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.