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Welp — I didn’t see that coming: Apparently, Gregg Popovich can be hurt.
How else can you explain him falling asleep at the wheel and accidentally steering into a thirteen-million-follower social car-crash?
Now the big takeaway here is seemingly simple: Pop is still a little salty over how everything went down with Kawhi.
It makes sense, right? After all, the end of Popovich’s coaching career is in sight, and those twilight years went rather abruptly from having the Spurs Way (TM) led by a top-5 player, and could-be a Hall-of-Famer — to very much not.
I’m in the corner of labour 98 percent of the time, but this is one of the 2 percent where, absent internal knowledge, it feels like the labour ended up mistreating a pretty good owner of the capital implements.
All that means is that I can’t really be mad that Pop, uh, “popped” off. The man was angry, he was hurt, and he responded emotionally.
Except... does that sound like Gregg Popovich — the master of the twin dark arts of motivation and manipulation?
Pops doesn’t do: “off the cuff and emotional.” Pops does: “control to get what he wants.”
What if this whole controversy was all about what Pops wants?
And what if what Pops wants is Kawhi to remain a Raptor...
Think about it:
1) Pops is no competitive fool.
Kawhi has said he wants to play in Los Angeles. L.A. is west of Toronto, placing it firmly in the Western conference, where Pops’ Spurs reside.
If Kawhi was in the Western Conference, he would play Popovich’s Spurs at least three times a year, maybe four — not including playoffs.
Popovich is a smart man — he reads Sun Tzu, the influential thinker who famously said: “a wise leader knows to put The Claw on the horizon, not where the sun sets.”
Pops wants Kawhi in the East long-term.
2) Pops still likes Kawhi.
He helped nurture the young man, whose quiet demeanor so perfectly mirrors the long-time Spurs coach’s own (uh, not ON the court, for Pops).
That means that while it’s hard for Pops to see Kawhi in another uniform, he still wants the best for his young friend. He doesn’t want Kawhi to change and lose his ‘bored to death’ demeanour. That’s the danger L.A. represents — a city that famously chews up ingenues and spits them back out — such was the case of D’Angelo Russell, complete with out of control social media habits.
Does Pop want that for one of his favourite sons? No, he does not.
3) Popovich is no fan of established power structures.
The Spurs coach has spoken several times about his political views and always circles back to his hatred of how power can be used to oppress. He also values civility. The Spurs’ whole team is a clear monument to socialism.
So if he wants Kawhi in the East, do cities like New York, Chicago or Washington fit the bill as egalitarian franchises where power is checked?
Deep in his heart, Coach Popovich is a radical rabble-rouser, and more than a tiny bit socialist. Pops wants to burn this “mother” down, and what better way to do that then let the Toronto Raptors — the ultimate outsiders of the NBA — take the reigns of the league?
Like Obama — a man he greatly respects — Pop knows the world needs a little more Canada, and he’s ready to help give it to ’em.
So, put it all together, Pops doesn’t want Kawhi Leonard in the West because he doesn’t want to play him more than he has to (strategic); he also still cares about Kawhi and wants him to be happy (caring); and on top of it all, he’s no fan of the “rich get richer” mentality (egalitarian).
Add it all up, and Toronto is the perfect place for Leonard to be. Since Masai Ujiri was hired, the Raptors have consistently proven they are a franchise which values culture, diversity and character — the very things Gregg Popovich holds near and dear as the Spurs’ lead man.
Hell, we know Pops is a huge fan of Toronto because of eight seconds captured just a few short years ago.
Pop wanted Toronto in the NBA finals that season, because he respects us (it had nothing to do with not wanting to face LeBron James. Move along. Nothing to see here.).
But Pops also knows us; our soul. He knows we’re insecure. He knows our true fear: that nobody really loves us and that there is no way Kawhi will choose all of Canada — strong and free — over Los Angeles via the surprisingly apt Clippers, or, a more nightmarish scenario with the Lakers.
So, he had several long chats with another Toronto-phile — DeMar DeRozan — most likely over a rich Bordeaux (2009 was a good year), and he came up with the perfect plan.
Pop publicly disses Leonard, a sure-fire faux-pas. NBA Twitter goes nuts. Nick Nurse gets to ride in to the rescue of his star player — helping create a stronger bond between the two.
Pop and DeMar also know the Toronto media will be measured in their response to the storm. There will be no eye-popping headlines akin to the front page of the New York Post. Just a reasonable, Canadian discussion. Pops knows Kawhi will appreciate that.
He also knows the NBA media won’t be able to help but weigh in. The talk will be of Leonard: his time so far as a Raptor, and his ability to lead. It will also lead to a discussion of the team as a whole.
All of it subtly reinforces the idea of Toronto and Kawhi. Kawhi and Toronto.
Two inseparable halves, and one thing that cannot — must not — be broken.
Then, boom! In seven months, Leonard is seated beside demi-god Masai Ujiri, explaining how he too, like Paul George, fell in love with a town he never imagined he would.
It’ll be after the signing we think back: It’s all because that’s how Pop wanted it to be.
Doubt my word? Let’s watch that ESPN clip again.
00:00-0:34: Look how Pop starts so jovial. He’s just having a laugh with the Southern Hemisphere guy. This is a classic set-up move. Everyone’s loose, nobody is expecting what’s coming, which means it’s going to hit even harder when it does.
0:35-0:55: This is the real Pop. He’s thoughtful, he’s earnest, he cares. He gives Patty Mills a hall-of-fame sell job — like Mills is one of the key cogs of a championship machine. Popovich loves his guys. To put a military term on a military man, once you’ve been in a fox-hole with Pop, you’re there for life.
0:57-1:01: And now the trap is set. After all that praise, someone HAS to ask about that gap in Spurs leadership.
1:02-1:03: The key moment, Pop, already looking down, as if to gather his thoughts, slips his eyes further to the ground for just. one. moment.
That little eye drop tells us everything. He’s looking below, because Pops is a moral man. Pops knows that lies are the Devil’s work, and so he checks down there, just once, before dropping the whopper of his career.
1:06-1:23: The meat of the controversy. We take Kawhi isn’t a leader, because that’s how Pop wrapped it up. Look at all the little deviations in that script: “....wasn’t his deal at that time”, “... that may come as he progresses”.
If Pop was really going to bury Leonard, he would’ve buried the man. Instead, Pop makes it subtly clear that he knows the truth — Leonard is a great leader.
So, maybe Kawhi went astray for one nightmarish season, “at that time,” but as he gets healthy (“progresses”), he’ll be back as the kind of leader he always was — quiet and compelling. Just like his predecessor, Tim Duncan.
And how do I know that? Why isn’t this just 1,400 words of wild guess work?
Because Pop, himself, told us as much.
There you have it. The true Gregg Popovich — evidence that this whole thing was devised to push a player that he respects, into the arms of an organization that he respects, while depriving his rivals that key missing piece — all while sticking his thumb into the eye of ill-used authority.
He did it for us guys. He did it for us.
(Oh, and also for himself, because if the Spurs ever meet the Raps in the Finals, Pops will have a trigger word that will slip Kawhi into a state of deep hypnosis and turn him into Voshon Lenard. I’d still be just as happy getting to that Finals.)