A more conciliatory Gregg Popovich greeted the Spurs’ first match against the Raptors in their 2018-19 campaign. For those from the outside looking in, it was a contest made all the more significant because of the offseason exchange of vital cogs between the two sides. The trade was met with varied reactions, and especially from the concerned parties. And for all his protestations heading into and after the deal, he was himself affected greatly; at one point, he made an unprompted contention that Kawhi Leonard — who, prior to a shocking falling out, spearheaded his last title run and whom he figured would continue anchoring the cause of the black — was “not a leader.”
Last Friday, though, Popovich’s words portrayed a more measured appreciation for Leonard. No doubt, he would have wanted to prevent the latter’s departure or, barring that, approach it with far less recrimination. And it was precisely what he conveyed when asked about his perspective of the one-time Finals Most Valuable Player’s return to the AT&T Center for the first time since their parting of ways. The latter had every right to craft the future as deemed fit, he said, and all and sundry needed to accept the development. “You move on in life,” he said. “We’re not going to redo what’s happened in the past in any way, shape, or form. It’s of no consequence at this point, and it does no good to go backward and talk about this, that, or the other.”
Well, moving on was precisely what the Spurs wanted to show, and did. They won in emphatic fashion Friday, as if to prove that the system Popovich has put in place is conducive to success regardless of its components at any given time. Leonard had a decent game, but it was no coincidence that erstwhile Raptor DeMar DeRozan did even better to produce a career-first triple-double. The fans were understandably salty, booing the hero turned heel at every instance, a turn of events the bench tactician lamented. “Kawhi is a high-character guy,” he told the San Antonio Express-News. “We all make decisions in our lives, what we are going to do with our futures, and he has that same right as any of us. So, I felt badly, honestly.”
That said, the Spurs can’t complain about how they managed to make the most out of a difficult situation. After a rough patch that saw them assimilating their new acquisitions, and vice versa, they’ve prevailed in 12 of their last 15 outings to move to sixth in the highly competitive West. And they’re rising still, their consistency attributable in large measure to Popovich’s ability to make the whole better than the sum of its parts, not to mention experience in turning adversity to opportunity. While their capacity to go deep in the playoffs looks suspect given their uneven roster, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.