San Antonio Spurs: 14 things that happened since Kawhi Leonard last played
By Rob Wolkenbrod
The San Antonio Spurs have played without Kawhi Leonard since Jan. 13, and for most of the 2017-18 season. What developed since he last stepped onto the court?
On Jan. 13, the San Antonio Spurs last had Kawhi Leonard available to play. He was ruled out due to persistent pain in his right quadriceps, and barely heard from since. The same injury cost the “Klaw” the first two months of the 2017-18 season.
Well, the Spurs might get their star player back as early as Thursday. If so, it’s a game-changer for San Antonio, who can use Leonard to climb the Western Conference and secure a playoff spot. Easier said than done, though, with eight teams in the hunt for six seeds.
Between Leonard’s last game played and potential return, plenty happened that reshaped the NBA, including trades, injuries and strange moments. Let’s look back on this, and if any of it will impact the Spurs.
14. In sync?
This only dropped on earlier this month, and technically can’t be considered a “story.” It’s one of the freakiest things you will see on a basketball court, however, and how in sync this sequence was.
The Oklahoma City Thunder faced the Phoenix Suns on Friday. During the game, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony simultaneously pointed up, albeit with different arms, and lowered their arms at the same time. Maybe within a hundredth of a second, kind of like the difference between first and second place in the Bobsled event, at the Winter Olympics.
What really made this freaky? On the ensuing play, Jerami Grant and Patrick Patterson responded with a simultaneous block attempt at going for the basketball. They jumped, put their arms up and touched the floor at the same time. This looked even closer than Anthony and Westbrook.
I want to believe Melo and Russ were pointing instructions in sync to Patterson and Grant who responded in sync
—–(h/t @nikpennington) pic.twitter.com/TBkAg3vwso
— Wobibrow (@World_Wide_Wob) March 3, 2018
It’s not a headline-worthy incident or something that belongs on Supernatural, but still one of the strangest things you will see on a basketball court this season.
Next: JR Smith suspended for throwing soup
13. JR Smith was suspended for throwing soup
According to ESPN.com, Cleveland Cavaliers guard JR Smith was suspended one game for “conduct detrimental to the team,” an unspecific phrase that can allude to any type of wrongdoing. What Smith did, though, was … interesting.
The veteran guard threw a bowl of soup at assistant coach Damon Jones. Not a basketball, not a water bottle or something else that’s basketball-related — a bowl of soup.
Whether it was a chunky or hearty soup remains to be seen, but it marks one of the most comical occurrences of the NBA season, especially for a Cavs team that has not avoided the headlines. It arguably goes beyond something else that happened during Kawhi Leonard’s injury.
Will SoupGate change anything in Cleveland? Maybe not, as Smith returned to the starting lineup in the team’s next game. Whatever warranted the soup throwing may not reach the forefront, either, as the ESPN report did not note the events that led to the loss of what could not have been the best-tasting bowl of chicken, vegetables, dumplings, or anything else that was about to be eaten.
Let’s just hope this incident will not happen between Leonard and the Spurs.
Next: Larry Nance Jr. throws it back
12. Larry Nance Jr. threw it back to his father
When Larry Nance Jr. was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was a bit of nostalgia, given his father, Larry Nance, played for the Cavaliers in the 1980’s and had his number retired by the organization. So, like father, like son, as the saying goes.
Well, this was turned up a notch at NBA All-Star Saturday, when Nance Jr. entered the dunk contest. Nance won the first ever dunk contest in 1984, so his son attempted to do the same, and in an identical jersey. Literally.
Nance originated the rock-the-cradle dunk, which Nance Jr. attempted to replicate at the 2018 contest, and succeeded. He did it in the old-school Phoenix Suns jersey, too
This was arguably Nance Jr.’s best dunk of the night, but it did not win him the competition. This belonged to Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell.
Either way, it was a special evening for the father and son, who officially share a moment in NBA history, with almost-exact dunks and in identical uniforms. Now, it’s up to the younger of the two, to win an NBA championship and bring one back to the family.
It’s rare to any anyone from the San Antonio Spurs in the dunk contest. Their last representative was in 1988, when Cadillac Anderson took part.
