NBA Rumor: Spurs-Leonard Rift?

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Superstar forward Kawhi Leonard had not played in nearly two months as he rehabbed a right leg injury that had reduced his season to a series of false starts and dashed hope. His teammates wanted to know if or when they could count on him to join their playoff push. Veteran point guard Tony Parker, leader of the players-only meeting, would later characterize what happened next as “private stuff, locker room stuff.” What is clear enough, looking back, is this: The moment the door to the Spurs’ dressing room opened again, nothing would be the same in San Antonio. Maybe the Spurs didn’t know it yet, but Leonard was as good as gone.

The first cracks in the low-maintenance veneer came in 2016, when Leonard made his first All-Star game — in Toronto of all places. Leonard and his traveling companions noticed other All-Stars — notably Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook — were using private luxury cars to get around, instead of the standard transportation provided by the NBA. They wanted the star treatment, too. Leonard’s trip to China in August of 2017 seemed to spark another change in him. Everywhere he went on the NBA ambassador junket, Leonard was mobbed by fans wearing his jersey and other Spurs gear.

Asked about the trouble Leonard had experienced getting back on the court, Parker expressed sympathy, noting the ruptured quadriceps tendon he himself had suffered in the playoffs the season before and the difficulty of his own rehab. “I’ve been through it,” said Parker, who has signed to play in Charlotte next season. “It was a rehab for me for eight months. Same kind of injury, but mine was 100 times worse. You just stay positive.” Parker’s quote was mostly innocuous, except for three words. Leonard’s representatives took issue with the phrase “100 times worse.” They were furious, believing the Spurs point guard was questioning Leonard’s commitment to returning.

The Spurs exacerbated the problems — Tony Parker‘s comments about his injury being 100 times worse set things way back — but it’s not like Leonard and his advisors (particularly his uncle the manager) acted like adults through this. Look at these comments from ESPN’s Michael C. Wright on the must-listen “Back To Back” podcast: “There was a point during [Kawhi’s] rehab process in New York that some of the Spurs brass went out to see him in New York,” Wright said. “As soon as those guys arrived to the building, Kawhi’s people grabbed him and sequestered him to another part of the building. And so the Spurs’ people couldn’t even see him.”

The relationship between the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard has evolved over the past year from distrust to dysfunctional, with both sides playing their part to make it worse. It’s not quite “War of the Roses” bad, but this relationship is beyond repair now. The Spurs exacerbated the problems — Tony Parker‘s comments about his injury being 100 times worse set things way back — but it’s not like Leonard and his advisors (particularly his uncle the manager) acted like adults through this.

For Patty Mills, Leonard’s low-key yet extremely productive Australian teammate, there are still a lot of questions surrounding the superstar wing’s sudden rift with the franchise, and the reminder of how quickly things can shift in the volatile NBA. “Getting to this point now, you look back; I don’t know what we could’ve done better,” Mills told foxsports.com.au, of Leonard’s situation. “Don’t know what we could’ve done to help the situation, if it would’ve helped at all. This is basketball and, at the end of the day, it’s a reminder that it is a business, and a lot of money is involved with it.”

Peter Vecsey: Now what? “Emotionally, Kawhi has checked out of the Spurs. He wants the Lakers, even though it means forfeiting $80 million. Everyone is shocked he’d give up that much money. But when it’s emotional, there’s no logic,” said the source. “He’s an artist. When artists know they’re getting jerked, they want out no matter what the cost. He feels the organization didn’t even try to wrap its arms around him. You don’t know anyone until you go through something difficult. Kawhi got to see people’s true colors.

Peter Vecsey: Despite the fact Kawhi feels like the organization treated him like he cheated, despite all of the above, inexplicably, according to the source, he likes Pop. Does that mean the relationship can be rekindled? “If Pop admits to fucking things up, concedes mistakes were made, there’s a chance that could happen,” the source says. “It’d be an intensely emotional conversation. Kawhi doesn’t give a fuck about the money he’ll lose. He feels he can do what he wants. He has stability and stature now. He’s found his voice. If he doesn’t like you, and doesn’t like the way he’s being treated, he’ll find a team that’ll treat him with respect.

