Kawhi Leonard was once a template Spur. He fit the Popovich mold: The forward was pulled from an obscure college conference, grown in the San Antonio system, and, most notably, he was quiet. No negative headlines. No attitude. No temper.
Chances are that Leonard’s personality hasn’t done a 180, but more reports of conflict between Kawhi’s camp and other entities have come out in the last few months than in Leonard’s prior seven seasons with San Antonio. Six weeks ago reports surfaced that a rift had developed between the Spurs and their franchise player. And now Leonard has reportedly hit a snag in contract talks with his sponsor, Jordan Brand.
This is all a deviation from the Kawhi we assumed we knew, the Kawhi that was constantly content, the Kawhi that was always on smile watch. So what’s been going on behind the scenes to rattle our favorite stoic star? Here’s a quick Kawhi-cap:
First of all, what’s going on with Jordan Brand?
Per ESPN, Leonard’s representatives told Jordan Brand that they wanted an endorsement deal better than the four-year, $20 million-plus offer that they had come “very close” to signing.
Fair enough. Leonard finished third in MVP voting last season, has a Finals MVP under his belt (don’t get any ideas, Andre Iguodala), is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, and has made the All-NBA first team twice. James Harden, another member of last season’s first team, recently signed a lucrative $200 million, 13-year deal with Adidas that assures long-term security.
Players have infamously taken less to be sponsored by Jordan Brand, but even Russell Westbrook signed his last deal for 10 years. Kawhi is in the midst of yet another injury and is reportedly beefing with the team about being pressured to return early. If Leonard is worried about his long-term health, it makes sense that he would want to fight for good value now.
So, what caused the rift between Kawhi and the Spurs?
Rumors first surfaced January 22 from an ESPN report that described Leonard and his camp as “distant” and “disconnected” from the organization as a whole.
Leonard has played only nine games this season, and in that handful of performances, he was, understandably, not his MVP-caliber self.
During his rehabilitation, the forward reiterated multiple times that he was not “comfortable with his ability to play through the injury,” according to ESPN, though the organization “shut him down” and pressed for him to get back on the court.
Jalen Rose wondered in a First Take appearance whether, on top of being pressured for a return, Leonard was misdiagnosed by the team’s medical staff. The theory isn’t baseless: In January, Leonard sought a second opinion for the quadriceps tendinopathy. For an already injury-prone player who is two summers away from becoming a free agent and is coming off the best season of his career, getting a diagnosis wrong is playing with his money. (Ask Jordan Brand; Kawhi is not down with that.)
What do Leonard and Popovich have to say about this?
OK, well, you already knew that Kawhi had nothing to say. Pop, meanwhile, called the idea of his star player being unhappy “silly.”
What are the chances that Leonard will play again this season?
Unclear. Leonard was medically cleared in late February, which was fabulous news for a team holding onto the third seed in the Western Conference. Then sources told ESPN that Leonard was choosing to stay out for the rest of the season.
For someone who has dealt with various injuries in the past, this isn’t all that bizarre. Why risk coming back prematurely? But the timeline was reportedly the cause of problems between Kawhi and the organization. “We only have X number of games left in the season,” Popovich said at the time. “He’s still not ready to go. [...] I’ll be surprised if he gets back this year.”
Then, seven days later, Leonard was back in the practice facility with the goal of returning in late March. Map that out like you’re looking into Pepe Silvia all you want, but none of this adds up. Is the return to practice a white flag from Leonard? Did his six-month-long injury heal in the matter of a week?
Could this escalate?
Pop and Kawhi have been one of the great love stories of this generation. But Leonard’s 2019 free agency at least creates the possibility that he could look elsewhere.
“I hate to say this,” Rose said in late January on that ominous First Take appearance. “Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio, is what I’m hearing.”