When Gregg Popovich is mentioned in NBA circles, it is often with a patriarchal tone bordering on the absurd. A 69-year-old man with a deep military history who is nicknamed “Pop,” the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs is often spoken of as if he cannot be wrong; as if the integrity and authority of his word are as elemental as rock. His ability to gain the deference of young men, and mold them into compliant units of an immaculate basketball strategy, has long gone unquestioned by fans and analysts.
This trend, which has lasted for two decades, seems to be under threat of Kawhi Leonard. According to a series of ESPN reports from chief NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard’s relationship with Popovich and the Spurs has frayed considerably over the past year, owing to a sequence of miscommunications and disagreements about Leonard’s quad injury, which has kept him out of all but nine games this season. Asked about the push-pull dynamic between Leonard and San Antonio, Wojnarowski calls it “as odd of a situation as the Spurs have seen.”
While the Spurs have medically cleared Leonard to play, he has declined their call for his return. Recently, he went outside of the organization for a second opinion on his physical state, spending ten days in New York and confirming that he doesn’t feel ready to play. When pressed about Leonard’s status by media, Popovich fell short of officially declaring him out for the season, but said that he “would be surprised” if we saw Leonard again this season. In typically abrasive fashion, Popovich said “I’m [only] ready to say what I said” to a reporter who tried to pin him down for a more final statement.
It is unusual to see Popovich wage his surly war against reporters without the ammo of full confidence from his roster. Leonard, who at one time was so quiet and so reticent to emote any iota of his personality in the public light, seems the least likely disruptor of Popovich’s basketball jurisdiction. An MVP candidate and former Finals MVP, many are now speculating that Leonard is not long for the Spurs, and could attempt to jump ship via trade even before his 2019 free agency arrives. We’ll probably never see the telling details of the disconnect between Kawhi and his team, the smoking guns that make its drama more literary; such is the tight-lipped nature of the Spurs. But there is a gap between what they’re saying and what Kawhi is doing that suggests a moment of transition, a fading of Popovich’s paternal influence over the league.
About six months ago, Kyrie Irving made his own resonant jab into the guts of old NBA power. Fresh off his third straight Finals appearance playing alongside LeBron James with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyrie decided to force a trade and leave the Eastern Conference giant. Superstars on rosters with LeBron have historically not dissented from his blueprint in this way; they have always waited to be told their part in his plan, even though LeBron often keeps his plan to himself, and has shown that he is more than capable of leaving teammates behind in odd circumstances when the shape of his fate changes in his mind.
Irving saw the writing on the wall. James is headed for another uneasy free agency period in the summer of 2018, and so Kyrie found his exit strategy well before he might get stuck in a waiting game, twiddling his thumbs until LeBron’s next decision begat the chain reaction of roster movements throughout the league, potentially stranding Kyrie in middling Cleveland. Perhaps he was paying attention when Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh played through multiple seasons of a Miami Heat identity crisis after LeBron left Pat Riley hanging. In any event, Irving successfully pushed his way into a world where the designs of an elder held less gravity than his own individual mission.
Maybe Leonard is doing this too—maybe not. His skepticism about the Spurs and Popovich, regardless, marks the beginning of a new moment, as did Irving’s defection from the Cavs. In the minds of many, Kawhi can never be more than Popovich’s perfect soldier unless he leaves the Spurs—just as Kyrie could never be more than the secret, late-stage weapon in LeBron’s quest for more Odyssean glory if he didn’t find his way to the Boston Celtics instead. LeBron is still the game’s best player, and Popovich is still its best coach, and there’s no definite end in sight for either of these realities. But we have, at the very least, found ourselves at a place where there are two young men talented enough, and bold enough in their vision, to exercise their indifference to the traditions that each of these legends have wrought. In bucking the patriarchal patterns set forth by Popovich and LeBron, Kawhi and Kyrie have shown us something of the NBA’s future.