Kawhi Leonard's injury 'coming along more slowly,' return not imminent

Kawhi Leonard’s return date remains uncertain. (AP)

One of the more underreported stories of this NBA season is the absence of San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard, a certified perennial MVP candidate on the only team that seemed capable of giving the Golden State Warriors a challenge last season. Maybe it’s because the Spurs (7-4), as always, remain on pace to win 50 games regardless of who’s available, so there’s no sense in rushing Leonard back and no daily headlines about the mysterious injury to one of the game’s best two-way players.

This is the genius of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who regularly provides banal status updates along the lines of, I don’t even know how he’s doing. He’ll be ready when the doctors say he’ll be ready. This curbs speculation and calms the fears of anyone who might be overly concerned, because if Leonard’s right quadriceps tendinopathy was more serious than we originally thought, they would tell us, right?

All of which makes Popovich’s concession that Leonard is recovering slower from his quad injury than a 35-year-old Tony Parker is from a ruptured left quadriceps tendon at least a little eye-opening:

“He’s just coming along more slowly for whatever reason,” Popovich told reporters prior to Tuesday’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers, via ESPN. “It’s just been more difficult for him to get through the rehab routine. So his body hasn’t reacted the same way as Tony. Tony’s at the point where he’s been going five-on-five and that kind of thing. He’s not totally confident. It’ll be a few more weeks. But he’s definitely going the right direction. And so is Kawhi. It’s just been taking a little bit longer.”

Parker tore the tendon in his quad during Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals and soon vowed, “I will play my best basketball when I return in January.” He remains ahead of that optimistic timeline, having been cleared for contact last month, and he’s spent the past several weeks practicing with either the Spurs or their G League affiliate. Popovich pegged Parker’s return for December.

Leonard, on the other hand, is working on an uncertain timeline for an unclear injury. The last time we got a tangible update on Leonard’s status came at the start of October, when Popovich ruled his star out for “the beginning … or a good deal of preseason.” The coach said then that Leonard’s injury was a lingering issue from last season unrelated to the ankle sprain that cost him (and maybe the Spurs) the conference finals series against the Warriors, “and it’s gone a little bit more slowly than we thought.”

Leonard missed one game this past February and three games in March 2016 with what the Spurs called a “bruised right quadriceps,” but it’s not clear whether either of those injuries are related to his current status or each other. The definition for tendinopathy, which is essentially chronic tendinitis that generally stems from a previous injury failing to heal properly, is more ominous than a bruise.

We should continue to be careful about speculating or becoming overly concerned, so let’s get to it: When will Leonard be back? Not for a while, since he’s yet to be cleared for practice and will then have to follow Parker’s progression through several more hurdles before being game ready, per Popovich.

“I wouldn’t want him to go right from rehab to jumping on the court,” the coach said, via the San Antonio Express-News. “He has to go three-on-three, five-on-five, feel comfortable. Because in the end that confidence is what … anybody who has been out any length of time has to get that back even if the doctors say, ‘Yep, you are ready to go.’ You really aren’t until you are mentally ready to go.”

That process is expected to take two months from the time Parker was cleared, and presumably a 26-year-old Leonard could progress more rapidly once he gets that OK, but that’s just speculation. In the meantime, the Spurs will continue to win 60 percent of their games, so there’s no reason for concern.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!