What is next for Kawhi Leonard and San Antonio Spurs

They had come to honor the memory of Erin Popovich at a San Antonio restaurant a month ago, generations of Spurs players, coaches and executives traveling to pay their respects to the program patriarch’s late wife. The room, thick with emotion and nostalgia, represented two decades of the franchise’s basketball family, including its elusive current superstar, Kawhi Leonard.

Throughout the gathering, Leonard appeared as comfortable as he ever does in social settings. No more, no less engaged. For a night anyway, Leonard moved easily among his contemporaries and predecessors. Months of mistrust and acrimony peeled back. Kawhi Leonard was a Spur.

“It was like he had never been away,” one Spurs alumnus in attendance told ESPN.

Of course, Leonard had been away. In August, he moved his medical and rehab treatment for a right quad injury outside the organization, and he never again returned control to the team. Throughout a regular season that included him playing only nine games, a gulf grew and Leonard regularly commuted between San Antonio and New York to rehab his own way, with his own people.

Once teammate Tony Parker publicly declared that his own quad injury was “a hundred times worse” than Leonard’s, the former Defensive Player of the Year started to feel a sense of siege in San Antonio — and soon after, in late March, he left his team for the rest of the regular season and playoffs.

Leonard returned to San Antonio shortly after the Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs in late April, leaving the New York-New Jersey area where he had spent much of the past few months with his uncle/adviser, Dennis Robertson. Around the time when Leonard attended the Popovich gathering on May 6, he underwent a routine exit physical with the Spurs and left for his offseason home in California, league sources said.

Sooner than later, there will be a meeting set with Gregg Popovich and Leonard. It’s still in the planning stages. They have been in contact, but there will be a conversation — or, perhaps, a series of them — about whether a lasting trust and partnership can be rebuilt. They’ll have to talk about medical care and treatment. They’ll have to talk about Leonard’s relationship with the coaching staff and his teammates, which is strained. They’ll have to talk about the franchise’s willingness to deliver the five-year, $219 million contract extension Leonard is eligible to receive, because the Spurs will need to be convinced that a historic contract is met with historic commitment.

If Leonard wants the Spurs to make that super-maximum contract offer — and indications are indeed, yes, Leonard and his group want that offer — the history of how Popovich and Spurs president RC Buford do business suggests the offer won’t come without significant repairing of the relationship.

History suggests the Spurs could want to see Leonard return to the active lineup before making a super-max offer next year, see him reinvested fully into the program. To think Popovich will walk into a room after months of discontent and immediately drop that $219 million on Leonard goes against every way the Spurs have operated.

To broker a future with Leonard, it won’t be with his agent, or his uncle. It’ll be Popovich and Leonard — or it probably won’t happen.

The NBA draft is June 21, and free agency begins July 1. Because Leonard didn’t meet All-NBA criteria in 2017-18, he will need to requalify next season to become eligible again to be offered the five-year, $219 million contract in the summer of 2019. To do so, he will have to make one of the All-NBA teams, or win MVP or Defensive Player of the Year. Leonard can opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent next July.

So, if the Spurs resist offering Leonard the $219 million now — and then he threatens to walk in free agency or asks for a trade this summer — it will get complicated for San Antonio.

Will the Spurs wait out Leonard and gamble he wouldn’t turn down the $219 million next year? Do the Spurs have leverage in a possible Leonard trade now? Does the marketplace limit where San Antonio can trade Leonard, because teams that don’t believe they can re-sign him in 2019 would be reluctant to part with major assets in a deal?

Those are questions the Spurs must be asking themselves now, and they are a big part of the reason San Antonio prefers it doesn’t come down to these trade scenarios. Popovich wants to coach Leonard for the rest of his Spurs tenure, wants to find a way to make it possible now.

The Boston Celtics made a trade offer to San Antonio before the February deadline, but the Spurs turned it down — and never made a counterproposal, league sources said. San Antonio wasn’t willing to discuss deals for Leonard in February. So far this spring, the Spurs remain resistant to trades.

If reconciliation talks don’t go well with Leonard, San Antonio has time to reconsider that stance. For example, Boston has the most appealing assets: starry young players and Sacramento’s No. 1-protected 2019 first-round pick.

Only four months since the trade deadline, the Celtics find themselves in a different organizational space. GM Danny Ainge can stay on course with forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on rookie contracts, sparing Boston the financial pressure of re-signing two maximum-contract players with injury histories — Kyrie Irving and Leonard — in 2019.

Boston could still consider Leonard on a distressed, discounted deal — the way it secured Irving last summer — but that has become a far less likely scenario than keeping its young core.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers have interest in Leonard, each with a differing array of young assets to trade for him now and the potential of salary-cap space to sign Leonard outright in 2019.

In the end, Leonard could dictate his destination based on his willingness to sign long term upon a trade. Oklahoma City acquired All-Star forward Paul George last summer without a commitment, and there will undoubtedly be a few teams with a similarly adventurous spirit in pursuit of Leonard.

For now, the Spurs’ future is on hold awaiting the Popovich-Leonard sitdown. How Popovich details his own coaching future to Leonard could be an interesting subplot of the conversation. Since the Spurs won a fifth NBA championship in 2014, Buford has had to be prepared for the possibility of Popovich, 69, coaching a final season and moving onto NBA retirement. Every year, they need to make sure there will be one more season for Popovich. It’s only natural this deep into his career.

Few in his orbit expect Popovich to coach the Spurs beyond the 2020 Summer Olympics, and there always has been the possibility that he could spend the 2019-20 season traveling the NBA and globe, preparing for his national team duties. Perhaps Popovich can have Leonard on Team USA in 2020, too, but that’s a conversation for a different day.

For now, Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard are trying to find a way to get through the summer of 2018 — and beyond — together. They’re a long way from the offer of a $219 million contract, from a franchise and a franchise star resurrecting a relationship.

It will start soon where it started seven years ago on draft night: between Popovich and Leonard.

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