Kawhi Leonard’s dramatic summer saga with the San Antonio Spurs ended with his former squad shipping him to the Toronto Raptors for All-Star DeMar DeRozan, and many assumed there would be minimal aftershocks at least until the two teams squared off against each other in San Antonio on Jan. 3.
Over the weekend, we were all proven wrong.
Prior to the San Antonio Spurs’ 135-129 road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday evening, head coach Gregg Popovich was asked about the importance of guard Patty Mills’ leadership, as Mills is now the longest-tenured Spurs player with Manu Ginobili retired and Leonard in Toronto.
Popovich didn’t hold back in his evaluation of Leonard’s leadership abilities, stating that the team never looked at Leonard as the head honcho of the Spurs over the past couple of seasons, instead leaning on Ginobili and Mills for direction on and off the court.
“Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader or anything. Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn’t his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus [Aldridge] came a long way in that regard also.”
Popovich’s candidness on Leonard’s status as a leader shouldn’t be surprising, as he’s one of the most forthright figures in sports.
Leonard himself didn’t even seem taken aback by Popovich’s barb, stating that the comments were “funny to him,” after completing a 29-point, 10-rebound performance in a 125-115 win over the Miami Heat.
“I heard about it. It’s just funny to me because, you know, I don’t know if he’s talking about last year or not, but I guess when you stop playing they forget how you lead. Other than that, it doesn’t matter. I’m here with the Raptors. My focus is on the season and not what’s going on the other side. I lead by example coming into practice every day. Just going hard and coming into these games mentally focused.”
This is a stark contrast from the tone Popovich took over the summer when Leonard’s reliability as a teammate was brought into question.
“Kawhi was a great teammate the whole way through. He did his work, and he was no problem for anybody. Talking heads out there have to have a story. If I was a talking head — maybe I am — I would have stories, too. All the stories that denigrated him in that regard, that was unfortunate and inaccurate.”
For the majority of last season, Leonard and the Spurs found themselves at a bizarre standstill, as the 2014 NBA Finals MVP only appeared in nine games for San Antonio due to a quad injury, and questions about his desire to play and remain a Spur were raised.
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) November 26, 2018
Leonard and his camp ventured to and remained in New York for intense rehabilitation sessions on his injured quad, and it was revealed that the agreement for Leonard to journey to the East Coast for rehab was made amicably and not an indication that he had gone rogue from San Antonio.
Leadership takes varied shapes and forms, and Leonard even cited one in his quote above: leading by setting a certain precedent. We all know Leonard prefers to remain mum about most of his dealings. He’s not always going to be the most vocal guy, and that’s okay. There is plenty of his type around the NBA.
Great leadership has always been something that has powered the San Antonio Spurs in their success’ over the years. If they weren’t going to get it from Leonard in the vocal capacity, they were going to get it from someone else. That’s just how the dice rolls with that franchise.
If you want to maximize your ability as a leader, you obviously want to be outspoken and challenge teammates when needed, but the Spurs had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Ginobili and others for that. Leonard was always going to take a backseat to them in terms of leadership.
As for last season, Leonard, for whatever reason, wasn’t around to play or lead.
All this does now is set a grander stage for Leonard’s return to San Antonio on Jan. 3. One has to wonder if we’ll see more jabs thrown in the time leading up until then. Something tells me this chapter is still being written.
For Leonard, it’s all about continuing on the path he and Toronto are on. The Raptors currently hold the best record in the NBA at 17-4, and the transition has been seamless for Leonard, who is playing like an MVP candidate, averaging 24.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and three assists per game.