Before Saturday night’s game at Milwaukee, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was asked about the importance of point guard Patty Mills‘ leadership in the wake of Manu Ginobili’s retirement and Kawhi Leonard‘s trade to Toronto, and he provided a blunt assessment of the latter.
“Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader or anything,” Popovich told reporters of Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year. “Manu and Patty were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn’t his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Manu and Patty filled that role last year, and LaMarcus [Aldridge] came a long way in that regard also.”
Leonard is expected to return to San Antonio on Jan. 3, when the Raptors face the Spurs at the AT&T Center.
Sent to Toronto along with Danny Green in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick this past offseason, Leonard played in just nine games last season for the Spurs as he dealt with a right quadriceps injury.
During Leonard’s rehabilitation process, his relationship with the Spurs became strained as the sides disagreed about different elements of the recovery and the various timetables for return. He requested a trade over the summer, and the Spurs eventually acquiesced.
Before that, as Leonard developed into one of the NBA’s premier two-way players and a perennial MVP candidate, the Spurs had hoped he would take on a larger role as a leader, especially after the 2016 retirement of franchise stalwart Tim Duncan.
Leonard actually started to take steps in that direction, and he was often one of the first Spurs to address the media as a team spokesman after games once Duncan retired.
But after Leonard suffered an ankle injury in Game 1 of the 2017 Western Conference finals that forced him to miss that entire series, the team revealed just before training camp that he was dealing with the quadriceps issue. From that point forward, Leonard became distant with the organization, sources told ESPN.
Still, Popovich defended Leonard over the summer against any insinuation that he was not a good teammate.
“That is all ridiculous,” Popovich said at the time. “Kawhi was a great teammate the whole way through. He did his work, and he was no problem for anybody. Talking heads out there have to have a story. If I was a talking head — maybe I am — I would have stories, too. All the stories that denigrated him in that regard, that was unfortunate and inaccurate.”
All the changes left somewhat of a leadership void that Mills has assumed along with Aldridge.