The San Antonio Spurs haven’t played up to their own (admittedly high) standards since being swept out of the 2017 NBA Western Conference Finals. The team didn’t know it at the time, but that defeat was also the beginning of the end of their relationship with Kawhi Leonard, who was injured during that playoff run.
The next season, injuries further limited Leonard to just nine regular-season games, though Spurs coaches, players, and medical staff let it be known via the media that they felt he could have made himself available for many more than that. Mistrust grew between the team and the star, who insisted he needed to continue to rehab. Eventually the relationship deteriorated to the point that Leonard demanded a trade. The Spurs reluctantly worked out a deal to send him to the Toronto Raptors last summer.
Now, on the heels of their own second straight first-round playoff exit, San Antonio faces the further indignity of watching the player who was supposed to have been the face of their franchise for the next decade instead carry the Raptors into the NBA Finals, which begin Thursday night in Toronto. Understandably, Spurs fans find themselves unsure which team—the Raptors or the opposing Golden State Warriors, San Antonio’s own Western Conference nemesis—they hope will claim the championship. We Spurs fans at Texas Monthly are similarly torn. Dan Solomon and Cat Cardenas have opposing takes on what to do. For fun, we also added the viewpoint of 12-year-old sports fanatic Gabe Scheibal, son of executive editor Kathy Blackwell, who interrupted the first week of his summer vacation to offer his more neutral take on the situation.
My favorite point in the Spurs’ storied tenure as America’s finest sports dynasty was the 2014 championship run. It marked a turning point, but the kind that suggested that the team’s future would remain bright. It was clear even then that it’d be close to a last hurrah for the Tim Duncan/Manu Ginobili/Tony Parker trifecta, but it also heralded the emergence of Kawhi Leonard as San Antonio’s new centerpiece.
That’s not how it worked out, of course, and Leonard’s path out of San Antonio is as close as a blemish as you’ll find on coach Gregg Popovich’s record. But watching Leonard with the Toronto Raptors, another team that plays in a championship-hungry community and represents more than just the city named on its jersey, feels appropriate. If he wasn’t going to be a Spur for life—and he definitely wasn’t—then winning a championship with the Raptors would feel like a satisfying next chapter in a career I’ve been following since it began. If Leonard’s next move is to go to a major U.S. media market—to join LeBron on the Lakers, to headline the Clippers, or to sign with the Nets or the Knicks—I’ll be disappointed. If he does that, his divorce from San Antonio will feel like a slight against the city, as he chased greater fame. If he stays in Toronto, though—which seems more likely if he brings the city a championship—he can remain a satisfying enigma, the man who toppled the mighty Warriors from the wild north country of Canada.
That watching-Kawhi-in-2014 feeling, when the young Finals MVP was poised to emerge as one of the league’s biggest stars after toppling the super team that was LeBron James and the Heat, is still there for me, even though I genuinely forgot that Toronto even had an NBA team until they traded for Leonard. He’s not a Spur, but he’s still a curious David out to slay an NBA Goliath, and that makes it really easy to root for him to do it once again. —Dan Solomon
I am a diehard Spurs fan—as in, my earliest memories are of their 2003 NBA championship river parade. I’ve celebrated wins at the AT&T Center and along Commerce Street as cars went honking by. I’ve also grieved losses and retirements, shedding more than a few tears when Timmy and Manu left. So when Leonard made his first appearance, I was excited. He was the injection of youth we were hoping for, with the skills to match the hype surrounding him. But with his nickname, “The Claw,” and his undeniable prowess on the court, came speculation about whether he’d stay in San Antonio or if he merely saw the Spurs as a stepping stone on his way to “greater” things.
To me and a lot of other fans, the thought of him leaving the team was unthinkable. Players further down the bench might come and go, but our stars just don’t leave. By the time the dust had settled last summer, and he was on his way to Toronto, almost the entire city had turned its back on the player who was once our greatest hope.
I could have taken the high road when he left, but I’ll leave maturity to others. The Spurs and their fans are a family, and the way Kawhi handled his departure felt like the ultimate betrayal. So as much as I can’t stand the Warriors, I’m still not ready to root for Kawhi. As we approach the first game of the Finals, I might find a copout and cheer for one of the former Spurs out there. Maybe I’ll find it within myself to be happy for Warriors head coach and former Spurs point guard Steve Kerr. Maybe, despite his declining playing time, I can just root for Danny Green—the Spur who felt like collateral damage in Kawhi’s wake. Or maybe, I’ll just avoid it and tune into the French Open instead. —Cat Cardenas
About a year ago, Kawhi Leonard was whining about San Antonio, and then he fled to another country. I would dislike him, but he did win a final for the Spurs. For having done that, I have no choice but to forgive him. The Warriors are a different story: you have the Splash Brothers (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) just being unfair, you got Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala playing hard-core defense while boxing out hard, you got Kevin Durant blowing up the place—not to mention Boogie Cousins there as an ornament. So it’s impossible to root for the Warriors. I’m not necessarily rooting for Kawhi; I’m just rooting against the Warriors.— Gabe Scheibal