After Tim Duncan retired in 2016, there were whispers about who would take over the mantle for the San Antonio Spurs. Eyes were quickly cast on Kawhi Leonard, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP, as the next legendary Spurs star. However, his status with the team was marred with controversy. And according to head coach Gregg Popovich, Leonard didn’t even possess the qualities of a leader back then.
Will the real leader please stand up
In September 2018, months after Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors, Popovich pointed out who took over as the team’s voice. He praised Leonard’s basketball talents but pointed out that he wasn’t the squad’s figurehead. Instead, it was Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills who stepped up.
“Kawhi was a great player, but he wasn’t a leader. Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills] were the leaders. Kawhi’s talent will always be missed, but leadership wasn’t his deal at the time. That may come as he progresses. Patty and Manu filled that role for us last year. LaMarcus [Aldridge] came a long way as a leader also,” Popovich said, per Bleacher Report.
It’s an interesting detail. In the 2015-16 NBA season — Duncan’s final year — Kawhi’s game moved up to the next level. He became an All-Star, was selected to the All-NBA Team and won his second straight Defensive of the Year plum. He also finished second in the MVP voting behind Stephen Curry. These accolades certainly prove that Leonard is the next Spurs star.
But Popovich’s comment reveals the difference between a star and a leader. Yes, Leonard was the best player on the squad. But he wasn’t mature and experienced enough to take on a leadership role for the Spurs.
As such, Popovich’s comments weren’t filled with hate. He wasn’t slamming Kawhi for wanting out of the Spurs. Rather, Popovich was telling the truth. He also gave Ginobili, Mills, and Aldridge their due for taking over the mantle after Duncan left.
Kawhi may have pulled a Michael Jordan after Popovich’s comments. After all, Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to the NBA title that season. Leonard may have taken Popovich’s criticism personally.
After winning the title, Leonard went back home to Los Angeles to form his own team with Paul George. The team quickly achieved relative success, and despite his quiet nature, Kawhi has definitely accepted more leadership responsibilities compared to his San Antonio days. Will it be enough? We'll find out very soon.