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The State of the Kawhi Leonard–Spurs Saga, and Where the Two Sides Go From Here

Joe House joins ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast’ to examine the ongoing rift between San Antonio and its star

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The Kawhi Leonard saga began before the 2017–18 NBA season even started. He was held out of the Spurs’ preseason with an unspecified left quad injury, then was ruled out of the team’s home opener in mid-October. Leonard went on to miss San Antonio’s first 27 games before finally suiting up in December and playing in nine of the next 17. But in mid-January he was ruled out again, and he hasn’t played since. There’s been plenty of uncharacteristic drama along the way, from cloaked statements to disagreements between medical staffs, and on Wednesday’s episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, Bill and Joe House broke down the current state of the Leonard-Spurs relationship and assessed where the two sides can go from here.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Bill Simmons: OK, Kawhi Leonard. A couple of things have jumped out at me over the past two months, other than how bizarre this situation is: One is that he’s not even going to the playoff games, which tells me that he’s done with the team. I’ve looked at it every way, I’ve tried to give the whole situation the benefit of the doubt — I cannot for the life of me understand why he’s not at these games. It seems like there’s been an irrevocable breach between him, the coach, and the teammates — unless he’s trapped under something. He might be trapped under something and we don’t know. We haven’t heard from him. He might be — what was that James Franco movie, [127] Hours?

Joe House: Oh, he had to cut off his leg?

Simmons: No, he might’ve been hiking and he might’ve just gotten an appendage trapped in a rock and we can’t get to him. If that’s the case, I apologize. If not, I can’t believe he’s not at these games. How hard is it to hop on a plane and fly to San Francisco? And if you’re doing rehab, you can do rehab in San Francisco. What’s your read just on that part?

House: What if he’s at a crucial stage in this rehab and everybody’s in agreement that he’s much better served going through a proper rehabilitation protocol and not interrupting it with, you know, going to the arena and sitting on a bench for three hours? … Sitting there, getting up and getting down — that that time is much better spent in a consistent rehabilitation kind of protocol where there’s scheduled rest, scheduled treatment, scheduled rehab, and you just want to [follow] that to its logical course. Is that possible?

Simmons: You don’t really believe that, do you?

House: I have no idea. This whole thing is utterly unfathomable to me. I don’t understand the injury. We had this conversation in October. I was sitting in your office in Los Angeles, California. I didn’t understand the injury back then, but we knew enough at that moment to be skeptical about his ability to return, and as a result we didn’t like San Antonio’s fortunes very much this season. In fact, they hit the under on season win totals.

Simmons: Finally.

House: Yeah, but we’re in the same spot now! What is the injury?

Simmons: I can’t imagine what rehab he’s doing that can only be done in New York City. What do they have, some special UFO machine that Elon Musk created for them? It can’t transfer anywhere else? Get the hell outta here!

House: Kobe went to Germany for his treatment.

Simmons: That’s different. If you told me [Kawhi] was in Germany, I would understand it more, but New York? …

The second thing with Kawhi that I don’t understand: Everyone is so afraid of [Gregg] Popovich now. … In these press conferences, everybody is so scared to provoke him. Where is the reporter who just says, “Hey, Pop, no offense, man, but this is weird. You have to admit this is really weird that your best player won’t even go to your playoff games.” I just want to hear one person ask him this question at a postgame press conference: Can you tell us one sign from the last two months, just one, any sign, any story, anything, that indicates that Kawhi Leonard wants to be on the Spurs next year? Just tell us one story.

House: Kawhi said so!

Simmons: What?

House: That he would re-sign! That he wants to be a Spur for life. …

Simmons: I’ve heard some weird — you know the NBA scuttlebutt machine, which I love to dip into.

House: It’s your favorite.

Simmons: I’ve heard some strange tidbits about Mr. Leonard, about the people around him. Here’s my take, knowing nothing other than just little tidbits I’ve been able to gather from different sources and people who seem to know things. It seems like the people around him, however many people that they are, have started to convince him over the last year that he’s not big enough and famous enough for how talented he is. And I thought when he turned down that Jordan Brand deal for $20 million — which is really low compared to what these other guys get — that confirmed some of the stuff I was hearing, which was basically, like, “You’re not big enough, man. Why’s everybody else getting stuff and you aren’t?” and just all that stuff. And you start hearing about it for a year and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m not big enough, man, I should be bigger, you’re right,” and you get in that mind-set.

