What's Going On With Kawhi Leonard?

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When the Golden State Warriors officially eliminated the San Antonio Spurs from the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, many questions began to spark in the minds of basketball fanatics everywhere.

What’s next for the San Antonio Spurs? 

For the last two decades, the Spurs have been widely regarded as the closest thing to a dynasty in the modern NBA. Having made 21 straight playoff appearances, while winning five NBA championships during that span, the organization that various other teams have tried to model themselves after is about to enter a rebuilding period.

With starting point guard Tony Parker not getting any younger (35-years-old) as well as the likely retirement of potential future Hall-of-Fame shooting guard Manu Ginobili (40-years-old), Spurs management has a lot of big decisions to make regarding their future.

However, the most important element concerning their rebuild is the questionable status surrounding their superstar Kawhi Leonard. Once the last second ticked away in Game 5 against the Warriors, immediate attention began to be directed towards the ongoing feud reportedly taking place between Leonard and the Spurs.

Breakdown of the Timeline

After suffering from what was being labeled as a “right thigh tendinopahy” injury, the Spurs announced that Leonard would miss the preseason on Sept. 30, 2017 and stated that there was no timetable on his possible return.

Eventually missing almost the first two months of the regular season, Leonard returned on Dec. 12 for a match-up with the Dallas Mavericks, scoring 13 points on 6-12 shooting in 16 minutes of restrictive play.

During the remainder of the month, Leonard would alternate back-and-forth between playing and resting, as he would play in four of the Spurs’ last eight games heading into the new year.

On Jan. 2, 2018 against the New York Knicks, Leonard would showcase his talent by exhibiting his best game of the season, finishing with season-highs of 25 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four steals in 31 minutes of action, resulting in a signature return to form for the two-time NBA All-Star. In the long run though, celebrated performances like these wouldn’t last.

Just over two weeks later, it was revealed that Leonard would be “out indefinitely” due to continuing rehabilitation on the same right quad that’s been giving him trouble for months. Shortly following this announcement, reports started to spread that there was a rift between the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and the Spurs organization over the details of his rehab. 

Drama and turmoil continued to escalate in mid-February when Spurs head coach Greg Popovich said that he would “be surprised if (Kawhi) returns this season.” 

Speculation became rampant by the time March rolled around. Despite the fact that Leonard told reporters on March 7th that he wished to finish his career in San Antonio, rumors about the continuous unrest between the Spurs and their superstar arose questions about the 2019 free agency period (when Leonard’s contract is currently set to expire). 

Once the NBA Playoffs started in April, Kawhi Leonard was nowhere to be found on the Spurs bench. 

Analyzing the Problem

The main catalyst for the unfolding tension within the Spurs organization was the handling of Leonard’s right quad injury. Although Popovich has consistently noted throughout the season that the San Antonio medical staff cleared the franchise player back in December, Leonard has chosen to sit out ever since. Leonard’s apprehension for playing might seem to stem from an uneasy disagreement between Leonard’s camp and the Spurs front office. Multiple sources have told various media outlets that the dispute appears to be over the exact nature of the injury. 

The Spurs have labelled Leonard’s condition as quadriceps tendinopathy, which is the inflammation of the tendon that can have a degenerative effect on the muscle near the kneecap. This injury is typically caused by gradual overuse. The pain tends to develop over the course of a lengthened period of time instead of a single occurrence at any given point. Overall, it can keep the muscle in a constant state of exhaustion—making it extremely painful to partake in physical activities such as running and jumping on a basketball court. 

However, Leonard and his “group” tend to think that the injury has more to do with an ossification (or hardening) of the area due to frequent bruising of the muscle, as well as an atrophy that has been deteriorating the cells in the tendons that have been connecting the muscle to the knee. 

So ultimately, the conflict on Leonard’s injury directly correlates to the diagnosis—whether it’s a muscle problem or a tendon problem. The course of action in terms of treatment can be quite different for both cases, which is why this subject has been a staple part of the argument for months now.

In his final public appearance of the season on March 21, Leonard was asked about the severity of his injury:

"I mean, why else would I not be playing?” Leonard said. "People are just looking for spin. 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."

This difference of opinion has apparently caused an immense lack of trust between the two parties. In an ESPN article written by Ramona Shelburne and Michael C. Wright, several people close to Leonard are under the impression that the Spurs are being closed-minded about the appropriate steps to handle Leonard's recovery. This train of thought seems to be the result of the Spurs' apparent dismissive attitude towards seeking medical input from outside sources.

"The Spurs feel that they hire the best, that they do it better than anyone else,” one source close to Leonard said. “They deserve to have that reputation and that kind of ego. But they're just not very open-minded. They don't like others messing with their players.”

Along with dissenting contention debate concerning Leonard's rehabilitation process, a few people in the superstar's "group" believe that the Spurs have been estranging him throughout this entire ordeal—both publicly and privately.

"They're alienating him,” another Leonard acquaintance said. “They’re making him look bad. You have this seamless transition from the Duncan era to the new era, this homegrown superstar. Like, why would you alienate him?”

Possible Solutions

When Tim Duncan retired in 2016 after 19 years in the league, many in San Antonio saw Kawhi Leonard as Duncan’s successor for being the face of the Spurs organization. He would be the bridge that linked the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili era to the new, modernized age of basketball in the Alamo City for years to come. Leonard would be the one who would continue what Duncan started by regularly winning divisional, conference and NBA titles. Instead of rebuilding the brand, the Spurs would simply be reloading it.

Maybe it was just wishful thinking? Maybe it was just too good to be true?

One thing is for certain though. If the San Antonio Spurs and Leonard’s “group” do not settle their differences by this summer, when Leonard is eligible for a super maximum extension for $219 million, the Spurs will either have to trade him to a different team for hopes of acquiring something, or risk losing him during the following summer's free agency period for absolutely nothing.  

The choice is ultimately up to the Spurs organization, and Kawhi Leonard as well.

The future landscape of the NBA lies in their hands.