Leonard's return: Will he be cheered or booed?

Field Level Media/Reuters

Posted at Jan 03 2019 09:20 AM

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives to the basket against the Orlando Magic during the first quarter at Amway Center. Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Discussing Kawhi Leonard is not one of Gregg Popovich's favorite things to do.

The San Antonio Spurs coach had little interest in talking about Leonard on Wednesday, one day before the team's former star returns to the city as a member of the Toronto Raptors.

"You move on in life," Popovich told reporters on Wednesday. "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.

"One of the reasons is you guys will interpret it whatever way you want anyway. So it doesn't matter what we say. You're gonna say whatever you want. It's a waste of our time."

Leonard, who is averaging 27.3 points this season, was a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and also won NBA Finals MVP in 2014 during his seven seasons with the team.

But his relationship with the franchise soured last season when a quadriceps injury limited him to nine games. Once the Spurs were convinced that repairing things with Leonard wasn't going to happen, they dealt him to Toronto in a deal that landed standout shooting guard DeMar DeRozan as part of the return.

Leonard warmed up for his highly anticipated return by scoring a career-best 45 points in Tuesday's 122-116 home win over the Utah Jazz. He was asked if he was looking forward to returning to San Antonio in a postgame television interview.

"Yeah, it's going to be fun," Leonard said. "Everybody is anticipating the game. Things like that will only get me better for the long run. It's going to be a good game."

What type of welcome Leonard will receive is up for debate. There is a faction that believes he will receive a warm welcome while others expect a stiff chorus of boos.

Veteran guard Patty Mills is hoping his former teammate is greeted back with cheers.

"I hope they react just as well and the same that they do with any other ex-teammate that comes back," Mills told reporters. "He's been a great teammate. He's been a great friend to me, and he deserves that. I'm hoping that it will be a warm welcome back to San Antonio, a place where he has won a championship and grew up here.

"People have treated him well -- the community, fans and people here in San Antonio. I think that goes without saying the kind of people that the community of San Antonio are, and the class and how family-oriented this city is. That's what I hope. That's what I expect."

Popovich was asked whether he felt the fans would serenade Leonard with boos.

"I don't speak for other people, but I hope that they treat everybody with kindness and respect," Popovich said. "We always have in the past, so we'll see."

It remains clear that people associated with the Spurs aren't happy with the way the situation went down last season, and that includes general manager R.C. Buford, who also included Danny Green in the deal for a return of DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round pick.

"This was really disappointing for all of us, from Pop and our program to our players," Buford told ESPN. "We shared a lot of success together with Kawhi, and he was a very, very important part of that. So you end up doing a lot of self-evaluation and self-reflection when circumstances change.

"While I'm sure it wasn't easy for Kawhi or anyone, we wish him well with the future of his career. It doesn't surprise me at all, but I'm pleased for Kawhi and Danny to see them both doing well in Toronto."

"When we traded them and brought in DeMar and Jakob, we had very high expectations for them both as players and individuals, and they've both far exceeded our expectations."

All the hoopla about Leonard's return is allowing DeRozan to slide under the radar.

This is his first contest against the Raptors since the trade, and he was vehemently upset when Toronto sent him to San Antonio after nine seasons with the club.

"Honestly, I wish I had something cool to say to look for it, but I haven't thought about it at all," DeRozan told reporters.

DeRozan, who is averaging 22.9 points, indicated he likely will feel different when he returns to Toronto as a visiting player for the first time on Feb. 22.

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