And combined with [the fact] that he has a real injury and the most underrated part of this whole thing — which is the third point I was gonna bring up: the Isaiah Thomas situation last year, which I think was a watershed moment for any superstar that has a contract coming up and an injury. I think, for the future, we’re gonna see guys change how they behave. I don’t blame Kawhi one iota for not coming back after what happened to Isaiah. Isaiah cost himself $100 million. Just flat out, that’s not even an exaggeration, he cost himself $100 million by continuing to play when he was hurt last year, and I think it’s going to completely change how these guys “play through pain” and “look out for their teammates” and “they were a warrior.” I just don’t see that happening anymore after the Isaiah thing. What do you think?

House: Well, let me ask — I do wanna run the Isaiah Thomas theory to ground because I’m very interested in it and I, too, have a lot of sympathy for his situation. I think the Celtics effed him, but what if Isaiah didn’t play and had undertaken the surgery earlier, like, say, in the spring and didn’t play in the playoffs. Wouldn’t he still have been a trade chip in that Kyrie trade?

Simmons: Yeah, he would’ve been.

House: Because that was really the thing that cost him the money. Getting traded is the thing that cost him the money.

Simmons: I think he would’ve been a trade chip, but I also think he would’ve been a more attractive trade chip than a guy who is rehabbing a hip over getting the surgery he needed for it. … It’s really no different than the situation Kyrie was in recently when [he] didn’t 100 percent have to have those staples or the screws in his knee. He could’ve played through pain through the spring and then taken them out, but after what happened to Isaiah, they’re not doing that. That guy is the best asset they have; they’re not messing around with that. I think it’s a shame what happened to Isaiah, and I do think there’s a chance the injury was badly misdiagnosed, and he was trying to be an old-school warrior, and, obviously, Kawhi doesn’t want to jeopardize what he has coming. I don’t blame him for that. [But] I think it’s inexplicable that he’s not with the team. I just don’t get it.

House: Well, you have to countenance the possibility that the franchise and his [personal] medical team have some kind of unholy alliance where they have agreed to disagree about the proper path, but they both have the same mutual interest in the outcome, which is a healthy Kawhi. And the Spurs still have the capacity to sign him to that super mega-deal that nobody else has, so the Spurs still have the upper hand. And the right thing to do, I think, is for everybody just to be patient. Let him come back, let him get healthy, all this relationship stuff can get repaired — the most important thing is for his leg to be right and for his head to be right, and for him to step right back in and pick up where he left off from last year’s playoffs.

Simmons: How scared would you be if your team traded for Kawhi? Like, this summer, if the [Wizards] traded Bradley Beal straight up for a year of Kawhi — he’s unsigned, you have no guarantee he’s gonna re-sign with you. Would you be upset? Happy? Confused? What would your reaction be?

House: I’d be thrilled! He’s unbelievable, he’s an outrageous talent, he’s worth the gamble. This is the thing that we kind of went through — different circumstances, but the Wizards had an opportunity, if you believe the reports, to take on James Harden, and they chose to keep the very young Brad Beal way back when. Kawhi is in that class of player — he is one of five or six or seven or eight players in the league that can dramatically change the trajectory of your franchise, so he’s definitely worth the gamble.

Simmons: I think I agree. I guess, for me, it would depend on the franchise. I feel like if the Wizards did it that he would just stay hurt and it would never work out just because of the Bullets-Wizards karma. …

I think the Spurs are in a massive amount of trouble, because I’m just not convinced that if they decide that it does make sense to trade Kawhi that they’re going to get market value for him.

House: They can’t possibly get market value for him — you’re not getting back a top-six player! …

Simmons: The Clippers, their hat was in the ring for Kawhi — what’s really interesting is the two L.A. teams are very logical suitors for him, and I hesitate to mention this, but I think Philadelphia. I did a Kawhi Twitter trade poll and I didn’t put Philadelphia in there, and people were like, “You missed a team.” Because they might have, like, the sixth or seventh pick in the draft and they have cap space and there are packages they could put together that could trump everybody else if they wanted to. … But the Lakers have cap space and young guys, the Clippers could potentially put the Tobias Harris contract, they could put the 12 and 13 picks in this year’s lottery, a future [first-rounder] and they could give them Patrick Beverley and take back Patty Mills’s contract. I personally would rather keep Kawhi unless I just felt like he was leaving in a year and there was no way around it, but I don’t know, we’ll see.