News analysis

Leonard holds the key to the Spurs' order on the court

NEW YORK • Writing off the San Antonio Spurs, even when things look bleak, is strictly prohibited.

The warning is taken so seriously by members of the National Basketball Association's (NBA) press corps that it should be sprinkled in with the rest of the fine print on the back of every media credential, alongside the stock reminders that transmitting live game action without proper consent or seeking autographs from players is forbidden.

It's no joke. After the Spurs' 18 consecutive 50-win seasons, as well as the unforgettable manner in which they shook free from a five-season title drought to nearly win back-to-back championships in 2013 and 2014, there is great trepidation within the hoops punditry to proclaim this the season that Gregg Popovich finally misses the play-offs for the first time since 1996-97.

Even with Kawhi Leonard's return to the line-up delayed yet again and despite one of the league's hardest remaining schedules, San Antonio are widely expected to find a way to snag one of the West's final play-off spots - even after they briefly strayed outside the top eight this month.

But 2017-18 will be remembered as the season that the Spurs were forced to cope with the drama, speculation and strife that have routinely plagued the 29 other NBA teams throughout the Popovich era.

It will be remembered as the season that some of the Spurs' mystique was, at the very least, smudged.

2017-18 will be remembered as the season that the Spurs were forced to cope with the drama, speculation and strife that have routinely plagued the 29 other NBA teams.

It all revolves around Leonard and the months-long spectacle surrounding the mysterious quadriceps injury that has limited him to just nine of San Antonio's 69 games.

Murmurs of discontent on both sides have been bubbling for months, with ESPN reporting late last month that the Spurs expected their All-Star swingman back on the floor by now.

Leonard, meanwhile, continues to seek treatment, counsel and clearance to return from the injury from outside the franchise.

It's all rather ominous because Leonard is eligible for a "supermax" contract extension worth in excess of US$200 million (S$263.6 million) on July 1.

Are the Spurs prepared to offer that much to a player, however dominant, when he is in uncertain health and insists on being treated by his own doctors?

Does Leonard, whose loyalty was never questioned until his injury woes, indeed want to tether himself to the Spurs and succeed Tim Duncan as the face of the franchise?

Or is it conceivable that both parties are headed for an impasse that could tempt the Spurs (39-30) to trade him to avoid the risk of losing him in free agency in the summer of 2019?

What can be safely concluded at this juncture is that the Spurs haven't been confronted with this much uncertainty since the summer of 2000, when Duncan flirted hard with fleeing to the Orlando Magic.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 18, 2018, with the headline 'Leonard holds the key to the Spurs' order on the court'. Print Edition | Subscribe