OAKLAND, California – The San Antonio Spurs are fighting against the reigning NBA champs with their injured star Kawhi Leonard oddly absent.
The Spurs listed Leonard as out for Game 1 of their NBA playoff opener against the Golden State Warriors for “return from injury management” reasons. The two-time NBA All-Star has been out most of the season with a quadriceps injury and has opted not to return despite being cleared by the Spurs (Leonard has been working with his own medical team). Leonard was questioned in a players-only meeting in March about his commitment to the team and possible return, ESPN.com reported. Spurs veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have candidly expressed little hope for a Leonard return.
And to make matters even worse, Leonard didn’t make the trip to the Bay Area with the Spurs, killing any potential for moral support in a challenging playoff series against the NBA power Warriors.
“Kawhi is rehabbing at his own pace with his own people,” Spurs center Pau Gasol told The Undefeated. “He hasn’t been around us. I’m sure he is trying to get healthy. I’m sure he is trying to get back. But that’s all I know. Really, as a teammate, as a player, that is all I know.”
The Spurs entered the 2017-18 season with legitimate hopes to be a championship contender with elite players Leonard and All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge along with veterans Gasol, Parker, Ginobili and newcomer Rudy Gay.
Gasol said he believed the team could compete for a title if healthy. With Leonard, Parker and Gay dealing with injuries, health perhaps was the Spurs’ biggest opponent.
“If we’re not healthy, if we are not right, we have less of a chance,” Gasol said. “And that has been the case. Unfortunately, with Kawhi, our best player from last year, a top-3 or -4 player, has not really been available and I’m sure it’s been hard for him.”
Having Leonard for just nine games this season pushed the Spurs from a championship contender to fighting in the final days of the regular-season to land the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The seven-year NBA veteran has not played since Jan. 13 against Denver. And with Leonard absent, the Warriors hammered the Spurs 113-92 in Game 1 of their first-round postseason series. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said his team looked like “a deer in headlights.”
The Spurs have never been a franchise to blame injury. And the Warriors will likely be without All-Star guard Stephen Curry (knee), who sat behind the team bench in Game 1, in this series as well. When asked about the roller coaster of a Spurs season, general manager R.C. Buford acknowledged: “This group has been through a lot.”
“Nothing has been step by step,” Buford said. “There have been a lot of challenges to get through. How tough is it? It’s tough for every team. Every team is dealing with challenges. But it’s not the team that they anticipated it to be.”
From the time Popovich was named Spurs general manager and vice president of basketball operations in 1994 – he took over as coach in 1996 – to the beginning of this season, no franchise had a combination of more success with less drama than the Spurs in American professional sports.
The Spurs have won five championships in small market San Antonio. They don’t crave media attention and love the spotlight to be somewhere else. From Hall of Famer David Robinson to future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan to Parker and Ginobili to Leonard and Aldridge before this season, the Spurs never had any real drama with their stars. All San Antonio did was make the playoffs for 21 straight seasons and own an NBA-best winning percentage of .705 over that span. Only the New England Patriots have had a better winning percentage in the four major American pro sports since 1997.
Since Popovich’s arrival, there are have been few notable stories of drama with the Spurs before this season:
• Popovich was told after being named general manager and vice president of basketball operations after 1993-1994 season that he had a mandate to trade eccentric forward Dennis Rodman, according to the book 100 Things Spurs Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die by Mike Monroe. During the 1994-95 season, Rodman took a leave of absence and was suspended on Dec. 7, 1994. After missing 19 games, Rodman returned and suffered a shoulder injury during a motorcycle accident.
A day after Rodman showed up late for a playoff practice, he also showed up late for Game 5 of the 1995 Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets. “The Worm” caused more anger from Popovich by lying on his side on the floor by the bench with his shoes off during the game. Robinson said afterward that he and his teammates were tired of “the media circus” that surrounded Rodman. The Rockets eliminated the Spurs in Game 6. Popovich traded Rodman to the Chicago Bulls in the offseason for center Will Perdue. Rodman later claimed that Popovich “hated” him and looked at him like he was “the devil.”
• The Chicago Tribune reported in March 2000 that Spurs guard Avery Johnson was angering teammates with selfish complaining after being benched in several fourth quarters for Terry Porter, who was a better 3-point shooter. During a 92-81 Spurs loss at Cleveland on Feb. 15, 2000, Johnson and teammate Malik Rose argued over a defensive play when Cavaliers guard Andre Miller got a 3-point play.
After the game, a nude Johnson tried to slap Rose in front of his locker while on his way to the shower, a source told The Undefeated. Rose lunged forward to hit Johnson and slipped and fell after stepping into teammate Mario Elie’s bucket of ice. Rose was held back by teammates Felton Spencer and Jerome Kersey. Still nude, Johnson started pacing around the locker room, throwing stuff around and breaking a television while having words for Popovich, Robinson, Rose and Porter about the team no longer being his. The Spurs didn’t re-sign Johnson, although the franchise did retire his No. 6 jersey after he retired, and he instead signed with the Denver Nuggets.
• Former Spurs forward Stephen Jackson was upset after being cut six days before the 2013 NBA playoffs. Popovich and Jackson had been butting heads for months, and the coach even joked on Saturday that ex-Spurs assistant coach Mike Brown, now an assistant with the Warriors, saved him from Jackson. Jackson has previously told WOAI-TV in San Antonio that he quit the Spurs after Popovich told him that Ginobili and Danny Green would play over him and to admit that they were better.
The common denominator in those stories is they didn’t center on Robinson, Duncan, Parker or Ginobili. Now, the Spurs are having superstar drama for the first time in the Popovich era with Leonard, who could be signed to a five-year, $219 million extension on July 1. Leonard can become a free agent after the 2018-19 season.
Word is Leonard’s “people” would have to call Popovich and say he wants to rejoin the team to play in this first-round series, but such a scenario appears unlikely. One Spurs player said it would have been hard to incorporate Leonard in the final five regular-season games and would be unfair to his teammates for him to return now.
Leonard’s days with the Spurs seem to not only be over for this season, but perhaps for good. But even without Leonard, the proud Spurs maintain that they will fight as hard as they can against the more talented Warriors.
“I’m sure it’s been difficult [for Leonard], but it’s been difficult for us,” Gasol said. “You got to bring heart. You have to bring grit and desire. You got to make more shots. … You got to bring competitiveness and edge for us to be there every single play against a team like the Warriors, or you’ll have no shot.”
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