All of the offseason’s hullabaloo about the landing spots of free agents LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and other ubiquitous, TV-friendly stars was tempered by a nagging reminder: None of the league’s buzziest names won the most recent NBA title. That claim belongs to the San Antonio Spurs, and their 23-year-old Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard, like all Spurs, got through the regular season without turning too many heads. He missed 16 games despite being largely healthy, and averaged less than 30 minutes per contest. Coach Gregg Popovich and Co. are chiefly concerned with bodily maintenance before they reach the playoffs, going deep into the bench and relying on team efforts as they preserve top talent more than they exploit it.
It’s a principles-first program that works — the team has been a title contender every year since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997. But now Leonard, the most valuable piece of San Antonio’s future, wants to be paid like a centerpiece. And why wouldn’t he? The relentless, lengthy, hugely skilled forward went toe-to-toe with LeBron two summers in a row and came out shining. He’s every bit the superstar.
But talks about a new Leonard deal, between his agent Brian Elfus and Spurs’ general manager R.C. Buford, have not gained traction, as reported by NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. If the two sides don’t reach an agreement by the first of November, Leonard will become a restricted free agent in July 2015. The Spurs will be able to match any offer other teams give him, so it’s not as if Leonard’s exodus is a foregone conclusion. Far from it.
But if San Antonio wanted to give him max money, wouldn’t they have paid up already? There’s a ton of merit to the team’s no-star ethos, but when Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker retire within a few years, they’ll need a new leader. Will Leonard not be the man for that job?
— John Wilmes