Can relationship between Kawhi and Spurs be repaired?

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Updated: June 13, 2018

6:59 AM ET

They had come to honor the memory of Erin Popovich at a San Antonio restaurant a month ago, generations of Spurs players, coaches and executives traveling to pay their respects to the program patriarch’s late wife. The room, thick with emotion and nostalgia, represented two decades of the franchise’s basketball family, including its elusive current superstar, Kawhi Leonard.

Throughout the gathering, Leonard appeared as comfortable as he ever does in social settings. No more, no less engaged. For a night anyway, Leonard moved easily among his contemporaries and predecessors. Months of mistrust and acrimony peeled back. Kawhi Leonard was a Spur.

“It was like he had never been away,” one Spurs alumnus in attendance told ESPN.

Of course, Leonard had been away. In August, he moved his medical and rehab treatment for a right quad injury outside the organization, and he never again returned control to the team. Throughout a regular season that included him playing only nine games, a gulf grew and Leonard regularly commuted between San Antonio and New York to rehab his own way, with his own people.

Once teammate Tony Parker publicly declared that his own quad injury was “a hundred times worse” than Leonard’s, the former Defensive Player of the Year started to feel a sense of siege in San Antonio — and soon after, in late March, he left his team for the rest of the regular season and playoffs.

Leonard returned to San Antonio shortly after the Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs in late April, leaving the New York-New Jersey area where he had spent much of the past few months with his uncle/adviser, Dennis Robertson. Around the time when Leonard attended the Popovich gathering on May 6, he underwent a routine exit physical with the Spurs and left for his offseason home in California, league sources said.

Sooner than later, there will be a meeting set with Gregg Popovich and Leonard. It’s still in the planning stages. They have been in contact, but there will be a conversation — or, perhaps, a series of them — about whether a lasting trust and partnership can be rebuilt. They’ll have to talk about medical care and treatment. They’ll have to talk about Leonard’s relationship with the coaching staff and his teammates, which is strained. They’ll have to talk about the franchise’s willingness to deliver the five-year, $219 million contract extension Leonard is eligible to receive, because the Spurs will need to be convinced that a historic contract is met with historic commitment.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers have interest in Leonard, each with a differing array of young assets to trade for him now and the potential of salary-cap space to sign Leonard outright in 2019.

In the end, Leonard could dictate his destination based on his willingness to sign long term upon a trade. Oklahoma City acquired All-Star forward Paul George last summer without a commitment, and there will undoubtedly be a few teams with a similarly adventurous spirit in pursuit of Leonard.

For now, the Spurs’ future is on hold awaiting the Popovich-Leonard sitdown. How Popovich details his own coaching future to Leonard could be an interesting subplot of the conversation. Since the Spurs won a fifth NBA championship in 2014, Buford has had to be prepared for the possibility of Popovich, 69, coaching a final season and moving onto NBA retirement. Every year, they need to make sure there will be one more season for Popovich. It’s only natural this deep into his career.

Few in his orbit expect Popovich to coach the Spurs beyond the 2020 Summer Olympics, and there always has been the possibility that he could spend the 2019-20 season traveling the NBA and globe, preparing for his national team duties. Perhaps Popovich can have Leonard on Team USA in 2020, too, but that’s a conversation for a different day.

For now, Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard are trying to find a way to get through the summer of 2018 — and beyond — together. They’re a long way from the offer of a $219 million contract, from a franchise and a franchise star resurrecting a relationship.

It will start soon where it started seven years ago on draft night: between Popovich and Leonard.

Article source: http://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/23770525/what-next-kawhi-leonard-san-antonio-spurs-nba-free-agency-trades