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Kawhi Leonard is not the villain in this situation with Spurs

Based on what we know publicly, criticism of the All-Star forward seems unwarranted

The San Antonio Spurs trail the Golden State Warriors 3-1 in their first-round series and appear unable to win three more games against the defending NBA champs without their lone transcendent talent, starting small forward Kawhi Leonard. With the team poised to “go fishing,” the Spurs’ offseason will soon begin, and management will confront the most important question — what to do with Kawhi Leonard.

NBA fans will surely wade into the debate, and most if not all of them will start from the assumption that Leonard’s actions this postseason were indefensible. I want to defend him because, based on publicly available information, Leonard’s behavior doesn’t warrant such derision.

Let’s start with the case against Leonard: that he should be playing because the team has medically cleared him. That he should communicate better with the team. And if he isn’t going to play, he should at least be traveling with his teammates.

One of the points brought up to malign Leonard is that Spurs point guard Tony Parker suffered a more significant quadriceps injury last postseason, yet he’s out there competing. Parker, per San Antonio Express-News sportswriter Tom Orsborn, told reporters, “I’ve been through it. It was a rehab for me for eight months. Same kind of injury (as Kawhi), but mine was a hundred times worse. But the same kind of injury. You just stay positive.” Many interpreted this as a passive-aggressive dig at Leonard. I certainly understood it the same way.

But have you seen Parker play this year? Presumably, the team has cleared him to play, but in the first two games of the series against the Warriors, Parker didn’t look like he belonged on the court. He played better in the third and fourth games, although he, slow and lethargic, doesn’t look like an NBA player from an athletic standpoint. Perhaps he, too, isn’t ready to play.

And what’s missing from this criticism is that Leonard tried to play this year. He ventured onto the court for nine games and had to shut it down, meaning the Spurs cleared him but erred in doing so. Are we to demand that he trust them again? Are we to pretend this didn’t happen? Team doctors have inherent conflicts; they work for the team, not the player. Leonard must listen to the doctors who owe allegiance to him.

Last season, the Boston Celtics cleared Isaiah Thomas to play despite his hip issues. He continued to fight through the pain until finally sitting out in the Eastern Conference finals. His decision to do right by the Celtics and play while his body felt wrong will cost him tens of millions of dollars — life-changing money he will never see.

His tale taught others a lesson. If Leonard says he isn’t ready to play, unless you’re willing to call him a liar, that should end it.

Regarding the supposed communication issues, no one disputes that Leonard has told the team that he isn’t healthy enough to return and that he would return the moment he is. Beyond that, I’m unsure what he is supposed to say to the team. What words will mollify his detractors? Granted, he hasn’t explained his ailment to the media. But no one is launching attacks at Leonard for being insufficiently open with the media.

In March, Spurs players initiated a players-only meeting where they confronted Leonard about his absence from the court. According to reports, the testy and confrontational meeting that took place in the locker room could be heard outside the doors. To me, that’s a communication issue, one for which his teammates deserve the blame. He’s already said that he doesn’t feel ready. What more do they want from him?

We should not be surprised, then, that he is choosing not to travel with them. His teammates have already demonstrated that they would be willing to prod him with questions during a players-only meeting about why he’s still sidelined, an ordeal he would almost certainly take umbrage to. Why would he want to travel with the squad as it gets smoked by a better team, knowing full well that some on the roster will at least mutter under their breath their grievances and perhaps say it aloud. One should be understanding, therefore, of why he would stay away and concentrate on rehab.

No matter how the Spurs answer the Kawhi question, fans shouldn’t just accept the narrative that he is the story’s villain.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at Andscape and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.