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Kawhi Leonard and the Limits of Spurs Culture

The success of the Spurs is often chalked up to culture, but in order to maintain such mythology a team must have stars. San Antonio's run started with Tim Duncan and now rests on its ability to keep Kawhi Leonard.

The last time the Spurs won less than 50 games in an 82–game season, Bill Clinton was president. The English Patient won Best Picture. Titanic, Face/Off, Boogie Nights, and Good Will Hunting all hit theaters later that year. Ken Griffey, Jr. was in spring training, getting ready for a season in which he'd win MVP and lead the league in home runs. The week of March 29th, the top five songs in America were: 1. "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" (Puff Daddy and Mase); 2. "Wannabe" (Spice Girls); 3. "Foolish Games" (Jewel); 4. "In My Bed" (Dru Hill); 5. "Un-break My Heart" (Toni Braxton).

If random 1997 nostalgia doesn't properly convey how absurd the Spurs' run has been, maybe present-day context will do the job better. The Spurs have won 50 games every year for 18 straight seasons. The team they played Tuesday night, the Wizards, have gone 39 years without winning 50 games once. 

Of course, all the usual Spurs consistency stats come with bittersweet connotations this season. San Antonio was blown out by that Wizards team on Tuesday. Gregg Popovich waved the white flag midway through the third quarter. The Wizards were up 20 by that point, and LaMarcus Aldridge had hobbled off with a knee injury. An MRI for Aldridge's knee will come Wednesday. That loss all but guarantees that 50–win streak will end in the next two weeks. 

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It has been a phenomenally weird year in San Antonio. Weird because we've spent most of the season waiting for Kawhi Leonard to return, and it still hasn't happened. Weird because it seemed like Popovich was speaking directly to Kawhi a month ago, when he warned the world that his franchise's superstar was running out of time. Weird because we're still getting reports of internal dysfunction, some players are calling it "fake news", while Tony Parker recently noted that his leg injury was "100 times worse" than Leonard's. And weird because, even in this code-red scenario where literally everything has gone wrong, San Antonio can still salvage this season and make the playoffs.

Compared to the past 20 years, this year's Spurs team is a ghost ship. Dejounte Murray was six months old in March 1997, and he's starting at point guard. Kyle Anderson is averaging 7.9 points per game and starting at power forward. Davis Bertans has been a legitimate factor this year. At various points this season, San Antonio's been led in scoring by Brandon Paul, Bryn Forbes, and, one night in February against the Nuggets, Joffrey Lauvergne. Before Tuesday's game, Popovich was asked what he's enjoyed most about this season. "Just seeing a lot of guys get minutes they probably wouldn't have gotten," he said. "Seeing how they react. How they grow. That's been fun."


Everyone would probably be having more fun if Kawhi returned. There are any number of theories as to why he's still sitting. Some have noted that there's clearly a disconnect between Leonard and the team, and many are wondering if this season's dysfunction is just a prelude to a divorce sometime in the next year or two. Others think that Kawhi is being extra careful considering the supermax contract he'll theoretically have waiting for him this summer. And there are plenty of people who say that Kawhi Leonard knows his body best, and he's not comfortable playing yet. Maybe it's just that simple. But then again, this is also the Spurs. They're not a team that would be pressuring anyone to come back too soon, and certainly not in public.

Some of the Spurs culture mythology can get exhausting. We can only take so many cliches about diversity and selflessness and playing the right way. But it's not just hype, either. San Antonio really did help pioneer international scouting. They rested superstars before anyone else did. They excelled in player development. They installed a motion-heavy offensive system that optimized everyone on the floor, and eventually it became the blueprint for the best teams of this decade. In a tangible way, San Antonio's various innovations and points of emphasis were the difference between a great 5–6 year run winning with grinding defense in the mid–2000s and the 20–year journey we've seen instead.

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For his part, Popovich is still extremely on brand. He was dismissive when asked about the 50-win streak after the loss ("None of that stuff matters. It’s kind of cool that we did that stuff for a long time. I don’t know what it is worth. A cup of coffee?"), but before the game he spoke for nearly five minutes about the importance of engaging opposing viewpoints in good faith. That came after Sunday, when he offered characteristically cogent support for the March For Our Lives over the weekend, and again sounded like one of the most reasonable public figures in American life. Monday in D.C., he took the Spurs to see the Supreme Court and visit with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Sonia Sotomayor. All of this is part of Spurs culture, too, and part of why so many people admire it. 

On the court, LaMarcus Aldridge has been the foundation for everything that's worked this year. After Aldridge requested a trade over the summer, Popovich admitted earlier this year that he'd been coaching him wrong, and entered this season resolved to do better. "LaMarcus has probably [given me] the most satisfaction of the year," Pop said Tuesday. "He's been our leader. He's brought it every night at both ends of the floor, in tough circumstances. We've had a lot of guys out. And he's been brilliant." Through a make-or-break stretch run, Aldridge has averaged 27.9 points per game and 9.2 rebounds on 53% shooting in March.

So this is what the world looks like as the Spurs approach mortality. Popovich is inveighing against our broken government and still finding ways to optimize the talents of Kyle Anderson and Dejounte Murray. Aldridge is trying to carry the team to the end, putting the finishing touches on another All-NBA season and a borderline Hall of Fame résumé that no one seems to notice. Manu and Tony Parker are still playing 20 minutes a game. The front office is still unearthing inexplicably productive role players to fill out the rotation—Bertans!—and the Spurs are somehow still in the playoff mix. It's all very weird, it's all very Spurs. The ghost ship just refuses to sink. 

But none of this will matter if Kawhi Leonard doesn't come back. In fact, the next two weeks won't matter if Aldridge is seriously hurt. And if anyone is looking for broader lessons from this season in San Antonio, the story of those two is telling. 

The way we talk about how and why the Spurs are different sometimes obscures just how similar they've been to any other great team. For all the tributes to Popovich principles and multi-cultural influences and coffee and cold-pressed juices, there are still basic realities that are true across the league. Stars are everything in the NBA, and stars have been everything in San Antonio. The team was perpetually excellent not because of Pop, but because Tim Duncan was one of the greatest players ever. As the years passed and it was time to evolve, it worked because Duncan bought in to everything his coach was selling. Same with Manu and Tony Parker, and eventually Kawhi.

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This year, the Spurs haven't stayed alive because of ball movement and overachieving rotation guys and some kind of galaxy brain Pop enlightenment, but mostly because Aldridge bought back in this summer and played like a superstar all year. The best coaching Popovich did with this current group was when he mended that relationship over the summer. Aldridge has been just great enough to make the Spurs unbeatable against bad teams, and he gives them a shot against good teams. And yet, even as the Spurs have cheated death with arguably one of the Spurs-iest seasons ever, it's hard to get too excited.

Everyone can see the future in San Antonio is deeply uncertain until Kawhi Leonard makes the same decision Aldridge did. If the goal is contending, the rest of the roster is either too old, or too young and unproven to trust. Maybe Kawhi will buy in later this spring, maybe he won't. Maybe it's really about the injury, and his absence has never been about whether he's invested in the future. Either way, the Spurs' run began when the team found a generational superstar, and it will be over if they lose one.