Kawhi Leonard has been limited to only nine games this season for the San Antonio Spurs, missing the bulk of the year due to persistent right quadriceps tendinopathy that has baffled and frustrated the Spurs’ coaches and training staff since September. With Leonard’s brief return scuttled and the two-time All-Star once again sidelined indefinitely, it sounds like those frustrations — on all sides — might be starting to boil over.
Adrian Wojnarowski, Michael C. Wright and Zach Lowe of ESPN.com reported Monday morning that “discord” over the handling of Leonard’s injury — how it’s being treated, how he’s rehabbing it, when he’d be expected to return — have “had a chilling impact” on his relationship with the Spurs, leading to the two-time Defensive Player of the Year becoming “‘distant'” and ‘disconnected’ from the organization.” The Spurs, for their part, dispute that framing, according to ESPN:
“There is no issue between the Spurs organization and Kawhi,” [Spurs general manager R.C.] Buford told ESPN. “From Day 1 all parties have worked together to find the best solutions to his injury.”
Buford described a frustrating process of rehabilitation for what has been an elusive solution to an injury.
“This has been difficult for everyone,” Buford told ESPN. “It’s been difficult for Kawhi. He’s an elite level player. It’s been difficult for the team, because they want to play with a great teammate. And it’s been difficult for our staff. Historically we’ve been able to successfully manage injuries. This rehab hasn’t been simple and it hasn’t gone in a linear fashion.”
Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season due to the right quadriceps tendinopathy. 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.
Kawhi Leonard through his career
Kawhi Leonard through his career
San Diego State Aztecs' Kawhi Leonard (L) and Connecticut Huskies' Kemba Walker scramble for a loose ball during the second half of their NCAA West Regional college basketball game in Anaheim, California March 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
Kawhi Leonard stands with NBA Commissioner David Stern after being selected by the Indiana Pacers as the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft in Newark, New Jersey June 23, 2011. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard (L) goes to the basket against Chicago Bulls' Joakim Noah (C) and Taj Gibson during the second half of their NBA basketball game in Chicago, February 11, 2013. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan (C), Kawhi Leonard (L) and Manu Ginobili celebrate after a basket against the Miami Heat in the first half during Game 3 of their NBA Finals basketball playoff in San Antonio, Texas June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
May 31, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) attempts a shot against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the fourth quarter in game six of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 29, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) is pressured by Orlando Magic shooting guard Arron Afflalo (4) during the first half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) dunks the ball during the second quarter against the Miami Heat in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 21, 2014; Sacramento, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) and forward Kawhi Leonard (2) between plays against the Sacramento Kings during the first quarter at Sleep Train Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
May 29, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots over Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) during the second half in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Miami Heat's LeBron James (R) looks to pass around San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard during the first quarter in Game 2 of their NBA Finals basketball series in San Antonio, Texas, June 8, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) celebrates in the locker room with the Finals MVP trophy after defeating the Miami Heat in game five of the 2014 NBA Finals at AT&T Center. The Spurs defeated the Heat 104-87 to win the NBA Finals. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 26, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) poses for a picture during media day at Spurs Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 28, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) gets his NBA championship ring from San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt before the game against the Dallas Mavericks at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
April 22, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half in game two of the first round of the NBA Playoffs. at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 13, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; Western Conference forward Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs (2) looks on during practice for the NBA All Star game at Ricoh Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports / Reuters
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Jan 12, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) shoots the ball over Los Angeles Lakers small forward Luol Deng (9) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 19, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) talks with head coach Gregg Popovich during the second half against the Sacramento Kings at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 22, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) reacts during the first half against the Memphis Grizzlies in game four of the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
May 14, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) reacts after an injury during the third quarter in game one of the Western conference finals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Spurs 113-111. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
May 20, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs small forward Kawhi Leonard (in suit) watches from the bench against the Golden State Warriors during the first half in game three of the Western conference finals of the NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 2, 2018; New York, NY, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) reacts with San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) against the New York Knicks during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
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Leonard returned to the lineup on Jan. 13 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 one 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 last 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 his star some more rest before getting him back into the fold for Wednesday’s matchup with the Brooklyn Nets. Two days later, though, the Spurs chose to put him back on ice indefinitely.
“It hasn’t responded the way we wanted it to,” Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “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.”
Making the situation a bit more frustrating and fraught? That franchise-legend point guard Tony Parker, who spent his summer rehabilitating a similar injury after suffering a ruptured quad tendon during the Western Conference semifinals, was able to return to the court in late November. (“What’s really strange is that Tony Parker has the same injury, but even worse,” Popovich told reporters in November.) The 35-year-old Frenchman hasn’t been as dynamic or productive as he was in his younger days — that, in part, is why he just lost his starting job to youngster Dejounte Murray — but even so, Popovich has been able to turn to Parker for 20 minutes a night for the last 20 games and know whathe’s going to get. When he’ll be able to say the same for Leonard, at this point, remains very much an open question.
“We sought outside expertise with the best tendon experts in the world,” Buford told ESPN. “It worked beautifully for Tony but it hasn’t worked the same for Kawhi.”
For years, the Spurs have seemed more capable than just about any other franchise in the NBA of taking adversity as it comes without letting it derail them. They said goodbye to Tim Duncan and won 61 games. They lost Leonard and Parker in Round 2 and still beat the Rockets to make the conference finals. LaMarcus Aldridge was so disgruntled by the way he was being used that he straight-up requested a trade; they got everyone on the same page, and now Aldridge is in line for his sixth All-Star while keeping the Spurs on pace for their 19th consecutive 50-win season.
If you’re a Spurs fan, you’re hoping for a similar resolution to whatever issue might exist between Leonard and the team — that some direct communication can bridge any “distance,” that specific concerns about how the injury’s being handled can be raised and addressed dispassionately without pointing of fingers, and that all involved can move forward with a singular focus on getting one of the NBA’s best players back on the floor in full working order as soon as possible. This is what the Spurs do; they deal with their issues, adjust accordingly, and get back on track for a deep playoff run.
This particular flavor of issue, though — the publication of internal discord prior to it getting all cleared up — is one we haven’t seen very much during Pop’s two decades at the wheel. How quickly and effectively San Antonio handles it could determine whether the second half of the Spurs’ season is the story of a team coming together to make another bid for a Finals berth, or of cracks starting to show in the facade of one of sports’ most reliably excellent franchises.