Season of sudden strife sends shake-up through stable San Antonio Spurs

Players-only meetings, playoff jostling, superstar drama unusual for this franchise

SAN ANTONIO — The NBA calendar is ready to flip to April where we find the San Antonio Spurs fighting to save their season, instead of just saving their breath, which is what they’re usually doing this time of year.

The team that perfected (if not created) the art of resting players — especially their geezers — are pressing. It’s all hands-on deck, and all tongues on the floor, as we saw the other day when Manu Ginobili had one question once he left an intense overtime win over the Utah Jazz:

“How many minutes did I just play?”

The reply was 13 of a possible 17 in the fourth quarter and OT.

“Oh.” (face rub).

This isn’t a humane way to treat a 40-year-old this deep in the season, burning his limbs and leaning on him for late buckets and plays, except these aren’t typical times for the Spurs.

They’re 43-32, haven’t clinched a playoff spot yet and their streak of 20 straight postseason appearances is technically still at risk. A 50-win season — something they’ve done every season but the 50-game 1998-99 campaign — depends on them winning out to end 2017-18. And of course, there’s the continued and confounding absence of Kawhi Leonard, their quiet and strangely gimpy franchise player, who may not suit up again this season or perhaps ever again for the Spurs.

It’s all so very un-Spurs-like, so unusual for the NBA’s most respected franchise (and one of the most respected in professional team sports) to be dealing with drama, mystery, turbulence and a high potential of a quick exit in the playoffs. The Spurs themselves are among those caught by surprise, as they aren’t used to feeling an undercurrent of disharmony while the New Orleans Pelicans, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors enjoy the view from the Spurs’ usual perch in the Western Conference penthouse.

Asked if this is the strangest Spurs season he’s even been involved in, Tony Parker is quick and noticeably firm with his answer:

“Yes. By far.”

The Spurs have won four of their five NBA titles during Parker’s 16-year career and are respected by many, copied by none and built by Timmy [Duncan], David [Robinson] and coach Gregg Popovich. The Spurs have lived in a bubble of their own creation, insulating them from the typical stuff that challenge and sometimes break other teams. But here they are, desperate almost, lumped with the pack that has chased them for miles.

“It’s a very unusual situation,” Ginobili said. “I don’t remember being in anything like this in 15 years. Unexpected, to tell you the truth.”

‘Real’ NBA arrives in San Antonio

One of the original layers of the foundation is Sean Elliott, a former Spurs All-Star turned Spurs TV broadcaster and analyst, who can’t believe his eyes somedays. Like others, Elliott admits to being spoiled by all the winning, stability, excellence and overall lack of alarm. But, he also knows nothing lasts forever in the NBA.

“I do a lot of speaking engagements around town,” Elliott said, “and for years I’ve been telling people: ‘You guys just don’t realize that the real NBA is not here in San Antonio.’ I said, ‘One day the real NBA is going to come here.’ ”

Has real life finally caught up with the Spurs? More cold evidence is needed before reaching that conclusion, and this could very well be a momentary burp. Overall, it’s hard to bet against San Antonio’s track record. Yet the Spurs aren’t trending in the right direction, thanks in large part to Leonard’s nagging quad injury (which has limited him to nine games this season).

Parker had the same injury last May only to return this season. When he remarked the other day how his was “a hundred times worse,” it was a backhanded swipe at Leonard’s absence, whether intended or not. The Spurs don’t have a history of questioning each other in public, but this isn’t a typical atmosphere for them. In all, it revealed how intense the situation with Leonard is now.

Leonard hasn’t responded to Parker’s comments, which isn’t a surprise given Leonard’s usual reluctance to talk. But ex-Spurs player Stephen Jackson took offense, and hinted in an interview with Fox Sports Radio that Parker was doing Popovich’s dirty work.

“It’s so low and the timing was even worse,” Jackson said. “With this comment, I wouldn’t be surprised if this makes Kawhi want to leave. His heart and passion should never be questioned. That was low, coming from one of your teammates.”

In late March, the Spurs held a team meeting in which Ginobili and Parker approached Leonard with blunt questions about his status this season. Their line of questioning wasn’t intense, said Danny Green, but clearly, they needed an answer. Leonard wasn’t prepared to give them one.

That’s why Ginobili said soon after the meeting that the Spurs “gotta think they he’s not coming back, because it’s not helping … we are who we are and we gotta fight without him.”

Kawhi factor colors season

What exactly is the hold up with Leonard, who at 26 is the most important player on the club, by far?