Peter Vecsey: In a cell conversation yesterday with Kawhi’s fringe friend (see above car quote), my first words were ones I’ve often promoted: “You know, I’m only as good as my source. What can you tell me?” Enough so that I’m thoroughly disinclined to believe Kawhi and Pop can’t patch things up, predominantly because their relationship isn’t in need of a large patch. From what I’m told, they’ve never exchanged harsh words or gone off on each other. A single problem existed last season that would not go away: Kawhi’s caregivers and doctors felt his repaired quad wasn’t entirely healthy when he returned 28 games into the season. After nine, some very effective, minute-monitored games, they insisted he return to rehab.

Peter Vecsey: But there is a reason they’re called ‘team’ doctors, and not players’ doctors … they’re paid by the team. “The media made it seem as if the Spurs and Kawhi’s people weren’t communicating. Like they didn’t know where he was and how things were going,” my source said. “They were in constant touch. I think Pop made Mitch wear a helmet cam. “The Spurs had their opinion regarding what should be done. Kawhi’s people disagreed. I don’t see any reason why both sides can’t move forward together.”
4 years ago via ESPN

Sooner than later, there will be a meeting set with Gregg Popovich and Leonard. It’s still in the planning stages. They have been in contact, but there will be a conversation — or, perhaps, a series of them — about whether a lasting trust and partnership can be rebuilt. They’ll have to talk about medical care and treatment. They’ll have to talk about Leonard’s relationship with the coaching staff and his teammates, which is strained. They’ll have to talk about the franchise’s willingness to deliver the five-year, $219 million contract extension Leonard is eligible to receive, because the Spurs will need to be convinced that a historic contract is met with historic commitment.

Leonard played in just nine regular season games in 2017-18 despite receiving clearance from the Spurs’ medical staff to return from a quadriceps ailment. His decision to continue rehabbing away from the club under the supervision of his own medical team created a rift between him and the Spurs, as well as many of their fans. “It’s a bit of a dark cloud,” [Spurs advertising executive] Aguilar said of the saga, which ranks among the strangest in club history.

Leonard wasn’t with the team or even on the bench during the Spurs’ 4-1 first-round loss to the Warriors. A league source told B/R that Leonard had planned to rejoin the team as a spectator, but the death of Popovich’s wife, Erin, kept the Spurs coach away from the team and in mourning. The devastating news caused Leonard to reevaluate his plans. Still, multiple league sources advised not to underestimate Popovich’s ability to repair the team’s relationship with Leonard.

It’s commonly heard on the front office grapevine that Leonard is eyeing the Lakers as a free agent in 2019. One of the Western Conference executives noted it’s no accident that the Lakers reportedly have shifted their free-agent plans to focus on the ’19 class (which Leonard may headline), according to Shelburne and ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski, as opposed to a quick fix this summer. “That’s why [the Lakers] are spinning it into ‘wait till next year,'” the executive said. “They know they can get Kawhi.”

Rudy Gay: With that situation, it’s tough being injured. I know it was tough for him. It’s tough when you’re sitting out and knowing what you can do and not being able to contribute. I’ve done it! I’ve been there and had to sit out. Not being able to play basketball is hard. This is all we know. Being healthy is rare in this business. That’s why I’m taking this summer to get myself 100 percent healthy and become the best player I can be. I guess our timing was off, you know?
4 years ago via ESPN

Ramona Shelburne: “I think Pop has a general sense of, ‘My relationship with Kawhi seems to be strong,’ and all that, but as far as specific details, I think that’s where we get into—remember there was a little head fake when [Kawhi] was supposed to come back in March, [multiple people, including Adrian Wojnarowski] reported it and then it was, ‘Nope, he’s not ready yet.’ I remember calling at the time and there was still optimism he’d come back a little later in March but that never happened.”
4 years ago via ESPN

