During a season that’s featured a number of strange storylines, the one surrounding Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs might rank at the top of the list. The star forward has played just nine games in the 2017-2018 NBA season because of a quad injury, and no one seems to know when, or if, he’ll be returning.
That includes team doctors, who have reportedly cleared Leonard to return to game action, and Leonard, who still doesn’t feel ready to take part in a game. Leonard’s teammates appear to be especially confused since it was reported that he was aiming to return against the New Orleans Pelicans on March 15.
“He is not coming back,” veteran Manu Ginobili told reporters Wednesday. “For me, he’s not coming back because (thinking he is) is not helping. We fell for it a week ago – again. I guess you guys (media) made us fall for it. But we have to think that he’s not coming back. That we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him. That shouldn’t be changing, at least until he is ready for the jump ball.”
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Ginobili’s comments came following a players-only meeting in which members of the Spurs asked Leonard to rejoin the lineup. Veteran point guard Tony Parker reportedly led the meeting after San Antonio defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves Saturday night.
Leonard insisted he was not yet ready to play amid some of his teammates’ “frustration and confusion,” according to Wojnarowski. He has reportedly impressed teammates during workouts, though he doesn’t feel ready to play in a game.
Spurs’ shooting guard Danny Green refuted Wojnarowski’s story, saying it “couldn’t be any more incorrect.” The San Antonio Express-News also reported that Parker led a players-only meeting to ask Leonard about his return, claiming the forward couldn’t guarantee that he would return at all this season. Jeff McDonald of the Express-News noted that some players supported Leonard and told him not to return until he felt he was ready.
The ball is in the Kawhi's court, and that of his medical team. One hundred percent. https://t.co/jNiQsOIgiN
— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) March 22, 2018
It’s a confusing tale, especially considering it’s happening with the Spurs. San Antonio is considered by many to be the model franchise in the NBA—if not in all sports—for a culture that is bereft of controversy and breeds winning.
That winning culture created by head coach Gregg Popovich has virtually guaranteed the Spurs to be title contenders each season, even as future Hall of Famers like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker moved past their primes. It’s why the Spurs were able to survive LaMarcus Aldridge’s offseason trade request and Leonard’s injury to maintain the West’s No.3 seed in the first half of the season.
But the Spurs have felt the absence of Leonard since the All-Star break, putting their remarkable 20-year playoff streak in doubt. San Antonio has needed a five-game winning streak to climb back up to the No.6 seed, and they have a one-game lead in the loss column over the No.8 Utah Jazz. The No.9 seed Denver Nuggets trail the Spurs by three games in the standings with 10 games left on the schedule.
Leonard’s played just 210 total minutes during a season in which several superstars are having historic offensive seasons. James Harden could become the second-ever unanimous MVP, and LeBron James is arguably putting up the best numbers of his career. The likes of Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan are also having standout seasons, while Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are still two of the league’s four-best players.
The absence of Leonard makes it easy to forget just how good he is when healthy.
After being named the Defensive Player of the Year for two consecutive seasons, Leonard reached another level in 2017. He averaged 27.7 points on 16.8 shots per game in the playoffs, making the case to be known as the NBA’s best player not named LeBron James.
The conversation surrounding Leonard hasn’t been the same since he suffered an ankle injury in Game 1 of last year’s Western Conference Finals when it looked like he was leading the Spurs to a victory over the Golden State Warriors.
Wojnarowski reported in January that the handling of Leonard’s injury created a rift between the All-Star and the team, though Leonard and the Spurs denied the report. The situation has even led to speculation that San Antonio could consider trading Leonard this offseason, one year before he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent.
It’s hard to believe San Antonio will actually trade one of the league’s elite stars in his prime. When Leonard will finally play for the team again, however, remains a mystery.
Leonard played his first game of the season on Dec. 12 against the Dallas Mavericks, scoring 13 points in 16 minutes. He played eight more times over the Spurs’ next 16 games, shutting it down after a 19-point performance on Jan. 13.
What’s followed has been a number of conflicting reports and updates regarding Leonard’s eventual return.
On Feb. 21, Popovich told reporters that he’d be surprised if Leonard played again this season. Less than a week later, Leonard was telling teammates that he would be back at some point. On March 7, it looked like the 26-year-old would be back on the court in the near future.
“Soon,” Leonard told the media when asked when he hoped to return. “I don’t have a set date right now. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing.”
The playoffs begin on April 14. With less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, the Spurs are currently eyeing a first-round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers.