What’s the outlook for the San Antonio Spurs without Kawhi Leonard?
No one wants to hear it but there’s an undeniable truth about the state of Kawhi Leonard: he’s a medical wreck this year for the San Antonio Spurs. The 26-year-old has played just nine games to start the season and has been shut down indefinitely to rehab the right quadricep tendinopathy that he suffered in the offseason.
Is this ideal for San Antonio? Absolutely not. Leonard has grown to become the team’s on-court leader under the wing of coach Gregg Popovich since winning the Finals MVP in 2014. His numbers and his candidacy as a top-three finalist in MVP voting for the last two seasons would back that up.
Unfortunately for San Antonio, he’s simply too hurt to play right now. Even with the expert medical attention he’s received from the team’s training staff, his body hasn’t responded to treatment. This is what forced them to extend his rehab.
And so San Antonio is left without Leonard once again.
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Amongst rumors and discrepancies surrounding Leonard’s camp, the team stands firm. Through the difficult circumstances, their team chemistry and emerging talents have led them to a commanding lead at third in the Western Conference. It’s easy to point toward the emergence of a more poised LaMarcus Aldridge as the defining factor in San Antonio’s success. Players such as Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans have grown into vital roles and veterans, under Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, continue to lead the way.
There is nothing that the Spurs would like more than for Kawhi to make his return, but allowing Leonard to heal is the right decision for the franchise. Whether or not he likes it, it’s the right decision for Leonard himself. If there’s one thing that the organization can depend upon, it’s the mindfulness of Pop and general manager R.C. Buford.
Staying afloat without their MVP
Somehow, the Spurs remain one the strongest teams in the western conference without their best player. Popovich, who is making yet another case for himself to win Coach of the Year, has managed to build an all-around lineup with constant depth. In addition to Leonard, Parker, Ginobili and forward Rudy Gay have missed substantial time due to injuries and rest this season.
And yet San Antonio once again holds firm atop of the wild west. The contributions of a healthy Leonard as the team’s defensive anchor are sorely missed, but adjustments have been made. One would think that the absence of their two-time Defensive Player of the Year would plummet San Antonio’s defensive rankings, but Popovich says otherwise. The Spurs allow the least points of any team in the league, rank second in defensive rating and third in blocks at 5.5 per game.
Earlier in the season, Aldridge noted that he spent significant time bonding with his frontcourt partner, Pau Gasol. Their newfound chemistry has been pivotal in the Spurs’ success this year. As two of the league’s most skilled bigs, Gasol and Aldridge not only create opportunities for themselves, but manage to lock down the paint through coordinated interior rotations and physical dominance inside.
In his 17th season, Gasol is putting up nearly 11 points to go with 8.3 rebounds and a block per game. Arguably his most important stat is his three assists per game. Due to his height and strength as a passer, Gasol has set up his teammates extremely well this year. His 2016-2017 campaign was impressive, but Gasol seems to be more committed to the Spurs’ style of play than ever before.
This commitment is what has kept the Spurs afloat without their star player. In recent years, players have struggled to adjust to Popovich’s team-first style. It takes complete commitment to thrive in the Spurs’ style of play. Selflessness and competitive edge take precedence over athleticism and raw talent. Every single player has their own expectations and the team has committed to winning.
For each player, this commitment has been different. For instance, Danny Green has developed as a slasher and mid-range scorer to become a more skilled offensive threat, Aldridge has played closer to the basket and Parker accepted his new role off of the bench without commotion.
Chris Paul on how strange it is to see Tony Parker coming off the bench: "It definitely is. TP, that's my guy. I have known TP since Day One, since I was in college. It is odd, but he is still going to be him. He is a pro."
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) February 2, 2018
As a culmination of everything San Antonio has built for the post-Duncan era, the ‘Race for Seis’ is in full effect. The only thing they’re missing is their star forward.
Let Leonard rest!
Before proceeding, remember that this is an extremely tricky situation. The history of right quadriceps tendinopathy in the NBA is slim, so there’s not much to work with.
And for that exact reason, Leonard should not play until he’s healthy. As much as he, and the rest of the basketball community, would like for him to make his return, there’s no telling what kind of implications an injury like this could have on his career.
Consider this: an unhealthy Kawhi on a minutes restriction put together an average of 16.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, two steals and a block per game. And yes, he managed to put together this stat line while battling through an unprecedented injury to his leg and frequent shoulder issues simultaneously.
All signs indicate that Leonard will return to form. If he was to play prematurely, there’s no telling how harshly he could re-aggravate his injury. The narrative would be shifted if his team didn’t have the fifth-best record in the league without him, but San Antonio can battle through the regular season. When it comes down to it, Leonard and the Spurs have one thing in mind: the Larry O’Brien trophy.
In pursuit of that trophy, Leonard must ensure that his body is healthy and able to compete before returning to the hardwood. By thinking ahead and planning meticulously, San Antonio has thrived and been recognized as one of the premier organizations in all of sports for decades. The entire situation is reminiscent of the last time San Antonio’s star player suffered a major injury.
During the tail end of the 2000 NBA season, Spurs legend Tim Duncan tore the meniscus in his left knee and was sidelined for the end of the regular season. Despite Duncan’s insistence on playing, Pop decided against Duncan’s wishes and sat him for the playoffs. The Spurs went on to lose to the Phoenix Suns in the first round, but Duncan went on to play for 16 more seasons, where he won numerous MVP awards and championships.
To borrow an adage from the fans in Philadelphia, the Spurs must trust the process. With his team assuring that he’ll be in good position to make his return, Leonard will be back when the time is right.
Ask yourself this one important question: how many times has Pop led San Antonio astray?