Are the Spurs in trouble?

They were creating a new era around Kawhi Leonard, but now that future appears to be in doubt

The two big NBA questions this summer will revolve around (1) LeBron James and his decision as a free agent, and (2) the partnership between the Spurs and their 26-year-old star Kawhi Leonard. The two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and MVP of the 2014 NBA Finals played only 9 games for San Antonio this season while dealing with an injury to his right upper leg.

Leonard was separated from the Spurs during the playoffs: He stayed in New York while his team was thousands of miles away in California, losing its opening-round series in five games to the defending champion Warriors. In normal times, healthy or not, Leonard would be expected to provide encouragement and support to his teammates. But this is not a normal time for the Spurs, who are known for establishing strong connections with their leading stars – including David Robinson, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and especially Tim Duncan.

The Spurs faced a similar crisis in 2000. At that time Duncan was a 24-year-old free agent who had won a championship with San Antonio. He was thinking hard about leaving San Antonio to sign with the Orlando Magic. After meeting with the Magic and their NBA Coach of the Year Doc Rivers, Duncan returned to San Antonio for a series of late-night talks with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

“We’d sit there and we’d get to the point where it’s like being slap happy,’’ recalled Popovich in my new book The Soul of Basketball. “I’d say, ‘Okay, there’s a guarantee, sure you’re going to win there — so go! Yeah, that’s fine, we’ll be fine here.’ That kind of thing. And he’d say, ‘David’s getting older, what are you guys going to do? Who are you going to bring in?’ We’d joke with each other, but then we would lay it on the line. And I’d say, ‘Timmy, I can’t guarantee. I don’t know if we’re going to win a championship. Hell, I didn’t know—did I know, did you know we were going to win in ’99? Did I know? I didn’t know. It just happened. Are we going to win again? Maybe not. I can’t guarantee it.’”

Why do some players leave in free agency, and why do others stay? Personal relationships can be one of the bigger influences. One reason Duncan, Parker and Ginobili would all remain with the Spurs for year after year was because they trusted Popovich and believed in the program he created in San Antonio.

“I think our relationship grew stronger. Well, I know it did,” said Popovich of his private talks with Duncan in the summer of 2000. “Because we were both—and this is a huge key—we were both totally, totally honest in every single respect. Even if I was going to lose him, or even if he was going to hurt my feelings by leaving, it didn’t matter. We were still going to lay it all out there.”

Popovich and Duncan were negotiating the terms of their relationship. Over the next 16 years they would win another four championships together. No partnership between an NBA star and his coach has thrived for so long at such a high level of success – and it all resulted from the understanding that was established between them during those late-night talks in Popovich’s back yard.

Their give-and-take discussions continued into the early morning, long after Duncan’s wife, Amy, had gone inside the house to sit with Popovich’s wife, Erin. Duncan and Popovich were both concerned about the future of the Spurs without Robinson, the former MVP center who in 1999 had helped Duncan win the championship. Robinson was about to turn 35, and his production was in decline.

“There were some real reasons why Timmy might go,” Popovich explained in The Soul of Basketball. “David was in his later years, and he wasn’t ‘David’ anymore. David was on the other side of performance and still playing, so there were a lot of things to think about. And so it was just like that, back and forth, but we sat there together. It wasn’t like he was with his agent, and I’m calling, and we’re doing the separate kind of baloney. We did it together. Just figuring out what would be best, and he came to me one day and he said . . . what a jerk . . . he goes, ‘Yeah, I’m going to Orlando.’”

Popovich remembered holding his breath.

“And I just, I just stared at him,” Popovich said. “And about five seconds later, then he smiled and he said, ‘I had to do that.’”

Duncan was punking him. That was how he told Popovich he was staying in San Antonio.

“‘You asshole. You had to do that,’” recalled Popovich. “But that’s Timmy. He just wanted to screw with me. And I do the same thing with him. But the relationship grew stronger because of it.”

The Spurs are unique. From 1980 through 2015, they were the only franchise from a small market to win the NBA title. In pro basketball, market size matters: The other championship teams were connected to the bigger American cities – San Francisco, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia – which led to all kinds of commercial advantages. Large-market teams generate extra money from their local TV broadcasts and sponsors, as well as from higher ticket prices. That money gives those teams their power, and makes them more attractive to NBA stars.

San Antonio could offer none of those commercial advantages. And so, instead of competing on the same terms as everyone else, the Spurs went the other way. They ignored commercialism.

If you were a player who wanted to make the most money, then you could go play in New York. But if you wanted to contend for the championship every year, and to have meaningful relationships with your teammates and coaches, then San Antonio was the place for you. The Spurs weren’t interested in wrestling with the larger markets for media attention. Instead of selling themselves to the public, the Spurs players were more interested in deepening their relationships and teamwork with one another.

