Ten months can seem like a long time. But for Toronto Raptors’ superstar Kawhi Leonard, the past 10 months have been some of the most agonizing any NBA player has faced in the modern era. Forget 10 months; 10 days is all it took for the beloved San Antonio forward to have a fall from grace previously unseen in not just the NBA but the sports world altogether.
The decorated superstar had come into the 2016-17 season as a top candidate to win the MVP race. The face of the franchise, Tim Duncan, had announced his retirement the summer leading up to the season, thrusting Leonard into the forefront of Spurs basketball — an organization synonymous with class and poise.
The season culminated with a Western Conference matchup against the Golden State Warriors, after dominating the Grizzlies and the Rockets 4-2 each. The fateful Game 1 in Oracle haunts Spurs fans to this very day. With a commanding 23-point lead in the third quarter, Leonard went up for a shot to add to his 26 points — only to have Warriors center Zaza Pachulia make a dirty closeout leading to Leonard leaving the game. The 23-point lead the Spurs had built up to this point disintegrated and the Spurs would go on to get swept 4-0, with Leonard unable to play the rest of the series.
Initially, the plan was for Leonard to make his return after the preseason. However, his debut in the 2017-18 season was repeatedly pushed back until Dec. 12. He went on to play nine games that entire season, citing continued pain in his quadricep as preventing his return.
Now, here’s where everything takes a turn. Leonard was diagnosed with a quadriceps tendinopathy by the Spurs’ medicalstaff. Tendinopathy is essentially a catch-all term for any issue with a tendon from soreness to a tear to a degenerative disease. Leonard had been cleared for play repeatedly throughout the season by the Spurs’ medical team. However, due to lingering pain, he elected to get a second opinion and was then diagnosed with a quadriceps contusion, which is internal bleeding of the muscle susceptible to calcification. Leonards refusal to play despite being cleared by the team’s medical staff in favor of a second outside opinion caused tensions to arise within the organization.
Coaches and players started putting pressure on Leonard through the media, and the basketball world sided with them. At the time, very little to almost no information was known to the public. It is still unknown what the final diagnosis on the injury is to this day. In light of the lack of information, the media and fans sided with the Spurs, which had been a model of how a top-class organization should be run from top to bottom for almost 30 years until this point.
Leonard was vilified and ridiculed by the basketball world. Prominent media members like Skip Bayless accused Leonard of crumbling under the expectations of filling Tim Duncan’s shoes, while others began to question his character as a person altogether. A very clear divide had formed — one where it was Leonard versus the world.
Unable to rebuild trust with the Spurs organization and fans, Leonard requested a trade. Leonard had two years under contract left and had expressed explicit interest in going to LA to continue to grow his brand and career. Knowing this, very few teams were willing to part with assets that matched the talents of a player as decorated as Leonard. I mean, a two-time defensive player of the year and Finals MVP doesn’t just come every draft — they’re once-in-a-generation type players, but only getting such a player for one guaranteed year turned many teams away from making a deal with the Spurs.
Toronto Raptors General Manager (GM) Masai Ujiri is not your regular GM however and despite knowing all that he knew, he took a wild gamble. The Raptors had lost to LeBron for four straight years, even though they built their team to match up specifically against the Cavaliers. After yet another upsetting elimination at the hands of James, Ujiri pulled the trigger to trade their franchise star DeMar DeRozan and roleplayer Jakob Poeltl for Leonard and Danny Green.
Toronto was ridiculed for taking such a gamble — giving up a young All-Star in return for a superstar who had played nine games the prior season due to injury and was set on moving to LA in the near future. Nonetheless Ujiri made the controversial move, which has paid off greatly this season.
The Raptors effectively locked down the second seed, not just in the East but the NBA as a whole behind Milwaukee. After making quick work of the Orlando Magic in 5, the Raptors faced the 76ers who were widely thought to have the best starting five after the Wariors. This series went to Game 7, and with the game on the line, Leonard ripped the hearts out of every Philly fan by hitting a series-ending game winner over Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Toronto found themselves matched up with the best team in the NBA: the Bucks. After going down 0-2, Toronto rallied behind Leonard to pull out a win in double overtime. Toronto went on to win four straight after losing the first two games to get to where they are today.
Leonard has come a long way from his initial fall from grace, and now stands on the verge of carrying the torch of best player in the world in the post-LeBron era to come in a few years. Now, he is less than seven games away from redefining not just his career but the NBA balance of power as a whole with the crucial 2019 free agency looming. But for now, NBA fans are all anticipating the redo of the matchup stolen from us by that injury two years ago.