After returning to work out with the Spurs in early March, after seeking a second opinion on his injury, he hasn’t played since. Suddenly, there’s real concern about his future in San Antonio. There’s the belief held by some within and outside the organization that Leonard is listening more to his inner circle of family and advisers.

Indeed, these are heightened times for the two-time All-NBA first teamer, Kia MVP candidate and 2014 Finals MVP. He’s eligible for a super max contract extension this summer and next season will be the last of his present contract.

The organization and the team came first before the money. That’s not very typical. Maybe we’re running into that, maybe not. I don’t know.”

Spurs legend and TV analyst Sean Elliot

Robinson and especially Duncan took less than their market value to ensure the Spurs could spend on help. Is this the first time that their franchise player won’t be as forgiving? Is Leonard willing to spend most if not all of his career in San Antonio, or is he seeking an exit strategy? Is he looking to boomerang back home to Los Angeles, where the Lakers are looking to buy A-list talent?

“Our superstars have always stayed here,” Elliott said. “They’ve never wanted to wander and go someplace else. The community and organization has always made them feel appreciated. We’ve never had guys jump ship on us. It still hasn’t happened.

“Tim and Dave set the standards. They were the pillars. They didn’t read the superstar’s handbook. They were down-to-earth, unselfish players. The organization and the team came first before the money. That’s not very typical. Maybe we’re running into that, maybe not. I don’t know. I can’t say until we see how the whole thing unfolds.”

When it comes to Leonard and his future preferences, your guess is as good as Elliott’s.

“I know he’s a very reserved guy,” said Elliott. “He’s starting to come out of his shell. But other than that I don’t know if anybody has gotten into that inner circle with him. I think Pop has a little bit, maybe Manu and Tony, but I don’t know if anyone has cracked the inner, inner circle with Kawhi.”

Less-robust cupboard in San Antonio?

It’s not all about Leonard and his injury. The Spurs also find themselves in this position because they haven’t surrounded him with the level of talent Robinson and Duncan enjoyed. Beyond All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, where’s the other star or engaging young talent with the star potential? (And Aldridge hasn’t always meshed well with Leonard to begin with.)

This is the unexplained and under-reported issue.

The Spurs play decently at times because of Aldridge’s skill, their overall passing and toughness – but not because they’re loaded, roster-wise. The talent-acquisition machine Popovich and GM RC Burford made set a standard for years.

Since taking Duncan No. 1 overall in 1998, the Spurs have picked in the top 20 once since then (in 2010). Through shrewd use of their low first-round picks and savvy player movement, the Spurs always found the right player for their needs (Bruce Bowen, Steve Kerr, Patty Mills, etc.). They got Leonard through a 2011 Draft-day deal centered on George Hill and, in short, their player-development system was the envy of other teams.

Lately, only two of San Antonio’s recent Draft picks — Dejounte Murray (No. 29 in 2016) and Kyle Anderson (No. 30, 2012) — are getting major minutes. Neither of them are showing the future Hall of Fame stock Parker and Ginobili did in their younger days – and those two Spurs legends were also non-lottery picks. The Spurs also surprised some around the league last summer when they extended 37-year-old Pau Gasol’s contract while refusing to re-sign forward Jonathon Simmons, who got his payday with the Orlando Magic.

New path may await Spurs

The Spurs with a healthy Leonard would make for an intriguing playoff team. Yet is it fair to say that, even with Leonard, the Spurs’ title hopes would be a stretch given the 60-win Rockets and defending-champion Warriors? A best-case scenario has the Spurs winning in the first round and then facing serious summer questions about Leonard.

Popovich said Leonard wants to play right now and, to his knowledge, is doing everything possible to prepare himself.

“If he got added to the team for the playoffs, well, that’s great,” Popovich said, “but we have to act like it’s not going to happen because he’s not with us so this team got to have its own identity. That seems pretty logical, the only way to look at this.

“I think they’ve done a hell of a job this year without him.”

Two weeks ago, the Spurs were outside the playoff picture. They then ran off six straight wins behind Aldridge, whose 32.2 ppg during that stretch was second only to LeBron James. But now Aldridge is dealing with a knee injury.

Until then, said Ginobili: “We were a little down, a little demoralized.” Those words aren’t commonly used when describing the Spurs.

Players-only meetings. Playoff bubbles. Superstar dilemmas.

It’s all new to a franchise that set the bar high for everyone, only to see itself struggling to clear it right now. The only thing more perplexing than the future, especially if Kawhi asks for a trade this summer or plays out his contract and moves on, is the present.

“This is rare for me,” Green said. “I’ve been blessed. This time of year we’re resting guys. It’s hard to be successful for 20 years. Hopefully we’re not the team to let that go.”

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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