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San Antonio Spurs: Is Kawhi Leonard’s contract extension the problem?

By Rob Wolkenbrod
SAN ANTONIO, TX - JANUARY 13: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs looks on during the game against the Denver Nuggets on January 13, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO, TX - JANUARY 13: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs looks on during the game against the Denver Nuggets on January 13, 2018 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images)
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What if an impending contract situation is the root of the issue between the San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard?

Entering the 2017-18 NBA season, who expected the San Antonio Spurs vs. Kawhi Leonard to be the biggest storyline? An organization that stayed out of the headlines for the Gregg Popovich era, the Spurs entered unchartered territory in January, with the first report of tension between the team and Leonard, due to the handling of his quad rehab. It caused a “strained” relationship, something that grew with every new headline from ESPN and other media publications.

As of Thursday, we know Leonard is in New York to work out. It could mean something, but it’s difficult — maybe impossible — to know where the Spurs and Leonard stand. It’s all speculation, much like the impending contract situation.

This summer, San Antonio can offer Leonard a five-year, $200-plus million deal. It’s an extra year and more money than anyone else can offer him.

Seven months ago, the question of “Will San Antonio give Kawhi Leonard a supermax contract?” seemed laughable. Of course they would, right? A player who had a career year in 2016-17, an MVP candidate and the man who led this team to 60-plus wins.

Well, what if the contract is keeping Leonard off the floor? Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated raised this issue on the Open Floor podcast, presenting a hypothetical situation of Leonard’s group and their mindset:

“If you’re Kawhi’s people, your big concern is not compromising that supermax contract next summer, right? What if you get to a situation where you’re like, ‘Look guys, we know you want him back this season. You have a shot at the Western Conference finals if he plays. We understands that. But if he plays there’s a risk of injury. We want to make sure that supermax is still going to be there for him this summer if he happens to get injured.”

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Remember when Leonard was reportedly cleared to play by the Spurs? The team apparently thinks he can play, but if there’s any feeling of pain in the right quad, that might leave cause for concern, no matter how severe it is.

With recurring pain comes potential doubt about making it worse by playing, especially after sitting for all but nine games. Sure, the team is in the hunt for the playoffs and could challenge the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets with Leonard in the lineup. What’s more important though: immediate success or avoiding risk before a $200 million offer from the Spurs this summer?

This contract sets Leonard up for life beyond basketball. One quad reaggravation, whether it’s a strain or a full-blown ligament tear, can shred that $200 million possibility to pieces. That still might be $100-150 million based on pedigree and age, but obviously not fulfilling the extension’s potential; an offer in this range could be from the Spurs or an outside organization in the 2019 offseason.

Of course, the Spurs can use Leonard now, rather than six months from now. They just dropped back-to-back games at the Staples Center against the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers (both of which were squandered leads) and still do not have a secured playoff spot. That’s with a 1.5-game gap between their No. 5 seed and the No. 9 Denver Nuggets.

THIS IS NUTS pic.twitter.com/wG86sUzEBT

— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) April 5, 2018

Past seasons proved Leonard’s impact at both ends of the court. He can guard the opposition’s most athletic player — something that was desperately needed against the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma — and hit a shot from inside or outside the arc at the court’s other end. Few players performed like the San Diego State product, something he and his camp probably realize and contributes to this contract situation. They may want the two-way All-Star image to stick, and any sign of injury-impacted play could hurt it.

Yes, it’s a “what-if” situation with Leonard or things that “could” happen. What if he returns and plays like an All-Star? What if his numbers tumble from the 2016-17 statistical averages? How could this raise doubt about a supermax contract?

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Once the offseason arrives, maybe Leonard drops his pen on paper within days of the league’s New Year (July 1) and settles the potential story of the summer. It would be the result of a low-risk ploy to secure the contract and return like nothing happened in the fall.

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