Zach Lowe: “Do you think the Spurs believe [if they were still alive in the playoffs] that Kawhi Leonard [could/should] be playing now?” Ramona Shelburne: “I think [the Spurs] think he can play. I don’t know if they think he should play. Because… they’ll seem him right now in three-on-three and he looks fine. You watch him go hard and he looks fine. But if you make him do certain tests, or isolate the right quad muscle, he still doesn’t have—that test is not quite there yet. And then he’ll still report pain in that area.”
4 years ago via ESPN

Leonard had a wrist injury that wasn’t healing as anticipated and his representatives, Frankel and Brian Elfus, asked for a second opinion. After mild resistance, the Spurs agreed and Leonard was seen by a specialist that his representatives were comfortable with. Leonard eventually returned to the Spurs after missing 15 games and there were no issues moving forward. Spurs sources point to Elfus’ departure in 2016 as a turning point in the relationship. He had maintained a strong relationship with the Spurs front office and coaching staff and generally managed the relationship without incident. Frankel and Robertson were involved throughout Leonard’s tenure in San Antonio as well, mostly during negotiations on the $90 million extension Leonard agreed to in 2015.
4 years ago via ESPN

Leonard’s camp believes his condition is the result of a series of contusions to the quadriceps that began with one very deep bruise in March 2016 that caused him to miss three games. Leonard was again listed with a “quad contusion” on the Feb. 6, 2017, injury report, when he was a late scratch before a game. But it wasn’t until the end of last season when the severity of the injury became apparent. According to multiple sources, Leonard’s camp has come to believe the issue has more to do with an ossification or hardening in the area where the muscle has been repeatedly bruised and then an atrophying, which in turn affected the tendons connecting the muscle to the kne
4 years ago via ESPN

Initially the Spurs’ doctors were calling the shots, with Leonard following their protocols for most of last summer in his workouts in San Antonio with team staffers and San Diego with his longtime personal trainer. But things began to change in August as Leonard continued to experience discomfort, according to sources. His agent, Mitch Frankel, and uncle, Dennis Robertson, began pressing the Spurs to consult outside opinions. Last fall, Dr. Keith Pyne, the managing partner of SportsLab NYC, who is affiliated with the Washington Nationals and New York Islanders, began consulting on the case.
4 years ago via ESPN

Said one source close to Leonard, “The Spurs feel that they hire the best, that they do it better than anyone else. They deserve to have that reputation and that kind of ego. But they’re just not very open-minded. They don’t like others messing with their players.” Said another Leonard confidant, “They’re alienating him. They’re making him look bad. You have this seamless transition from the Duncan era to the new era, this homegrown superstar. Like why would you alienate him?”

Yet when it comes to understanding these Spurs, there’s a six-degrees-of-Kawhi component that won’t go away until his situation is resolved. The Spurs can offer him a five-year, $215 million extension this July, but there is increasing hope around the league they might trade him instead. His absence is only mysterious because of the breakdown in communication between the sides, with the Spurs having cleared Leonard to return only to see him stay away because his outside medical group — “his group,” as Popovich has repeatedly called them — has advised otherwise. Along the way, there’s an inevitable ripple effect on his teammates — on and off the floor.

“It’s tough,” Aldridge said of the circumstances of this season. “We’re depending on guys who really aren’t offensive guys, and I think that showed tonight. We have guys who really don’t score, and teams are exposing that and trying to make those guys score. … But every guy in the locker room has grinded, and tried to get better, and you’ve got to consider that.” The ones who were there, anyway. When asked about his view on the Leonard situation, Aldridge made it clear that’s a topic he won’t touch. “I have no comment,” he said as he walked away. “He has to do what’s best for him. That’s it. Nice to see you.”

In collaboration with Spurs officials, Leonard followed through with a plan to travel back East earlier this month in hopes of receiving clearance to return to. But though progress is noticeable, doctors Leonard sought for a second opinion about his quad injury are still not ready to approve his return to play with the feeling he needs additional rehab under their supervision. Though national reports suggest Leonard and his camp decided to leave the team, sources told the Express-News the Spurs also suggested Leonard remain in New York to rehab following his routine checkup from doctors.