Next: LaMarcus Aldridge's injuries
11. LaMarcus Aldridge was injured twice
Just when San Antonio Spurs injuries could not get worse, they did, even if the latest ones were not severe.
LaMarcus Aldridge was one of the few Spurs to not suffer an injury and sit out multiple games. However, before the All-Star break, this took a turn, when Aldridge had a sore knee that sidelined him for the final games of the first half.
Afterward, the six-time All-Star returned to start the second half of the season, but suffered a sprained right ankle just a few games later. It does not seem severe, for now, but kept him out for at least one game.
Most of San Antonio’s roster has failed to stay healthy, with the exception of Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills. Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Danny Green, Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson, Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, Joffrey Lauvergne, Rudy Gay and Derrick White all missed time with an injury. It’s fluctuated the team’s rotation for almost every game of the 2017-18 season, and, yet, the Silver and Black kept the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference for most of the season.
The injuries must subside at some point, right? With fewer than 20 games to go, let’s see if that’s the case.
Next: LeBron-Warriors rumor
10. Remember that LeBron James-Warriors rumor that freaked everyone out?
When LeBron James hits free agency in July, he will easily be the most talked about player available. The Cleveland Cavaliers still have a chance at retaining him, but teams with salary cap space will hope he chooses them this offseason.
Well, one of those teams included the Golden State Warriors, according to a report from ESPN.com. It seemed crazy at the time, with Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson already on a squad that’s made the past three NBA Finals, and potentially a fourth in June. For salary reasons, fitting all five players on the same roster would be far-fetched, especially if James commands over $30 million per year.
Well, the King himself responded to this report, calling it “nonsense.” That summed it up, even though fans will still be in for “The Decision 3.0.”
Unless the Warriors trade one or two of their “Big Four,” do not expect to see LeBron in the Bay Area. In fact, they were not even on his new list of teams, according to The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor. So, it’s likely just “nonsense” that everyone can move past. It was a fun moment while it lasted, though, and will not be the lasy crazy offseason rumor.
Next: James Harden ends Wesley Johnson
9. James Harden figuratively ended Wesley Johnson’s career
After a runner-up finish in 2016-17, Houston Rockets star James Harden might win the 2017-18 NBA MVP. Okay, he probably will win, given his team’s ascension to the top of the Western Conference and a points per game average that’s over 30. Playing with Chris Paul can’t hurt, either.
Harden’s season will be summed up by how far Houston goes in the playoffs. However, long before that happens, he will get to dazzle on the court for the last month of the season.
Well, if you want to talk about “dazzle,” then let’s look back at Harden’s dazzling crossover that put Wesley Johnson into retirement (not really). It looked to break both of Johnson’s ankles, as he crashed to the ground and suffered the wrath of the Beard’s eye daggers. Harden then hit a cold-blooded 3-pointer and set the NBA world on fire.
Will Johnson ever recover from this? That remains to be seen.
So far, Harden has not pulled an ankle-breaking, Twitter-destroying move on the San Antonio Spurs, but he still got the best of them this season, with two 28-point games. It’s possible these two sides see each other in the playoffs, though, depending on where the Silver and Black fall in the playoff picture.
Next: Ben Simmons recruits LeBron
8. Ben Simmons publicly recruited LeBron James
The LeBron James recruiting campaign took its next stop in Philadelphia, with 76ers star Ben Simmons’ not-so-cryptic Instagram post, which the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Keith Pompey documented on Twitter:
.@BenSimmons25’s Sunday instagram post is drawing a lot of attention. #Sixers fans hope it means their squad at least has a chance to lure @KingJames when FA begins on July 1. But could it be that Simmons is just having fun? #TimeWillTell pic.twitter.com/3vWdL6VFJr
— Keith Pompey (@PompeyOnSixers) February 18, 2018
LeBron on the 76ers offers a tantalizing projection. It’s on a team with Simmons, Joel Embiid, the injured Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and whichever veterans would remain in 2018-19. Place those players around the 33-year-old star and it gives him a wealth of young talent to play with. It’s not like the group in Cleveland is poor, to say the least, but one of the NBA’s best centers, a rising point forward and lengthy veterans wings to accompany make it interesting. Maybe JJ Redick sticks around on a smaller contract, too.
