Kawhi Leonard’s low key personality and no-nonsense mentality made it look like he was the perfect torchbearer for the San Antonio Spurs after Tim Duncan’s retirement.

The Spurs have been a model of consistency and excellence in the NBA. They have the highest winning percentage among the NBA’s active franchises. They have made 22 consecutive trips to the NBA playoffs and have won at least 50 games in a season for 18 consecutive years. During that period, the Spurs only had one coach, and he is still the coach today, Gregg Popovich. Popovich has led the Spurs to five NBA titles, with at least one in each of the last three decades.

Leonard was a homegrown talent for the Spurs. After playing two seasons for the San Diego State University, the Spurs drafted him with the 15th overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. After finishing 4th in the Rookie of the Year balloting during his maiden NBA season, Popovich slowly breaking out his young star. By the 2013-14 season, Leonard had become one of the top players in the San Antonio franchise. He showed his ability to score but what stood out was his defense. Kawhi would shine in the 2014 NBA Finals where he helped the Spurs win the last of their five titles. He would be named as 2014 NBA Finals MVP and in the two seasons after that, Leonard would be named as back to back Defensive Player of the Year winner.

After Tim Duncan’s retirement in 2016, Leonard took over as the team superstar and he was named to the All-NBA first team in 2016 and 2017. He was also on the All-Defensive first team from 2015-2017. But just as it seemed when he was getting started, he suffered an injury during the 2017 playoffs and things were never the same again, at least for his San Antonio career.

Leonard ended up getting traded to North of the border and a healthy Kawhi Leonard would lead the Toronto Raptors to the 2nd best record in the NBA during the 2018-19 season and put them through their first ever NBA Finals appearance. Leonard is having a spectacular season in Toronto and who knows, he might even lead the team to their first ever NBA title this year, even if the NBA betting odds say the Warriors will win again this year.

But what happened to Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs? And how did he end up playing for the Toronto Raptors? We’ve witnessed Kawhi’s story with the Raptors this season. Now it’s time to know why and how he got there.

Basketball How Kawhi Got Hurt

The San Antonio Spurs faced the Golden State Warriors in the 2nd round of the Western Conference playoffs. In Game 1 of that series on May 14, 2017, Leonard had scored 25 points and appeared to be on his way to leading the Spurs to a huge win over the Warriors when suddenly, the ZaZa incident happened.

During the third quarter, Leonard rolled his ankle after Zaza Pachulia stepped under his left foot after Kawhi attempted a basket. Leonard would leave the game and never return, not in the game and not in the series. He would miss the remainder of the postseason and that effectively ended San Antonio’s season as well.

By June, Spurs GM R.C. Buford announced that Leonard had resumed physical activity and that the forward was “in a good position” to prepare normally for the upcoming season. But on September 30, 2017, the Spurs announced that Leonard was suffering from right quadriceps tendinopathy and that he would miss the entire preseason.

Then later it was announced Leonard would miss the Spurs season opener and by November, head coach Gregg Popovich admitted that Leonard’s recovery had taken longer than expected. Spurs guard Tony Parker, who suffered the same injury had already returned to action and said that Kawhi looked good in rehab and could be back soon.

Leonard resumed full-court practice in early December and finally made his return on December 12th or two weeks after Parker had come back from the same injury. Leonard scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds in just under 16 minutes of playing time against the Dallas Mavericks.

Basketball Return To Action and Indefinite Shut Down

As the Spurs slowly got him back in the rotation, Leonard suffered another setback when a partial shoulder tear put him back on the sidelines and forced him to miss three games in January. Leonard would come back and play 28 minutes against the Denver Nuggets on January 13, 2018. And then Kawhi was shut down indefinitely after reports that his quadriceps tendinopathy was flaring up.

Shortly after resuming his rehab, cracks in the relationship between player and franchise began to appear. Reports surfaced that Kawhi’s recovery timeline was creating a rift between him and the organization. Initially, both parties denied the reports. Prior to this, the only known reason why Kawhi was out of action was his health. But now, it looked as if there was something more to it.

After one month of restarting his rehabilitation, it was reported that Leonard had already been given clearance by the team doctors to return to action but Leonard insisted to sit it out to ensure he was 100%. During the all-star break, it was revealed that Leonard had spent 10 days in New York to get a second opinion from a third-party specialist.
While everybody was waiting for Kawhi’s own medical team to give him the go-signal to return, some Spurs players began speaking publicly about Leonard’s situation and they did so with regularity. Unknown to the word, the team had a players-only meeting on Saturday, March 18. The media knew about the meeting only three days after it happened and while its tenor was never made official, it was said to have revolved around Kawhi Leonard’s injury status.

On March 21, 2018, Spurs veteran leader Manu Ginobili told reporters that the Spurs had to play thinking that “Leonard wasn’t coming back”. Two days later, Parker would tell media that he suffered the same injury as Leonard but that his injury was “a hundred times worse” than Kawhi’s. While all these were happening around him, Leonard quietly continued to rehab in New York and away from his team.

The Spurs were eliminated from the playoffs the by Warriors for the second straight season. But more than that, it was the absence of Leonard from the sidelines that was more interesting. The following month, rumors of Leonard’s team forcing the Spurs to trade him to a big market city started to surface. The Spurs tried to douse off those rumors by considering to offer Leonard a max contract worth $129M for five years, the largest possible extension they could offer.

Basketball Kawhi Wants Out

After months of silence and beating around the Bush, Leonard finally came up and indicated that he wished to be traded to a Los Angeles team, preferably the Lakers. He reportedly told teams that he intends to decline his 2019-20 player option and become a free agent to sign with the Lakers

Left with no choice, the Spurs accepted their fate and started to listen to offers. Kawhi’s camp was angling at a Los Angeles homecoming for the L.A. native. Leonard was firm on his decision to leave and sources said Parker’s comments about his quad injury was the last straw. Parker would later leave and sign a two-year deal with the Charlotte Hornets.

When the bidding war began, teams like the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Washington Wizards, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers and Toronto Raptors joined the Lakers in their efforts to bag the former NBA Finals MVP.

The Lakers had the upper hand because Leonard reportedly preferred going there although there were other rumors that said he wanted to go to the Clippers over the Lakers because he didn’t want to play second fiddle to LeBron James. The Lakers took the same approach it did when Paul George wanted to leave Indiana a year ago. With the Lakers low-balling and the Clippers not having enough trade chips to impress the Spurs, San Antonio looked elsewhere.

Finally, the Spurs announced on July 18, 2018, that they had traded Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. In that trade, the Spurs also sent guard Danny Green to Toronto while the Raptors sent DeMar DeRozan, third-year big man Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick to San Antonio. The rest they say is history.

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