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The Kawhi Leonard Saga Is the New NBA Reality

No matter how the Kawhisis plays out, we know one thing: If the Spurs can lose control of their franchise player, no team is safe. Superstars have more power than ever, and they are going to keep flexing it—with shorter contracts, trade demands, and alliances with other players—to create the reality they want.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

If this is indeed the end of the Spurs as we know them—and what is Gregg Popovich jetting off days before the draft to hash out hurt feelings over California burritos if not a sign of the reckoning—they can always say they had last summer.

Around this time last year, the Spurs had seemingly executed one of the few seamless succession plans in recent NBA history, and even flirted with taking it one step further to becoming a hawk on the big stage of superstar movement. In its first season in two decades without Tim Duncan, San Antonio kept pace with the Kevin Durant–infused Warriors, finishing as the only other team with more than 60 wins for the second straight year. It ran MVP runner-up James Harden into the ground in Round 2 of the playoffs, then took a 25-point lead in Game 1 against the eventual champs before Zaza Pachulia’s, um, aggressiveness swept the rug out from under them.

The 2016-17 season was the kind of campaign that earned San Antonio the reputation of the league’s model franchise, right down to the player who once paid his own way into a D-League tryout graduating with honors from Spurs University. When Kyrie Irving wanted out from under Dan Gilbert’s big top months later, the Spurs were one of the four teams to make his reported wish list.

San Antonio, which shares its home arena with many a critter of the night, has never quite fit as a superstar destination, but recent history provides evidence to the contrary. Two years before Irving showed interest, the Spurs went toe-to-toe with Los Angeles and New York to win the LaMarcus Aldridge sweepstakes. At a time when Greg Monroe also spurned more metropolitan cities for Milwaukee and Durant sold shoes while playing in one of the only NBA markets smaller than San Antonio, Aldridge’s signing was hailed as a victory for institutional stability in a league largely dictated by big-market exceptionalism. On a much smaller scale, the team also lured Pau Gasol to the Southwest two years after he passed on Oklahoma City.

But as the Spurs chased the Kyrie carrot late last offseason, they quietly managed one of their own stars’ summer of discontent. Aldridge’s restlessness with the franchise—and its fans’ with him—was public record by the time San Antonio was swept out of last year’s conference finals. The extent of his unrest, however, wasn’t known until months later. Aldridge had outright demanded to be traded, Gregg Popovich told reporters in January, forcing the longest-tenured coach in the NBA to reconsider his approach.

“I said, ‘Whoa, nobody’s ever said that to me before,’” Popovich said. “It’s my 20-whatever year, and nobody’s ever said that, like, ‘I’m not enjoying this. I’m not confident. I’m not sure you want me here. I want to be traded.’”

Pop’s self-reflection in response wound up becoming just another example of the franchise’s renowned culture in action. Indeed, the difference in crisis management between the Cavs and Spurs couldn’t have been more stark: Gilbert shipped Irving out to Boston in exchange for a draft pick to hedge his bet against LeBron James following him out of the door next summer, while Aldridge stayed put and earned a contract extension and an All-Star appearance.

But nearly a year later, the Aldridge Affair feels like a canary in the coal mine. As tensions thawed between the organization and Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, a top-three finisher in MVP voting the previous two seasons, was slow-boiling. Leonard and his inner circle proceeded to drag San Antonio like never before over the course of the 2017-18 season, introducing it to all of the glamorous parts of life with a modern superstar that it missed out on while team-building at the paintball field. It’s foolish to assume that the Spurs’ palace intrigue has amounted to nothing more than disagreements over proper wine pairings for more than two decades. Duncan’s dalliance with Orlando would have elicited around-the-clock coverage if it had happened a decade later (The Duncision!), and Tony Parker, despite his recent critiques of Kawhi, is hardly an expert in teammate relations. But the league’s standard-bearer being reduced to in-fighting via Shams tweets has been jarring, to say the least. It’s like spotting Meryl Streep at a Carl’s Jr.

The medical component of the Kawhisis cannot be understated. While recent reports speak to feelings of “betrayal” stemming from comments made by Parker and Pop to the media, the disagreement, at its core, is over proper care. Viewed from Leonard’s perspective, his frustrations take a more sympathetic bent: A mishandling of his troublesome right-quad tendinopathy, however well-intentioned the Spurs’ highly regarded staff may have been, could have threatened his livelihood. But it’s similarly hard to impugn the entire Spurs organization. The talent, and hair, on the roster may have thinned since San Antonio tied for the seventh-most regular-season wins in history (67) two years ago, but winning 47 games, largely without its franchise player, is a testament to the infrastructure, not cause for condemnation. Let’s see how the Cavs do with Kevin Love as a first option next season.

No, as much as the Kawhi situation is an outlier in San Antonio’s dynastic run, the broad strokes are unfortunately predictable in the post-Decision era. A superstar nearing the end of his second contract wants to be traded to Los Angeles. You can find-and-replace in virtually every prominent NBA player over the past decade and the statement would still read true. It’s was Chris Paul’s story in 2011 and Paul George’s story last year. Swap New York for Los Angeles and it’s Carmelo Anthony’s story. Change it to Brooklyn and it’s Dwight Howard’s (before a choice candy selection changed his mind).

Among the 18 players selected for the 2018 All-Star Game who were playing in at least their seventh season—i.e., long enough to sign a third contract or hit pre-agency—12 are now playing (or, have played, in the case of LeBron, the oldest player in the game) for teams other than the one that originally drafted them. Four of the eight acquired via trade changed teams within a year of the previous All-Star Game (including DeMarcus Cousins, who was traded during it).

The Sevens Second or Less–level pace to last offseason’s transaction wire may end up an extreme, but the current signs point to more player movement overall, not less. Regardless of where George ends up, The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported Tuesday that he’s expected to “strongly consider” the type of contract (one year plus an option for a second) that has led to LeBron being a constant flight risk. The cap crunch brought about by the excess of the summer of 2016 could make for a more robust trade market this offseason. And down the road, enterprising young stars could push for trades before the end of their first deal, instead of their second, to retain supermax eligibility.

But more than anything, teaming up is a survival instinct in response to league environs, in the same way the elite center prospects in this year’s draft are all shooting 3s. To be a contender in the Warriors’ NBA, you need help. And the path LeBron is forging has allowed players to wait less than ever to get what they want. “I think as a free agent to do what [LeBron] did is incredible in terms of player empowerment,” Irving said on a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast. “And then now you look at where players are now, realizing their own value within the organization and what they bring to other teams, and now they’re controlling it as best you can. Not being disrespectful to the team, but now we’re just open and honest about how we feel about our life outside of basketball. … And now you see it, like, ‘No, I don’t want to be in this situation anymore. I actually want to be somewhere else, and I’m going to communicate that with you, and I know my value, and I know that if this is going to work, I have to part ways.’”

A savvy franchise can still make the most of its star leaving; the Pacers somehow wound up with a better, younger, cheaper All-Star in exchange for George last summer. But in an age when the players have more power than ever, even the most successful franchise in the league can’t be confident in the best-laid plans.