Leonard has been rehabbing in New York because that is where his medical staff is located, and he has not been cleared by his doctors, league sources said. Time has run short for Leonard — one of the league’s best players when healthy — to make a sensible return to the Spurs, who lost Game 1 of their first-round series to the Golden State Warriors on Saturday. Leonard has made strides recently in training and is focused on regaining his full health, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
4 years ago via ESPN

Here’s Spurs coach Gregg Popovich discussing the players-only meeting regarding Kawhi Leonard: “I only talk about the things that I know, and I know he’s worked hard to get back. It’s been frustrating. You don’t think he wants to come back? You don’t think we want him back? But the fact that he’s not back, it frustrates everybody for all the obvious reasons. But there’s no blame to be placed, on him or anybody else. It’s just an unfortunate situation. So what we do, what we think about, we’re going to do what we’ve been doing. The guys that are playing, that’s who the team is. And if he got added to the team, well that’s great. But you have to act like it’s not going to happen because you have to be who you are. And he’s not with us right now. So this team has to have its own identity. That seems pretty logical. That’s the only way to look at this.”

Star forward Kawhi Leonard said Wednesday there is no friction between him and the Spurs regarding his treatment for the quadriceps ailment that has limited him to just nine games this season. “Everything was done as a group,” Leonard said of him seeking second opinions. “I don’t feel like nothing was friction. I talk to Pop (Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) every day. He knows what the progression were. He knew what I was doing the whole entire time, as well as the front office. We made a group decision, so it was me just going out and saying, ‘I am going to go out and do this thing.’ “

Given all the drama, and the questions surrounding Leonard’s injury, CBS Sports spoke with certified athletic trainer Jeff Stotts to get a better understanding of what Leonard is dealing with, and where things may go from here. In addition to his work in the field, Stotts runs his own website, InStreetClothes.com, and serves as an injury analyst for CBS Sports partner Rotowire.com. CBS Sports: We hear about tendinitis or a torn tendon, but what do they mean by tendinopathy? That’s one we don’t hear about as much. Jeff Stotts: Well, the problem with tendinopathy is it can kind of be a catch-all term. A lot of times it just refers to anything that’s wrong with the tendon itself. It can be anything from tendinitis to an actual disease of the tendon, like a degenerative disease. It can be two extremes. It can be something mild like a tendinitis, or something a little bit more chronic, where it’s more problematic. And even sometimes you can either reference tendon tears and include them in the tendinopathy category because they involve a tendon, though there’s been no indication that Kawhi ruptured or tore his patella like Tony Parker did around the same time last season.

Jeff Stotts: The big thing for me here, is San Antonio has historically the best medical staff in the NBA since 2005-06. They’ve lost the fewest number of games, and they have a long history of taking a conservative, proactive approach with their players. You can go back to 2000, Tim Duncan, when he tore his meniscus, they elected to shut him down rather than let him play through it. He elected for the surgery, and obviously went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Popovich and his staff, and the medical team in San Antonio, they were the precursors for the rest phenomenon, they were the first ones resting players for extended periods of times, targeting schedule rest days during the season for their players, with their eye on the postseason.

Sam Amick on the rift between Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs: “Kawhi and the way he’s wired is just very different from most people… Over time, I feel like that’s created a dynamic with the Spurs where there are some communication breakdowns in general. And then when you have a frustrating situation like this health-wise, where the guy thinks he’s going to be ready to roll at a certain time and they come to terms on a plan – in terms of rehab and in terms of treatment – and then, unfortunately, it doesn’t work the way everyone hoped, the frustration level rises.

