The Spurs’ appearance in this year’s playoffs was a badge of honor considering the tumult they went through this regular season. But extending their postseason streak to 21 straight trips did little to improve their prospects once they got there. San Antonio pushed its first-round series against the Warriors to a fifth game thanks to a throwback performance by Manu Ginobili, but the reigning champs ultimately proved too much and eliminated the Spurs with a 99-91 victory on Tuesday.
Playing a series without Kawhi Leonard shined a light on the lack of top-tier talent on this Spurs roster and how difficult it is, no matter how well-coached San Antonio may be, to compete with a team like the Warriors as a result. But making a go of it without Leonard could be something the Spurs have to get used to. The perennial MVP candidate played just nine games this season and never joined the team on the bench this postseason. Will the Spurs part ways with Leonard this summer? For the first time in years, San Antonio could be in upheaval.
Will Kawhi Ever Play for the Spurs Again?
It began with a video in October of Kawhi struggling to walk up a flight of stairs. Soon, Leonard’s right quad injury became a full-blown soap opera. He never looked quite right, even when he returned to action from mid-December to mid-January, and stories began leaking out about tension between his camp and the team. At one point in early March, Kawhi was expected to be back for a game against the Pelicans, then he wasn’t. Then he was in San Antonio, ready to return, but then went back in New York to rehab. It reportedly caused a “chilling effect” between the parties that both denied. Finally, on April 15, it was reported that he would miss the playoffs.
This is uncharted territory for a franchise renowned for its culture and consistency. And at least publicly, the situation has gotten so bad that it seems fair to wonder whether it can be fixed at all. Kawhi has one year remaining on his deal before he can exercise a player option, but this summer, he’s eligible for a five-year deal worth more than $200 million. Maybe the sides will smooth things over, like Pop did with LaMarcus Aldridge, and iron out a new deal. But considering the saga that unfolded this season, Leonard could find himself on the trade market in the very near future.
Should the Spurs Blow It Up or Double Down?
There isn’t really an upside to losing one of the league’s best players, but bear with me: If Kawhi does leave, it gives the Spurs a chance to reset and pick their path. His ability to opt out next summer and his recent injury linger over any potential deal, but Kawhi’s value around the league should still be pretty high.
What should San Antonio be looking for in return? The Spurs could choose to double down on an older core of a 32-year-old Aldridge, Pau Gasol (under contract for two more seasons), and Rudy Gay (player option for next season) alongside young guns Dejounte Murray and Kyle Anderson (a restricted free agent) and veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili (should they choose to continue playing). Klay Thompson, for instance, could fill Leonard’s spot as a two-way force, though the Warriors would be hard pressed to make that move unless they flame out in the playoffs.
There’s also a case to be made that youth should be a priority. For example, the Spurs could get the Lakers to cough up a few young assets to let Kawhi return to play in his hometown. Los Angeles could send Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball (and other salaries to match) into San Antonio’s development systems in return for Leonard. USA Today reported earlier this month that the Clippers will prepare a package to go after Kawhi, though it’s unclear what they’d be willing to put together that would entice San Antonio besides their two lottery picks this season. And any trade discussions around the league these days likely go through Danny Ainge and his treasure trove of young players and picks. The Celtics, with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, a 2019 Kings first-round pick, and a future Grizzlies first-round pick, could assemble the juiciest package for Kawhi. The question is, will they?
What Happens to Popovich and His Coaching Tree?
Assistant Ettore Messina coached the Spurs’ final three games of the postseason after Popovich stepped away from the team following his wife’s death. But Messina and just about every other member of the Spurs’ coaching staff had already drawn interest from other teams. Messina has a head-coach interview lined up with the Charlotte Hornets, per ESPN, and he could gather more interest as the offseason progresses. Ime Udoka will also interview for the Hornets job. James Borrego is set to interview with the Knicks and had an interview with the Suns. Becky Hammon could also draw interest this year, if not next.
An assistant coaching purge, as well as the Kawhi saga’s impending conclusion and the possible retirements of Parker and Ginobili, could force Pop to reevaluate his future. Popovich, at 69 years old, is still able to make competent basketball teams out of thin air, but taking over USA Basketball from Coach K provides a window in which a retirement from the NBA would make a certain sense. It’s a reality that seems more likely now than ever before.