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The Curious Case of Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs

Kawhi Leonard

It’s remarkable that, after such a positive beginning to his career, the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard both find themselves at this bizarre impasse.

Leonard was the player that was supposed to be heir apparent to Duncan, the bridge from the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker era. That’s how the Spurs positioned themselves planning around him. Rather than rebuild the roster last offseason, the Spurs agreed to new deals with LaMarcus Aldridge (32), Pau Gasol (36), Patty Mills (28) and Ginobili (40).

Popovich himself, 69, has considered retirement for the past few seasons, but said he’d stayed on. ‘Pop’ agreed because he kept promising players, including Aldridge and Leonard, that he’d be the coach if they signed with the Spurs.

Keeping Leonard in the fold never seemed to be an issue until this past season.

The Spurs as an organization have always been, from top to bottom, one of the classiest organizations in the NBA. You never heard of any players frustrated. Nothing negative at all. The team kept their business to themselves and worked hard. No “showtime” stuff, they chose to let LA have the bright lights. The Spurs just did their work and they went home. That’s what makes the tension with Kawhi so difficult to believe. It just doesn’t happen in San Antonio.

The most obvious beginning of the discord would be the quadriceps injury that kept him out virtually all last season. In simplest terms, there’s some disagreement about the exact nature of the injury.

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. It wasn’t until the end of last season, however, that 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 atrophy, which in turn affected the tendons connecting the muscle to the knee.

The Spurs have always called the injury “quadriceps tendinopathy,” which is a disease of the tendon that has a degenerative effect on the muscle by keeping it in a constant state of exhaustion.

The treatment course for each diagnosis (a muscle issue vs. a tendon issue) is different, which has become another source of tension in the relationship.

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. Things began to change in August as Leonard continued to experience discomfort.

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, which is affiliated with the Washington Nationals and New York Islanders, began consulting on the case.

Leonard briefly returned to the Spurs for nine games from mid-December through mid-January. The Spurs were conservative in their approach. He’d play one game, then sit out the next game regardless of how many days later it was scheduled. After scoring 19 points in 28 minutes in a win over Denver on Jan. 13, he complained of soreness in the area once again. He traveled with the team to Atlanta — a game he was scheduled to sit out anyway — and Brooklyn, but instead of playing against the Nets, Popovich announced at shoot around that Leonard was being shut down indefinitely.

The frustration on the Spurs’ end stems from losing control of the medical care of their franchise player, and the way in which the entire process has been handled by Leonard’s representation.

The frustration from Leonard’s camp emanates from the resistance it felt it encountered from the Spurs over considering outside opinions, and the public questioning of the situation by Popovich.

Leonard and coach Gregg Popovich were reportedly set to meet in the coming days to discuss any issues and concerns in efforts to resume what was a one-time viewed as a successful pairing. Instead, Leonard made his desire to be traded known to team officials.

It appears that, before it even started, the Kawhi Leonard era with the San Antonio Spurs is coming to an end.

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