Spurs coach Gregg Popovich downplayed the rumors swirling around Kawhi Leonard, his injured All-NBA forward, when he met with reporters before Tuesday night's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the AT&T Center.
Jalen Rose, a former player and NBA analyst, said on ESPN's First Take Tuesday morning that Leonard "wants out of San Antonio." Rose's comments came a day after ESPN reported that there was a rift between the Spurs and Leonard on the handling of his lingering quadriceps injury.
Leonard has played in only nine games this season and was shut down by the Spurs last week after continuing to experience pain. He was diagnosed with tendinopathy in his right quad before the preseason and missed the first 27 games of the season before he made his debut on December 12.
"We've been here a long time," Popovich said. "Noise has never been something that is on our radar, whether we were doing well or doing poorly. We just kept our business to ourselves and didn't really pay much attention to what anybody else thought. That's just what we do."
When he was asked by a reporter to describe the state of the relationship between Leonard and the Spurs, Popovich replied, "I don't even know why you would ask that. No different than it has been the whole time that he's been here."
Popovich said that "nobody wants to come back more than Kawhi Leonard." He paused before adding, "I think I'm No. 2."
That drew a good chuckle from the reporters huddled around him.
"His teammates want him back. Everybody wants him back. He's a competitor. He wasn't Kawhi Leonard when he first arrived, the one we know now,” Pop said. “That just shows you how much work he's put in to get here. He certainly doesn't want to be missing games, so it's frustrating for everybody. For somebody to come up with something about him and his teammates is just silly."
Popovich also scoffed at any notion that the stories about Leonard the past two days have created a soap opera.
"I don't even know why you say it's a soap opera," Popovich told the reporter asking the question. "Some people wrote some articles. I understand it. But soap opera? It's a soap opera if we talk about it every day, I guess.
"I don't get it. We won't talk about it. There's nothing to talk about, other than what we've already said. The rehab has gone slower than we expected. We wish we were going quickly and if we're going to err, as we have in the past, we're going to do it on the conservative side. We kept Timmy Duncan out of a playoff one year because of a knee, and he could have played. I don't see this any different than with any other player. But some people, for some reason, want to do that. That's OK, but it doesn't affect our team, or me, or anybody else."
Popovich also praised veteran point guard Tony Parker, who was benched before Sunday's game against the Indiana Pacers in favor of second-year pro Dejounte Murray. It marked only the 14th time Parker has come off the bench in 1,165 regular-season games.
"Tony understands what's best for a basketball team," Popovich said. "He's a character guy. He knows that at this stage of his career being a mentor is really important, and he's still going to be an important part of what we do. But Dejounte is a young talent, and we need to find out exactly what we have there, so it's time.
"Those are the decisions you make. I made the same decision a few years back when Tony was 19, and we gave him the ball. Tony's handled it fantastically well, and has been just a really mature, high-character individual.”
Murray started at the beginning of the season when Parker was recovering from surgery to repair a ruptured quad tendon in the playoffs last May. The Spurs selected Murray with the 29th overall pick in the first round of the 2016 draft. He played only one season at the University of Washington before turning pro.
"There are going to be mistakes made by Murray," Popovich said. "Everybody makes them. The best players in the world make mistakes. He's just got to continue to grow and understand situations. A lot to learn. Every game will be an education for him. We might as well get him as much as we can."
Murray has started 15 of the 48 games he's played this season, averaging 6.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists in 18.1 minutes.
Popovich was asked if there was something he saw in Murray's game that prompted him to start him Sunday, although Parker was healthy and good to go.
"Well, sure," Popovich said. "First you look at somebody's talent. At this level you've got to have the talent to do it. He's got great size and length. He's fearless. He's gives us a lot of speed. Nobody would call us the quickest team in the country. He gives our pace a big boost.
"His talent level, along with his fearlessness, make him a pretty good candidate. And he can accept criticism. When he does something wrong, it's not somebody else's fault. He wants to get better. Mistakes are important to him, so for all those reasons we're going to go do it."