“The other part of this is that Kawhi and his group, early on, were 100 percent on-board with the way that the Spurs operated and their culture and everything that comes with being a Spur. I think that part, over time, [changed]. They’re not always on the same page with those things. So there are a lot of layers to this. Hopefully the guy can get healthy relatively soon and if he does, I think the hard feelings go away. But this has been a really challenging time for all of them. You can only imagine how frustrating this is for Kawhi and his group. He was on his way to being a short-list MVP candidate this season.”
4 years ago via ESPN

Gregg Popovich: “The rehab is going slower than we expected. We wish it were going more quickly. If we’re going to err, as we have in the past, we’re going to do it on the conservative side. We kept Timmy Duncan out of the playoffs one year because of a knee, and he could have played. So I don’t see this as anything different than we’ve done with any other player. But some people for some reason want to do that. That’s OK. But that doesn’t affect my team or me or anybody else.”

Following the ESPN report, Jalen Rose said on First Take that Leonard wants to leave San Antonio. “The reason why is tenfold. One is they’ve been unable to attract elite-level, All-NBA caliber free agents to come play with him. …. Here’s why, I think, players have not done that. The ‘Spurs’ way’ looks like opportunity dressed in overalls. It looks like work, and people really don’t want that. Players talk about wanting to win and wanting to be a champion, but ultimately they want to do it on their own terms. And when you go to San Antonio, guess who is the CEO of that organization? Gregg Popovich. It’s going to be his way.

The Spurs relationship with Kawhi Leonard is far from strained, according to a relative. Disputing a report from ESPN, that described Leonard and his camp as “distant” and “disconnected” from the team, Leonard’s uncle, Dennis Robertson, says there is no tension between the two parties. “There is nothing true to that story,” Robertson told the Express-News hours after the story published. “Kawhi’s camp and the Spurs are how they’ve always been – doing the right thing for the team and the right thing for Kawhi.”

“[Kawhi Leonard is] starting to feel in a little bit better shape and feeling more confident,” Popovich said. Once Leonard feels well enough to play, the final hurdle will be in lobbying his coach. It took Parker two weeks from the time he felt good enough to go for Popovich to put him on the floor. “When he says, ‘I feel I can go,’ then he’s got to convince me,” Popovich said. “Because I’m going to err on the conservative side. We’ll see. He’s too valuable to bring back early.”

The Spurs list Kawhi Leonard, who hasn’t played yet this season because of right quadriceps tendinopathy. With the Spurs’ 106-86 win over the Hornets on Saturday night, Leonard has sat out all 19 games this season, one more than he missed the previous two regular seasons combined. Leonard has been sidelined since just before the start of the preseason with what the Spurs are calling right quadriceps tendinopathy. The ailment first showed up last season and has resulted in what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has termed a “difficult” rehabilitation for the two-time All-Star and two-time defensive player of the year. “They are perplexed by how long it’s taken him to get better,” a source said of the Spurs.

Leonard needs to advance through a rehabilitation process that comprises several steps, including individual work followed by 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 drills, before he can get full clearance to return to the court. According to sources, Leonard is currently engaged in on-court work but hasn’t yet advanced far enough to receive clearance to return. The club is reluctant to offer a specific timeline for Leonard’s return because there’s a level of unpredictability involved with rehabilitation from quadriceps tendinopathy, a source said.

In a storied career spanning more than 40 years at various levels, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he has “never” encountered the quadriceps issue that has kept Kawhi Leonard out of the lineup this entire season. “Never, never,” Popovich said when asked whether he has seen such a condition hampering one of his players. “What’s really strange is that [point guard] Tony [Parker] has the same injury, but even worse. They had to go operate on his quad tendon and put it back together or whatever they did to it. So to have two guys, that’s pretty incredible. I had never seen it before those guys.”

Fans should be “cautiously optimistic” Spurs franchise player Kawhi Leonard will return to the court sooner rather than later, as coach Gregg Popovich recently put it, provided his lingering condition hasn’t been diagnosed as chronic, an expert with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City said Tuesday. “I think he’s going to be fine if they are truly saying what is wrong with him,” said Sabrina Strickland, an orthopedic sports surgeon who has been in practice more than 20 years. “Usually, it’s just a matter of doing the appropriate type of treatment to get better tissue in that area.”
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