Kawhi Leonard Quit on his Team. Today, no one seem to care – (article written by Ben Feinberg)
Kawhi Leonard is many things. A superstar for the Toronto Raptors, who dragged them to the NBA Finals. An interesting personality that the media, and I, never quite seem to grasp. Arguably the only player who can prevent another year of basketball fans rolling their eyes while Kevin Durant acts like he deserves credit for the Warriors championship. However, Leonard’s superb basketball abilities do not excuse him becoming every sport parent’s worst nightmare – a quitter.
To those who have forgotten, Kawhi Leonard quit on the Spurs. After suffering an ankle sprain against the Warriors in the 2017 playoffs, the series swinging play where he landed on Zaza Pachulia‘s foot, Leonard did not make his debut the next season until December 12, 2017. The Spurs treated his recovery with caution, not allowing him to play unless he had two days rest prior to a game. When Leonard played he performed admirably, not quite to the very high bar he has set himself, but close.
Leonard only averaged 16.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game on 47 percent shooting, but he also only averaged 23 minutes per game. Given he was coming off an injury and presumably rusty his performances were as impressive as one could hope. However, on January 17, the Spurs announced they were shutting down Leonard indefinitely until he was fully healthy due to complications from the injury suffered against the Warriors seven months prior. When discussing a superstar’s injury, the word indefinite is the last word any sport fan wants to hear.
However, by mid-March it appeared Leonard was recovering and would play soon. When he missed the game against the Pelicans on March 15 where it was presumed he would return his teammates grew frustrated. Manu Ginobli commented, “He is not with us most of the time. You have to make an effort to be around and still be a part of the everyday topics…you have to make an effort.” Tony Parker openly questioned Leonard’s injury stating, “I’ve been through it. It was a rehab for me for eight months. Same kind of injury (as Kawhi), but mine was a hundred times worse. But the same kind of injury. “
The situation got worse when Spurs coach Greg Popovich commented on April 1, “I don’t know when [Leonard] and his group are going to feel like they are ready to go…If I knew he would be here.” Ginobli’s, Parker’s, and Popovich’s comments indicated a disconnect between Leonard and the Spurs organization. Leonard did not return in the 2017-2018 season, playing only nine games. Amongst rumors that he had quit on the team and felt disrespected by teammates Leonard requested a trade in the summer of 2018. Leonard’s famously robotic personality did not help alleviate the negative reputation he received in the aftermath as Leonard and his “team” remained tight-lipped regarding the injury.
Leonard’s time in Toronto has gone smoothly, especially considering he is playing professional basketball for the first time regularly in over a year. Leonard had 24 points and 12 rebounds in the Raptors season opener against the Cavaliers along with his as usual outstanding defense. Games like this were the norm. Leonard averaged career highs this season in points (26.6), rebounds (7.3), and assists (3.3) per game this season while shooting an impressive but not uncharacteristic 49.6 percent from the field.
Highlights over the course of the season include scoring 37 points in a victory over the Leviathan, the Golden State Warriors, second team all-NBA honors and second team all-defensive team honors despite only playing 60 games. He and the Raptors are about to face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals and Leonard has been the unquestioned star of the NBA playoffs. Leonard is averaging 31.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.5 steals on 51 percent shooting. These are historically great numbers and Leonard has received deserved praise for his performance. NBA legend Scottie Pippen said he is in awe of Leonard, particularly his defense. Sixers coach Brett Brown, who lost to Leonard’s Raptors in the second round, compared Leonard favorably to Kobe Bryant. Teammate Kyle Lowry said he has never played with anyone who can score at will like Leonard except Yao Ming (interesting comparison by Lowry but who am I to question the all-star point guard).
Given Leonard’s long-term injury and his performance it is hard to not compare Leonard to other superstar players who missed significant time due to injury and how their performances changed when they returned to the court. Derrick Rose lost his lightning quick first step and went from an MVP caliber player to shooting 35 percent from the field following his ACL tear. Gordon Hayward looks sluggish compared to his Utah playing days following his horrific broken leg. Hayward went from averaging 21.9 points a game in his last season with Utah to 11.5 on worse shooting in Boston. Kobe Bryant never recovered from his Achilles injury, forcing one of the most creative and lethal players the league ever saw to return as a 37 percent shooter (don’t even ask about his defense).
The list of players who suffered serious setbacks to their careers following a significant injury is long and the three listed are only a few examples. Given Leonard’s remarkable season and recovery for an injury that was significant enough to sideline him for a season, it is impossible to not raise an eyebrow. Combined with the oddly passive-aggressive comments from his teammates and coach the only conclusion I can come to is that Leonard quit on the Spurs.
It is important to note that not all players who suffer significant injuries go on to become worse players. Paul George suffered a broken leg similar to Hayward’s. When he returned his numbers were similar for a season, 22 points per game versus 23 after the injury, and he looked similar on the court. Further, George has gone from a third team all-NBA player in the mid 2010’s to being named 1st team this season. Another example of a superstar improving after an injury is Steph Curry, who at age 22, missed the majority the season with ankle issues.
The season after he averaged 22.9 points per game, a career high at the time and obviously went on to improve as a player over the next few seasons. It is possible that Leonard falls into this category, players who happened to come back stronger after their significant injuries. However, given the Spurs response to his injury this seems unlikely. Much more likely, and the consensus amongst most media members at the time, was that Leonard quit.
There are many reasons Leonard may have quit. Most likely he felt disrespected by his teammates and coach. Snoop Dogg recently said regarding Leonard, “That man brought [The Spurs] a championship. That man locked up LeBron James. He was the shining star. When he took that injury, he was hearing all kinds of stuff that shouldn’t have been said.” However, that does not matter. It is a superstar’s responsibility to ignore whatever personal issues they have and do their best for the team, the same way it is a worker’s responsibility to not bring their personal problems into a work environment.
Other than a Skip Bayless tweet where he discusses how Parker and Manu questioned Leonard’s injury (which quickly goes sideways as Bayless tweets tend to), I have been unable to find much mention of Leonard quitting on the Spurs during his exceptional playoff run with Toronto. Further, some Spurs fans seem eager to forgive him. Shea Serrano, a writer for the Ringer, wrote in January of this year, “What’s easy to say, though, is that I know we’ll never hate [Leonard]. In all likelihood, we’ll likely eventually love him again.”
Why is Leonard not given the same treatment as other superstars who left their teams in controversial fashion such as Lebron James, who was never forgiven until he returned to Cleveland, Kevin Durant, who I believe will never be forgiven nor should he be, or even Dwight Howard, whose trade saga out of Orlando resulted in his reputation tanking? Simply because Leonard won a title with the Spurs before he quit and abandoned them? Further, the three guys aforementioned did not quit on their teams during the season as Leonard did (okay, maybe Lebron did in game six against the Celtics, but that was one game and he was relying on a guy named Boobie).
Leonard deserves the praise he is receiving for his role in lifting the Raptors to where they are now. However, he also deserves significant criticism from the vast majority of basketball fans for quitting on his team, arguably the greatest sin an athlete can commit on the court. As of now Leonard is not receiving this criticism.