It echoed like a shotgun blast in a cave. Reporters were firing off reports within milliseconds of each other, all citing the ubiquitous “sources”. Someone had obviously made a mass statement through another person who had links to myriad mainstream outlets: Kawhi Leonard wanted out of San Antonio.
In the summer of 2017, while Leonard was recovering from a playoff injury, the Spurs heard the occasional rumble of malcontent from within LaMarcus Aldridge’s camp. Some stories in the media even sounded as if the Spurs were testing the water to see what they could get in return for a power forward who had, at that point, largely disappointed the organisation and its fans. But after dipping their elbow in to feel nothing but lukewarmth, General Manager RC Buford and Head Coach Gregg Popovich withdrew from trade conversations, opened up talks with Aldridge and reinvested in their relationship him, signing a three-year extension.
Aldridge’s situation was nothing like this summer’s fork in the road for the Spurs. Leonard is a player the Spurs selected and nurtured. When he entered the league in 2011, it was as an athletic defensive prospect with good rebounding skills (10.2 during two years with San Diego State University) and a weak jumpshot (44% from the field and just 25% from three). If he had stayed with the Indiana Pacers playing behind then leading scorer Danny Granger and the 10th pick in the 2010 draft Paul George, who knows what would have happened? The trio might have turned the Pacers into a modern, wing-heavy offense, but they also might have stunted Leonard’s potential to become an offensive juggernaut.
Instead, Indiana swapped Leonard, who the team drafted 15th, with the Spurs for George Hill and a handful of other pieces. It was solid for both sides but within two years it became clear San Antonio had got the better end of the deal. Leonard worked with legendary shooting coach Chip Engelland and became a good three-point shooter out of the gate, hitting 37% from behind the arc in his first season. His defensive rating was strong, at 101, as a rookie, and by the time 2014 rolled around, Leonard was a focal point in the offensive system. He pushed his scoring average up from 7.9 points in his rookie campaign to 25.5 in the 2016-2017 season and, following a slight dip on defense as Leonard learned to take control of the team, his defensive rating peaked at 102.7 last year.
When he went down in the 2017 playoffs, San Antonio was disappointed. The team stood a half decent chance against a great team trying to find itself, with the new addition of Kevin Durant in Golden State. But Zaza Pachulia’s foot was planted in the Spurs star’s landing spot on a jump shot thus putting a stop towards to any hopes of a title returning to Texas. He remained injured much of the 2017-2018 season, playing in just nine games before continued pain made him seek outside help, leading to mistrust between the team and its star before blowing up into the quandary we see today.
To pour further petrol on the bonfire, during the final round of the Spurs postseason, Popovich’s wife of 40 years passed away. At 69, the coach has achieved everything within the professional ranks – winning five NBA titles over a period of 20 years. For years he was in the running to coach the Olympic squad only to be edged out by Mike Krzyzewski of Duke University. But now Popovich is getting his chance at the 2020 games in Tokyo, and some feel that he might be facing one of his last hurrahs within the NBA.
With all this in play, you could understand why Popovich is ambivalent toward pleading with a troublesome star to stick around. He has built a dynasty over 25 years that has worked and won. Since his first full season as head coach in 1997-1998, he has won 1,180 games and lost just 494. He has changed the way the game is played and is seen by many as the greatest coach in NBA history. His career has few parallels, and you have to look off-book to see who might stand alongside him.
In 2009, rapper Jay-Z released the album Blueprint III. It featured the song A Star Is Born that reflects on Jay’s time at the top of the rap game, where he had been since the mid-1990s.
I seen Mase do it, I seen ‘Ye do it
X came through, caught lighter fluid
Still I came through it, clap for ’em
But I’m the blueprint, I’m like the map for ’em
Shawn Carter, Jay-Z’s real name, came into rap under the wings of P. Diddy and The Notorious B.I.G. But Carter’s early life without a father, a busy mother, dealing drugs from a young age and apparently having to shoot his own brother shaped his rap style and business acumen. It was gritty and not the easiest route into an industry he would soon come to dominate.
Spurs fans try to not remember how Popovich landed his job. After stints with coaching luminaries Larry Brown and Don Nelson, Popovich returned to the Spurs as General Manager and Vice President of Basketball Operations in 1996. He fired then Head Coach Bob Hill after a 3-15 start, and placed himself into the role to oversee a tank job that landed the Spurs the top pick in next draft. It was a cold move, as Hill had a win-loss record of 62-20 and 59-23 in the previous two years, and during the preseason, David Robinson suffered one injury that led to another, which caused him to miss all 82 games. San Antonio also lost Sean Elliot, Vinny Del Negro and Chuck Person for extended runs.
