Kawhi Leonard might return for the San Antonio Spurs this month. That carries a few questions before the time comes.
The San Antonio Spurs might have Kawhi Leonard return for the stretch run of the 2017-18 season. With a comeback unlikely for Saturday’s game, barring an unforeseen circumstance, it leaves fewer than 20 games for him to get acclimated and prepared for a potential playoff run.
Leonard’s status has drawn speculation and ire, given the indication of his “distant” relationship with the organization. However, with a return to the court, it’s possible these reports will disappear into the night and lead to a healthy rest-of-the-season run on the court.
With a return of this player’s magnitude comes questions. These relate to not just the individual but the team.
4. How long will the Spurs have Kawhi back?
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Kawhi Leonard’s targetted return is March. That’s all the public knows. However, there are 30 days to go and 14 games scheduled before the 31st. After that, only six remain in April. That’s not much time for any player to get into shape and form a chemistry with a lineup that’s mostly been there this season.
If the Spurs get Leonard back on something like Saturday, Mar. 17 — just over two weeks away — that leaves little room for the coaching staff to manage his minutes and work him into a full-time role. This might take two games, two weeks or the rest of the season, before the playoffs arrive in about six weeks.
Though, this is Kawhi Leonard, perceived as one of the NBA’s best players in the 2016-17 season. How long of an adjustment will there be? Is there actually a threat of him messing with team chemistry? It seems mindless and something to scoff at, because of the 26-year old’s ability to impact both ends of the floor and potentially be the difference in how far this team goes. So, whether or not the Spurs have him for long, there’s little reason to worry about a disruption.
Next: Injury pain
3. Will there still be quad pain?
This part of the equation is impossible for everyone but Kawhi Leonard to assess: his quadriceps pain. Part of the multiple reports on Leonard’s rift with the San Antonio Spurs included his decision to sit, despite being medically cleared to play, due to persistent pain in his right quad.
Between the time this report went public and Leonard’s return to the team practice facility, did quad pain subside? It’s also unknown how long ago he was cleared to return.
Is there still pain, but the decision was made to play through it? That’s difficult to know, too, unless Leonard speaks to the media and reveals more.
If pain remains, it obviously means Leonard will not be at 100 percent. He played well the first time around, but was never able to get into a rhythm, given the one game in, two days off strategy the staff provided him from December to January, which resulted in just nine games played. Will something similar happen again? Frankly, can it even happen again?
Either way, the Spurs might not have a fully healthy Leonard for the playoffs. Whether or not anything gets revealed on this remains to be seen.
Next: Who loses playing time?
2. Who loses playing time?
An easy question to ask, is who will lose playing time on the San Antonio Spurs? Kawhi Leonard can consume up to 30-35 minutes, pending the team chooses to extract as much as possible from him in the final week of the season.
Kyle Anderson has started at small forward for most of the season, aside from a brief injury stint in December. He would be the first man down and lose starter’s minutes to Leonard, with a backseat to the latter and Rudy Gay on the bench. Something like 16-22 minutes per game seems plausible.
Will Bryn Forbes see his playing time lessen? That depends on how the Spurs utilize Leonard in certain lineups, but having an extra player that can handle the two spot will not help Forbes’ case.
Davis Bertans might be the third casualty in the minutes timeshare. He’s already seen a decreased role since Gay returned, so another player that can line up at power forward, if needed, would dampen Bertans’ spot in the rotation and leave his future in question.
There’s no doubt someone will lose playing time this month — likely more than just one player. Will it result in someone’s fall out of the rotation, though?
Next: Can Spurs beat the elite with Kawhi?
1. With Kawhi, can this team beat the Rockets and Warriors?
The San Antonio Spurs did not have Kawhi Leonard available for any game vs. the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, No. 1 and 2 in the Western Conference, respectively, this season. All four games were losses, with four to go before the season ends.
The Spurs can get by in the regular season, but if a playoff matchup arises vs. the Rockets or Warriors (it seems likely if San Antonio gets past Round 1), will a team with Kawhi Leonard defeat, let alone challenge one of the conference’s elite in a seven-game series?
With how tight the Western Conference is, the Spurs can just as easily face the Rockets or Warriors in the Western Conference Finals as Round 1. That’s if they fall to either No. 7 or No. 8 in the standings, which, as of Mar. 2, is a difference of 0.5 and 2.5 games, respectively.
Right now, it’s impossible to know how the 2017-18 Spurs with Leonard stand up to the better-than-ever Rockets and a Warriors team that faced the “Klaw” in just one of a four-game series in May 2017. It can make a series-changing difference, a slightly bigger challenge for Houston or Golden State to get by, or mean nothing. Given how these teams have torn through the NBA this season, it’s potentially the latter.
Then again, Leonard might be the piece needed to upset the Rockets or Warriors in Round 1 or 2. If he contains James Harden or Kevin Durant, it certainly can’t hurt the Spurs’ chances, but it’s a long way off from a sure thing.