Well, this certainly stinks. The San Antonio Spurs announced Wednesday afternoon that two-time Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA First Teamer Kawhi Leonard is once again going back on the shelf “for an indefinite period of time” after hitting another roadblock in his attempted return from the right leg issue that has kept him sidelined for the lion’s share of the 2017-18 NBA season.
“Kawhi has made significant progress and continues to move forward in his rehabilitation,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said in a team statement. “This is the best approach for the next steps in his return to play.”
Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season due to right quadriceps tendinopathy, which put him on ice in September and has baffled Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and San Antonio’s trainers ever since. He made his season debut last month against the Dallas Mavericks, scoring 13 points and grabbing six rebounds in 16 minutes of work; he’d make eight more appearances, playing consecutive games just twice in the span of 17 Spurs games due to both careful management of the quad and a partial tear in his left shoulder suffered in a win over the Phoenix Suns on Jan. 5.
Leonard returned to the lineup on Saturday and looked something like the fire of old, scoring 19 points on just eight shots to go with eight rebounds, four assists, four steals and a block in 29 minutes as the Spurs decimated the Denver Nuggets at AT&T Center in Texas. Afterward, Popovich sounded excited at the prospect of getting his top gun back in full form.
“He looks confident,” Popovich said. “He looks confident in his body and he wasn’t really winded tonight either, which surprised me. He’s coming along well.”
And yet, when Leonard warmed up before Monday’s game against the Atlanta Hawks, hoping to play on fewer than two days’ rest for the first time this season, he just “didn’t feel right,” according to Popovich, so the coach sat him down in favor of giving the 26-year-old star some more rest before getting him back into the fold for Wednesday’s matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. Come Wednesday morning, though, things had changed.
“It hasn’t responded the way we wanted it to,” Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News after the team’s morning shootaround in Manhattan. “He’s given it a shot. He’s frustrated as hell. He wants to play badly. But if we’re going to err, we’re going to do it on the side of health and being wise.”
And with the input of a lot of stakeholders — “the trainers, the rehab people, the doctors, the coaches” — who have all seen what Leonard looks like at his best and healthiest. While he’s been productive when on the court, averaging 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.0 blocks in just 23.3 minutes per game over nine outings, this isn’t the Kawhi they know, and so they’re putting him on ice until they can figure out how to get that guy back.
“You try to react to how he feels after the games he’s played in a little bit,” Popovich said. “It just hasn’t gone as well as we’ve wanted it to. So we’re going to stop him for an indefinite period – I don’t know how long that will be – to get more strength and hopefully get him back on the court.”
In typical Spurs fashion, Popovich and company have responded about as well as could be expected to being forced to operate without their best player on both ends of the floor for the bulk of the season. San Antonio enters Wednesday’s action at 29-16, a half-game ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves for third place in the Western Conference, thanks largely to All-Star-caliber offensive work from rejuvenated big man LaMarcus Aldridge, a defense that has remained one of the league’s very best even without Leonard’s services (only the East-leading Boston Celtics allow fewer points per possession), and balanced contributions from a talented, versatile roster stocked with still-productive veterans (Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Rudy Gay, Danny Green, Patty Mills) and developing youth (Kyle Anderson, Bryn Forbes, Dejounte Murray, Davis Bertans).
That the Spurs haven’t folded without a player who’s finished in the top three in MVP balloting after each of the last two seasons is a testament to the depth of the roster Buford has assembled, Popovich’s gift for getting the most out of every player he’s handed, and the players’ determination not to let the loss of one of the NBA’s leading lights submarine their season. Still, the Spurs don’t show up in October looking to fight for third place and you don’t hang banners in San Antonio for moral victories.
The Spurs want to be a legitimate contender to win the whole thing. That requires having Kawhi Leonard in the mix and looking like a full-fledged world-breaker. We haven’t seen that yet this season, and as the Spurs send Leonard back to the training room and go back to the drawing board, it’s hard not to wonder when exactly we’re going to be able to see it again.
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