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Without Kawhi Leonard, Spurs fast forward into uncertain future

Without Kawhi Leonard, Spurs fast forward into uncertain future 10:17 AM ET Michael C. WrightESPN Staff Writer Close Joined ESPN in 2010 Pr...

Without Kawhi Leonard, Spurs fast forward into uncertain future

10:17 AM ET
  • Michael C. WrightESPN Staff Writer Close
    • Joined ESPN in 2010
    • Previously covered Bears for
    • Played college football at West Texas A&M

SAN ANTONIO -- Privately, San Antonio Spurs officials readily admit they're not blameless in this fiasco.

But the club's pained decision to finally acquiesce to Kawhi Leonard's trade demand on Wednesday plunged the franchise deeper into the depths of a transitional period that it has long worked to stay ahead of.

Even before San Antonio moved Leonard (and Danny Green) to Toronto for a trade package involving DeMar DeRozan, several signs indicated the Spurs' 21-year run of consecutive postseasons could be in jeopardy. Spurs chairman and co -chief executive officer Julianna Hawn Holt filed for divorce from former chairman and CEO Peter Holt last December, though she told a local TV station that "the franchise is safe" and wouldn't be put up for sale. Franchise stalwart Tim Duncan, who is widely credited for helping to create the club's culture of selflessness, retired in 2016. Longtime point guard Tony Parker signed with the Charlotte Hornets this offseason. And uncertainty abounds regarding the future of guard Manu Ginobili, as well as coach Gregg Popovich.

Popovich's wife, Erin Popovich, passed away in April, and it's unknown how much longer he plans to lead the Spurs. Sources said that although this offseason represents the least amount of exposure the team has had to Popovich, the coach -- despite being largely absent -- has remained engaged in San Antonio's everyday business, as it recently promoted assistant coach Becky Hammon to replace James Borrego, who was hired as hea d coach of the Charlotte Hornets in May.

That brings us back to Leonard, once the lone young constant in what's expected to be San Antonio's most significant transitional period since the '90s.

In Leonard, the franchise employed the one player it could build an entire roster around to remain competitive. San Antonio expected Leonard to serve as the bridge for the next era of Spurs basketball.

But an injury, miscommunication, a potential misdiagnosis, and ill-feelings regarding it all changed everything, resulting in a player requesting a trade from Popovich for the second consecutive offseason. (LaMarcus Aldridge asked to be traded last summer, but a face-to-face sitdown with Popovich smoothed over the relationship.)

Despite being eligible to receive a five-year super max extension this summer worth $221 million from the Spurs, Leonard wanted out of San Antonio for myriad reasons. He felt betrayed by the team for the handling of the quadriceps injury that kept him out of all but nine games last season -- plus, Leonard's camp believes the Spurs misdiagnosed a 2014 wrist injury as well -- in addition to resistance encountered from the franchise when seeking outside opinions. Not to mention what seemed to be public questioning of the situation by members of the organization, with sources saying the forward had been medically cleared to play since December.

There were Popovich's constant referrals to Leonard and his "group," biting comments from Parker, who said his own ruptured quadriceps injury the season prior was "100 times worse," as well as the team's players-only meeting with Leonard in March, in which the forward felt ambushed by teammates at Popovich's behest.

"I don't know when he and his group are going to feel like they are ready to go," Popovich said in April. "When he and his group feel ready, then he'll be ready."

The franch ise harbored some ill-will, too, but considered Leonard such an important commodity it was willing to work through the difficult times toward resolution. The Spurs disliked ceding control in August of Leonard's medical care to outside doctors and were miffed by the handling of the entire situation by the forward's representation -- namely uncle Dennis Robertson -- who, like Leonard, didn't necessarily excel in the communication department, according to sources.

On more than one occasion, Popovich begged Leonard to let him announce to the media that the forward would be forced to sit out the season due to his injury, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Believing he'd eventually return, Leonard declined each time, leaving Popovich to field queries from the media that he couldn't definitively answer. Popovich simply didn't know.

Leonard left the team on two occasions last season to rehab in New York with members of the Spurs r ehabilitation staff in tow to work in concert with the forward's outside medical personnel, utilizing its rehab program.

The Spurs still believed the relationship was worth salvaging, and Popovich traveled to Southern California ahead of the NBA draft to meet with Leonard as a first step toward reconciliation.

"Kawhi and his family mean a lot to our organization and to the community," Spurs GM R.C. Buford said the night of the draft. "While none of us would wish we are where we are, we're going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him, and we'll explore all of our options. But the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as part of our group."

With that option now out of the picture, San Antonio must forge ahead with what it has salvaged from Wednesday's trade -- DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick -- as the Spurs move into arguably the most significant transitional pe riod in franchise history.

Buford always knew these days were coming, with or without Leonard.

"We're all navigating this together," Buford told ESPN back in March, when asked about this upcoming period. "Our consistency is derived from people we've had who've committed their time and expertise to our organization. It's evident by our players, our staff, the people who run and promote our business operations.

"There are many successions that are happening in this part of our franchise's history. And we've all been focused on this, not just this year, but for many years."

Source: Google News US Sports | Netizen 24 United States

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