It always felt like things worked out too easily for the Spurs. They struck gold twenty years ago with Tim Duncan, one of the greatest basketball players of all time, who played his entire career with few missteps. Then, right as Duncan’s career was winding down, here came Kawhi Leonard, an athletic marvel with eleven-inch hands who quickly blossomed into the best two-way player in basketball. His easy-going nature off the court melded perfectly with the franchise; he seemed happy set aside his ego and quietly submit to coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs way. “I don’t like to bring attention to myself,” he told Sports Illustrated in a 2016 cover story. “I don’t like to make a scene.”
But this offseason, Leonard made a scene. Rumors of the forward wanting out of San Antonio started in January, a saga that seemed to center around the treatment of a quad injury he sustained during the 2016-17 season. Now, he and teammate Danny Green are heading to the Toronto Raptors, ending months of speculation and confirming, once and for all, that Leonard’s position as Duncan’s heir apparent was too good to be true.
In hindsight, it’s clear that what Duncan and Popovich built was something miraculous. In two decades, they fostered a level of trust that few players and coaches ever reach (and, it’s important to note, never missed the playoffs once). In the closing moments of game six of the 2013 finals, against LeBron James and the Miami Heat, Popovich benched Duncan to bolster the team’s defense. When the Heat’s Ray Allen hit a three to send the game to overtime, Duncan didn’t grumble once. Any other superstar would have felt wounded by the decision. Instead, Duncan led the team to a championship the following season.
That’s not common. Players like Duncan don’t come every few years, but Spurs fans couldn’t help but hold out hope that Leonard would follow in his footsteps. He had elements of Duncan’s shine but, it’s clear now, little of substance. Kawhi Leonard is no Tim Duncan. On the court, Leonard is as talented a player as there is in the NBA, and for years it seemed he had that special Duncanian makeup off-the-court as well. He was the type of player who could thrive in Popovich’s team-first system, the rare superstar who had no interest in anything other than playing basketball. The team’s gain was his—until last season, when he suddenly betrayed those ideals. To be clear, it’s his right to chase the fame and fortune that comes with being a more traditional NBA superstar. It’s just hard to see the latest turn in his career as anything other than profoundly disappointing.
It’s worth considering that maybe the Spurs aren’t the foolproof organization that we thought they were either. They seemed to think that the good times would never end, as if they knew some team-building secret nobody else did. They thought they could strike gold twice. They didn’t expect the relationship with Leonard to blow up because they didn’t think that could happen in San Antonio, the NBA’s model franchise. They couldn’t see that maybe their handling of Leonard’s injury was, in fact, unnecessarily stubborn and that his decision to seek a second opinion was justified. The Spurs seem to have lost a bit of their luster.
There are only three players from the 2014 championship team left: recently re-signed Marco Belenelli, who returns from a stint in Philadelphia; Patty Mills; and Manu Ginobili, who is mulling retirement. Longtime point guard Tony Parker is off to Charlotte. So Wednesday’s trade only crystallizes the fact that this is a very different, unrecognizable team.
And now, Popovich inherits his toughest challenge in years. Coming from Toronto is Demar DeRozan, a four-time All Star and one of the best guards in basketball, who comes with three years remaining on his contract. But instead of using this trade as an opportunity to rebuild, targeting DeRozan signals that the Spurs want to keep winning now, and while they’ll make the playoffs, any further success is hazy. The core is aging fast: LaMarcus Aldridge is 33, Pau Gasol 38 and if he continues to play, Ginobli 41. Rudy Gay’s new contract only lasts one year. It doesn’t feel like a roster that can compete for a championship, especially in a Western Conference dominated by the Warriors, Rockets and LeBron’s new-and-improved Lakers.
Two years after his retirement, the Spurs are still looking to fill the void left by Tim Duncan. Leonard wasn’t the man for the job, and by his own choice, he’s off to Toronto. Things aren’t so easy in San Antonio after all. Replacing a legend might just be the trickiest thing to pull off in all of sports.