player. During that time he is #1 as a dedicated ream player. He is the hardest worker, the most dedicated to putting the teams success rather then individual awards first.
    Compare his contract to other players and he is definitely under paid.
    He is truly a humble quiet gentleman.
    My hope and prayer for Kawhi is that he regains his health and that he achieves his goal to be the very best player possible and helps his team win championship. C. Al

    • I appreciate your insight here. I don’t think you’ll find much argument in the fact that he is underpaid, but the Spurs have a chance to extend him with the supermax this offseason.


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