By Joel Deering
In May of 2017, the San Antonio Spurs took on the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs went on to lose that series 4-0, while the Warriors went on to win the NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. During the Warriors defeat of the Spurs in that Western Conference Finals matchup, there was one key moment we all remember. That moment is when Kawhi Leonard got the Zaza defense. Kawhi Leonard injured his ankle after Zaza (I believe it was intentionally) stepped under Kawhi. Up until that point in the game, the Spurs were crushing the Warriors, but the loss of Kawhi led to a loss in Game 1, along with a sweep of the Spurs.
We will never know what would have actually happened had Kawhi played the entire series, but I’m one who believes the Spurs would have moved on to the NBA Finals if Zaza never happened. Onto what is more important right now, Kawhi Leonard is no longer a member of the San Antonio Spurs after being traded to the Toronto Raptors. There’s been a disconnect between Kawhi and the Spurs for some time now, mostly because of his injuries and everyone in the organization questioning when he was going to return to the floor.
If we go back and look at the timeline of events that led to Kawhi’s departure from San Antonio, it all started when Zaza made a dirty play. Kawhi Leonard not only missed the rest of that Western Conference Finals series, but he missed the Spurs season opener the next season. He also missed a few more months of this past season after still not being “totally confident” in returning to the floor.
Kawhi did play for the Spurs last season, but only ended up playing nine games before sitting out again with another injury. The Spurs didn’t think Leonard would sit out the rest of the season, but soon announced he was out indefinitely as he rehabbed an injury. Things started to get weird after Leonard was cleared to return to the floor, but decided not to be on the active roster. Leonard even said he would return to the floor “soon,” but we all know that didn’t happen.
To make things even worse than they already were, teammate Tony Parker took a jab at Kawhi, saying that his injury similar to Kawhi’s was “100 times worse.” Parker said he trusted the Spurs doctors and didn’t need to go anywhere to get a second opinion. This was obviously a shot at Kawhi after he got a second opinion elsewhere and didn’t trust the team medical staff.
After all that, the Spurs made the playoffs. They entered the playoffs as the seven seed in the Western Conference. Of course they had to play the Warriors again, and again without Kawhi. Everyone knew Kawhi was cleared to play basketball. Kawhi had everyone wondering why he’s wasn’t playing, especially against the defending champions.
Soon after the playoffs, Kawhi Leonard decided he’d had enough of the Spurs organization and requested a trade from the team. Now Kawhi is a member of the Toronto Raptors. The former defensive player of the year and Finals MVP is no longer a member of the Spurs. The Spurs got DeMar DeRozan in return for Kawhi, but DeRozan isn’t Kawhi. He’s a good player, but he’s not Kawhi. If I were a Spurs fan, I’d be happy the team actually got something good for Kawhi Leonard, but I’d also be unhappy about losing one of the best players in the NBA.
Spurs fans can blame members of the organization if they want. They can blame the medical staff, Gregg Popovich, or Tony Parker, but the real blame should be on Zaza Pachulia. If he hadn’t made a dirty play on Kawhi Leonard, this entire timeline goes in a different direction. That timeline most likely results in Kawhi Leonard playing significantly more games than nine last season, and most importantly still being a member of the team. I’m not a Spurs fan, but I’ll always remember Zaza’s dirty play as the beginning of Kawhi’s departure.