Speaking before Tuesday’s 114-102 home win over the Cavaliers, Popovich claimed confusion about why anyone would “say it’s a soap opera” in San Antonio. “Some people wrote some articles. I understand it, but soap opera? It’s a soap opera if we talk about it every day, I guess,” the coach said.
“I don’t get it. We won’t talk about it. There’s nothing to talk about other than what we’ve already said.”
True to his famously quiet nature, Leonard has not talked about any possible issues with the Spurs, but his uncle recently denied reports of a rift. In its story, ESPN claimed that “multiple sources describe Leonard and his camp as ‘distant’ and ‘disconnected’ from the organization.”
On ESPN’s “First Take” Tuesday, analyst and former player Jalen Rose said that what he was “hearing” was that Leonard “wants out of San Antonio.” The reason, according to Rose, was that the Spurs have been “unable to attract elite-level, all-NBA-caliber free agents to come play with him.”
In 2015, San Antonio was able to sign a major free agent prize in LaMarcus Aldridge, but Rose claimed that other players see the “Spurs’ way” as “opportunity dressed in overalls” and they “really don’t want ” to put in the work required by Popovich.
“Players talk about wanting to win and wanting to be a champion, but ultimately they want to do it on their own terms,” Rose said. “And when you go to San Antonio, guess who is the CEO of that organization? Gregg Popovich. It’s going to be his way.”
Rose also wondered if Leonard’s injury was “misdiagnosed,” and he was not the first to be struck by its mysterious nature. Designated as right quadriceps tendinopathy, it was initially expected to keep the two-time all-star and two-time NBA defensive player of the year out of preseason action, having carried over from the previous season.
However, as Leonard’s ailment lingered well into this season, Popovich expressed surprise at its severity, and it wasn’t until mid-December that the 26-year-old small forward returned to action. Despite being brought along slowly, Leonard suffered a shoulder injury earlier this month, then was shelved as Popovich said the quadriceps problem hadn’t “responded the way we wanted it to.”
Leonard has reportedly been seeking medical assessments from outside the Spurs’ training staff, which Popovich endorsed on Tuesday. “Second opinions are good,” he said. “It doesn’t indicate anything except for due diligence, making sure you’re doing everything you can to get a player back.
“Nobody wants to come back more than Kawhi Leonard. I think I’m No. 2,” Popovich continued with a chuckle. “His teammates want him back. Everybody wants him back.”
The team’s general manager, R.C. Buford, told ESPN earlier in the week that there was “no issue between the Spurs organization and Kawhi,” adding, “From Day 1 all parties have worked together to find the best solutions to his injury.”
“This rehab hasn’t been simple, and it hasn’t gone in a linear fashion,” Buford said, describing the process as “difficult for everyone.”
Despite being without the 2014 NBA Finals MVP for most of the season, the Spurs are 31-18 and tied for third in the Western Conference. However, they would likely pose little postseason threat to the mighty Warriors, and perhaps even the second-place Rockets, without the elite two-way contributions of Leonard, and that realization could be part any angst he may be feeling.
“He’s a competitor. … He certainly doesn’t want to be missing games,” Popovich said Tuesday. “So it’s frustrating for everybody.
“But for somebody to come up with something about him and his teammates is just silly.”