But Popovich had a vision and the ruthlessness to see it through.
I dropped another classic, made Puff pass it,
Nobody could touch Puff back when Puff had it
The number one pick that year was the one and only Tim Duncan – who would not only become the best player in the league between 2004 and 2014, but would be one of the hardest working, lowest maintenance superstars of all time. There has truly been no elite player in NBA history been more willing to be coached, and hardly any who have given up more – financially, physically and emotionally – to the team that drafted them. While Robinson was still useful at that point, Duncan led the team to the 1998-1999 championship. Four more would follow – 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014 – where he might not have been the greatest offensive force on every team, but he remained the backbone of the Spurs’ system.
While Phil Jackson occasionally gets treated to the ‘only won because of Michael Jordan/Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant’ argument, Popovich rarely gets that thrown at him. This is, in part, because he installed several systems during his tenure: Robinson and Duncan made up the Twin Towers offense; then, when the center retired, the power forward owned the low block; soon came the more guard-heavy offense that led to Manu Ginobli becoming an All-Star and Tony Parker winning a Finals MVP; then came the Beautiful Game run the team had in 2013 and 2014 with Boris Diaw; and more recently the wing-led offense to promote Leonard’s skillset; only to be swapped back to the low-post system to suit Aldridge while the small forward sat out this year.
Wayne scorchin, I’ll applaud him
If he keep goin, pass the torch to him
Since setting up Roc-A-Fella and teaming up with Def Jam Records, the focus has been on cultivating new talent for Jay-Z. He hasn’t always nailed it in the case of J Cole, but equally he has shown he can find superstars, even if they have questionable character, like Kanye West.
Popovich has also helped many players get good contracts – what’s up Gary Neal? Jonathan Simmons? – but he has also kept lesser-talented players around too long, like Matt Bonner, and been drawn to talented and complex personalities like Stephen Jackson.
Beyond that, Popovich has created a path for a number of people to get coaching and front office gigs. Avery Johnson went on to win nearly 78% of his games with the Dallas Mavericks. Steve Kerr has just completed the best four-season win record in history with the Golden State Warriors. And Danny Ferry oversaw the Cleveland Cavaliers first successful stint with coach and former Spurs assistant Mike Brown before moving to the Atlanta Hawks and hiring Popovich’s assistant Mike Budenholzer, who won 60 games in 2015.
But for Popovich’s own team, producing hit team after hit is getting tough. He will be 70 next season, if he returns at all amid the issues he has dealt with this offseason, and the support system he had to get through the rigours of an NBA season are no longer there at home.
Without Leonard, the team showed that it simply does not have enough to compete in the Western Conference. With Leonard they might stand a chance, but the latest rumours of the best two-way player in the game wanting out makes the situation look hopeless.
Leonard and Popovich are yet to meet in person, according to reports, and it almost looks like the player has had more meetings with Jeanie Buss of the LA Lakers rather than the team that helped him become a star. There is still hope if the Spurs coach gets a chance to meet face-to-face with Leonard, in the same way Popovich convinced Aldridge to stick it out last year.
However, if the prize horse has indeed bolted from the Spurs stable never to be seen again, it might be time to move on. Perhaps Popovich’s legacy will be how he could set the team up for the future. This summer we might see Ginobli retire, Parker doesn’t have many years left in him, Duncan and Robinson are long gone, and if Leonard wants out, there are no cornerstone pieces left from the championship runs of old. Even Rudy Gay looks like he wants to test free agency, after San Antonio revived his career this past season.
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Every day a star is born, and rather than let the weight of Leonard’s situation drag the team down, the team could be completely reset. Several franchises holding positions at the top of the draft are considering trading down, and this could be an opportunity to get a combination of young talent with lottery picks. Popovich has always appreciated the European game, so a player like Luka Dončić could seem an attractive prospect if paired with another youngster with potential.
Popovich could step down and hand the reins over to long-time friend and assistant Ettore Messina, who took the coaching reins during the playoffs after Popovich’s wife passed away. Becky Hammon is another assistant coach who showed great ability at the Summer League a few years ago, when she led the team to win the annual Las Vegas tournament. However, Ime Udoka is possibly the next in line to take over, having spent six seasons on the bench.
No matter what happens in the next few weeks, months and years, it seems the golden age of the San Antonio Spurs is coming to an end. The signs showed when the team’s 50-win record came to an end in the 2017-2018 season. But Popovich, Buford, Duncan, Parker, Ginobli and Kawhi, they had a hell of a run, standing ovaaaay.
Featured photos – via NBAE / Double Clutch illustration