Recently, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said that he would be surprised if the team’s resident superstar Kawhi Leonard played again this season. Mysteriously while Leonard has been medically cleared to play after a lingering right quad tendinopathy injury, he has refused to return to the active roster and went to New York to consult a specialist and get a second opinion. This has triggered a lot of speculation.
Reportedly, there is tension between the two-time first-team All-NBA selection and two time defensive player of the year and the Spurs organization over how Leonard’s injury is being handled. This is a wear-and-tear injury, not a trauma one, and people expected him back after a brief period of rest. This season, Leonard returned in December 2017, played nine games and got shut down a month after to the same injury.
Since Kawhi really doesn’t speak much and is one of the league’s most withdrawn superstars, we really don’t know about the status of his injury and whether he will return this season or in the playoffs.
Currently, the Spurs are third in the Western Conference with a 35-24 record but are already far behind the top two teams namely the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors. The next five teams are in striking distance of the Spurs. If Kawhi returns soon, the Spurs have a good chance to go deep into the playoffs and hold on to home court advantage in the first round. If he won’t, the Spurs may even fall farther behind since they have one of the more brutal schedules. In 18 of their next 23 games, they will be playing playoff teams.
That the Spurs are still in the thick of things despite losing their top player and key players to various injuries is a testament to coach Popovich’s genius, the organizational culture, and long-term continuity. This is a team that hasn’t missed the playoffs in 21 seasons, winning five championships along the way. More importantly, this franchise has managed to avoid all the drama and dysfunction of other organizations until now.
However, their present and future success hinges upon their relationship with Leonard. He is still under contract until next season but can be a free agent in the summer of 2019. As early as next year, the Spurs can already offer a max contract in the range of $200 million. If the team is unable to mend this rift with Leonard, they will be left with an aging roster and no clear path moving forward.
Leonard is only 26 years old and is about to hit his prime. He is a Top 5 talent when healthy and is the best two-way player in the league. The Spurs will likely move heaven and earth to keep him but at the end of the day, this organization doesn’t do drama and will let go of any player who threaten the organization’s stability.