The other 29 teams were publicity extroverts. 

The Spurs, by comparison, were introverts.

When Leonard came to San Antonio as a 20-year-old rookie in 2011, he seemed to be the perfect Spur. He showed zero interest in doing interviews or in becoming a commercial star. In his quiet commitment to defense and teamwork, he acted very much like the second coming of Tim Duncan. But something went wrong this year.

A hard summer for Popovich. The entire NBA is grieving for him following the death of his wife, Erin. Popovich is respected throughout the basketball world for his integrity and compassion. He is known for speaking truth to power, whether he’s criticizing the policies of president Donald Trump or laying down boundaries for his players, even though they have the freedom to walk away from him every few years.

“It’s about honesty,” said Popovich in The Soul of Basketball. “If the players know you’re going to tell them the whole truth and nothing but the truth, you’d be amazed what you can get out of them and what kind of trust you can develop. But you’ve got to be ready for the other side of it. Like, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ ‘No, I don’t think we can do that in your contract.’ ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’ ‘No, we’re not staying overnight there.’ Why? ‘Because I just don’t think it’s right and because of this and this.’ ‘Well, I disagree with you.’ ‘Well it’s too bad, we’re doing it anyway.’

“Now they know who you are. Now they know what to expect. It doesn’t change day to day. You don’t have to blow smoke. You don’t have to remember what you told them four days ago to try to get them to do X, Y or Z, because they already know what you’re going to say every time. So you know what the rules are, what the parameters are, what the priorities are, how we’re going to get there. And then everybody does it. But if it’s changing and you have to play games constantly to get things done, it’s just not going to happen.”

In the season of 2010-11, which was the year before Kawhi Leonard’s arrival, Popovich was dealing with the downside of honesty. At that time he was having to be painfully honest with Duncan, who would turn 35 during the playoffs and was no longer the star he used to be. Duncan was contributing 13.4 points per game that season, the worst production of his career, and he was playing fewer than 30 minutes per night. For as long as anyone could remember, the Spurs had triumphed by playing the ball through Duncan near the basket, but now Popovich was turning them into a perimeter-based team that depended on 28-year-old Parker, 33-year-old Ginobili and others to attack from the 3-point line. Their defense, always Duncan’s strength, was no longer as strong as in their championship years, which meant they needed to score in bigger numbers. 

“You’ve got to be honest with him, that ‘You’re not doing this the same, so we’ve got to do this. This isn’t working the same.’ And there’s some times he doesn’t want to hear it from me,” Popovich said of Duncan in 2011. “There are some times he’s part hurt, part angry that I might say a certain thing, that ‘You can’t do that, you can’t get away with that anymore, you’re going to have to do such and such.’ And then as you say it, because I think it’s the truth, then he has his reaction or his feeling. And then that night or the next day at practice, that’s what we go and do. And if he feels differently, he’ll tell me.

“I have such a respect for the integrity that he plays with in the game,” Popovich said, glancing away as he spoke. “People will never know what he does all summer long so he can continue to play. Sometimes I wonder, ‘Should he play?’ I look at that knee, I look at that leg, and I wonder. You see him, he walks and it doesn’t extend. Then the things that he goes through and the swimming and the boxing to keep his body trim — you know his body fat is unbelievable — and to keep his aerobic base all during the year, and then he works on that leg to get extension, to try to get as much extension as he can. And then we spend the year to try to keep him there and not let it deteriorate, and I see him in the games and he’ll try to do something that maybe he was able to do, and now it didn’t work out, and I can just see the frustration in his face. And that’s when I really respect him. Because he doesn’t cry, he doesn’t moan, he just gets down on the other end. He just keeps trying to do it the best he possibly can. But certain things he can’t do the same, as we all know, and no player can as we get older. And that gives me more respect for him than when you watched him before and he would just do what he did and you’d go, ‘Wow!’”

He took a breath.

“Okay, you did that,” Popovich went on. “But now that you don’t have those abilities, and you’re still trying to do it the best way you can and not cry and moan, and ‘I wish this’ or ‘If only’ . . . it just never comes out of his lips.”

Will Popovich be able to connect with Leonard? There are too many questions for anyone to guess what will happen next. Will Popovich meet with Leonard alone, one-on-one? Is the relationship between the player and his team capable of being restored?

The only clues we have are based on our understanding of Popovich. No coach in the NBA is known for speaking so honestly with his players. His relationship with Duncan gives us a blueprint for what may develop with Leonard. But we are also talking about two entirely different eras, and Leonard is his own man. What worked in 2000 may not be as successful in 2018.

To buy my new book The Soul of Basketball, please click here.