OAKLAND, Calif. — For a 69-year-old man who has almost certainly never logged onto Twitter, Gregg Popovich sure has mastered the art of the subtweet.
How else could anyone take his answer to an innocuous question about LaMarcus Aldridge after the San Antonio Spurs’ Game 2 loss to the Golden State Warriors?
“LaMarcus has been a monster all year long,” Popovich said. “He’s led our team at both ends of the floor. He doesn’t complain about a darned thing out on the court. He just plays through everything.
“I can’t imagine being more proud of a player, as far as playing through adversity and being there for his teammates night after night after night. He’s been fantastic.”
That response may have been full of well-deserved praise for Aldridge, who kept the Spurs in Monday’s game with 34 points and 12 rebounds in 37 minutes, but Popovich was speaking to an audience of one: Kawhi Leonard, the league’s best two-way player who has been absent from the Spurs’ sideline.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Popovich wasn’t just speaking to Leonard, though he was undoubtedly hoping his all-star was watching somewhere in New York City, where he remains to rehab his troublesome right quad. He was also speaking to Leonard’s “group,” as he has repeatedly called it, and trying to reach across the ever-growing divide that is threatening to part Leonard and the Spurs for good.
It was termed as news this week that Leonard won’t be returning in these playoffs, but ask the Spurs privately and they’ll tell you nothing has changed for weeks. Leonard has been working out away from the team for some time, and even if he decided to come back tomorrow, he wouldn’t just be thrown back on the court during a playoff series with no game action since mid-January.
Manu Ginóbili said this has “absolutely” been the weirdest season of his 16-year career, adding, “In every aspect. Since I became a pro. I’ve always been part of a very steady, reliable, consistent teams. This years we had so many rotations, so complicated.
“[But] it’s part of the past. The regular season is over. We have to face the Warriors with what we have for as hard as possible.”
But it isn’t part of the past. Not yet. The Spurs will give it their all in San Antonio to dig out of an 0-2 hole, but this season ended the moment it became clear Leonard wasn’t going to be part of this team. The Spurs may be the best organization in sports, but organizations don’t win — talent does. And without Leonard, the Spurs simply aren’t good enough.
The question is now whether the Spurs can patch things up enough with Leonard before July 1 to offer him a supermax extension that would keep him in San Antonio for years. Even after everything, the Spurs will give it their best shot to make that happen.
After all, Leonard is one of a handful of players at the top of the sport. Those guys don’t grow on trees.
But is a reconciliation even possible? The relationship between Popovich and Leonard, multiple sources say, remains strong. The fact Aldridge remains a Spur at all — after he was upset enough last summer to ask for a trade — lends credence to the argument that it is always too early to judge these things.
There is a significant difference, though, between the situation Aldridge was in last year, and the one Leonard is in now. In a league overflowing with big men, San Antonio had a limited market for Aldridge’s services. The Spurs had little choice but to make things work with Aldridge, or get back pennies on the dollar for an all-star player.
With Leonard, things are different. Yes, he’s had one of the strangest seasons in recent memory, only playing nine games. Yes, if a team wanted to acquire him, they’d have to medically clear him first.
But even with all of that baggage, 29 teams would inquire about Leonard’s status. Remember: The Oklahoma City Thunder wasn’t expected to trade for Paul George, then gave up two quality young players in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to do so. George had one year left on his deal, and he isn’t as good as Leonard.
The most important difference, though, is that Popovich met with Aldridge and was able to hash out everything last summer, laying the foundation for a bounceback all-star season. There is a reason that Popovich repeatedly refers to Leonard as “Leonard and his group,” a reference to a group now led by agent Mitch Frankel and Leonard’s uncle, Dennis Robertson.
It is unclear if Leonard and Popovich can even have that same kind of meeting, or if things between Leonard’s camp and the Spurs have grown so fractious that it’s past that point. Even if Leonard and Popovich can have such a meeting, could it create the same result?
Without that happening, it seems impossible to think this ends any other way than with Leonard being traded this summer. Just like Jimmy Butler and DeMarcus Cousins before him, the supermax has become a zero-sum game for teams.
If they are willing to offer it to a player, they do, and the player signs it (see: James Harden and John Wall). If they are not, they don’t, and the player gets traded (see: Butler and Cousins).
At this point, it’s hard to see the Spurs feeling comfortable enough with Leonard to offer him $200 million. If they are not, the most likely outcome would be him being traded by draft night in June — just as Butler was a year ago.
So where could he go? As a Southern California native, expect both Los Angeles teams to get involved. The Clippers have the 12th and 13th picks in this year’s NBA draft to offer, plus whatever combination of players San Antonio would want, and the Lakers have a roster full of young players (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, most notably) to use as bait to land a superstar talent that would make it far easier for free agents such as George and LeBron James to look differently at playing for the Lakers.
The Philadelphia 76ers are perhaps the most fascinating potential Leonard destination. With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid having established themselves as the franchise’s cornerstones, could a package centered around Markelle Fultz and Philadelphia’s two first-round picks in this year’s draft entice the Spurs? The Boston Celtics are overflowing with young players and picks to offer, as well, and already swung a big move last year for Kyrie Irving.
Then there are the Cleveland Cavaliers, who have the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected first-rounder at their disposal. If that pick is enough to convince the Spurs to move Leonard — say it jumps into the top three in this year’s draft — could his arrival be enough to keep James in Cleveland?
There are a half-dozen other teams that could be in play, too, just as the Thunder came out of nowhere to get George.
That’s why Popovich’s subtweet of Leonard was the most important thing to happen Monday night — far more than anything that happened in San Antonio’s loss. The biggest game left in the Spurs’ season is the one between the team and Leonard over whether he’ll be staying in San Antonio.
The future of the organization — and the direction it takes — hinges on the outcome.