This makes the Sixers the Eastern Conference favorite, with the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors not close behind. However, the roster, from top to bottom, in Philadelphia would be too much to ignore to not declare them better than Boston and Toronto.
If the Spurs manage to regroup and become an NBA Finals contender in 2019, this would be an intriguing matchup. Place Kawhi Leonard on James and LaMarcus Aldridge on Embiid. After that, there might be matchup problems, depending on how both rosters look.
Next: Mark Cuban fined
7. Mark Cuban fined 600K for wanting the Mavs to tank
The “tanking” topics pop up around the midway point of the NBA season, for the teams that sit near the bottom of the standings. The worst teams, record wise, get the highest odds in the NBA Lottery, Once some of these squads realize this, they intentionally rest starters to put the weakest possible lineup on the floor. It’s a speculated practice of the past two decades, as teams jockey for the coveted No. 1 pick and chance at any available player in the NBA Draft.
For 2018, the Dallas Mavericks, as of Mar. 12, have one of the NBA’s worst records. They sit in the bottom three of the Western Conference and the fifth-worst spot in the league. Of course, the higher they rise in the standings, the lower their odds at the No. 1 overall pick will be,
Well, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban did what teams rarely do: publicly state the desire to lose games. These comments led to a $600k fine from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver:
“I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I just had dinner with a bunch of our guys the other night,” Cuban said. “And here we are. We weren’t competing for the playoffs. I was like, ‘Look, losing is our best option.’
“Adam would hate to be hearing that. But at least I sat down and I explained it to them. And I explained what our plans are going to be this summer, that we’re not going to tank again. This is like a year and a half of tanking. That was too brutal for me.”
Even though Cuban somewhat backtracked in the second paragraph, “losing is our best option” obviously did not sit well with Silver, who could not sit around with an owner stating his intention to lose.
The San Antonio Spurs never get associated with tanking because they always make the playoffs or fall far from the bottom of the league’s standings. Even if they do not reach the postseason in 2018, there’s no chance at falling for a higher draft pick in June.
Next: The Raptors
6. Let’s check in on the Raptors
The Boston Celtics, Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers receive most of the attention in the Eastern Conference. Even the New York Knicks get a few looks, despite having one of the worst records in the NBA. However, the Toronto Raptors own the East’s best record by multiple games and sit just below the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors.
How can that be? Well, behind DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and a stellar home record, they sit atop the East and without the drama of LeBron James and the Cavs, the attention that’s on Golden State, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons rising profiles and Kyrie Irving in Boston.
Playing North of the border does not help, as the Raptors are the only NBA team to be outside the United States. That keeps them from the big-city media attention that’s in America and to themselves, which can’t hurt and takes away potential pressure.
Of course, when the playoffs arrive, it’s a different story. Everyone will watch Toronto, especially in series against the Cavaliers or Celtics.
The Raptors have no effect on the San Antonio Spurs, but they did take down the East’s No. 1 team earlier this season. How would this look in the NBA Finals?
Next: Clippers trade Blake Griffin
5. Clippers traded Blake Griffin; remain in the playoff hunt
The Los Angeles Clippers gave Blake Griffin a massive five-year contract in the 2017 offseason, which kept their franchise player around for its post-Chris Paul phase — or seemingly did so. That was until the organization sent Griffin to the Detroit Pistons for a package that included Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris, effectively removing two-thirds of the famous “Lob City” in less than one year.
Without Griffin, however, the Clippers remain in the playoff hunt. As of this writing, they sit at No. 8 and over .500, which is remarkable since the team does not have a star offensive player, even though DeAndre Jordan remains the team’s center.
As for Griffin, he’s still in Detroit, battling for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs and remain below .500. It’s with 42.5 percent shooting from the field for 20.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 17 games.
The San Antonio Spurs will battle with the Clippers for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. It should come down to the wire, given San Antonio’s grueling schedule and the other teams above .500 in the conference. Even though the star power lacks, there’s still quality players to lead the other Los Angeles team to the playoffs, pending the team from the Alamo City slips in the final weeks of the campaign.
Next: Cleveland trades everyone
4. The Cavaliers traded everyone
Before February’s NBA Trade Deadline, the Cleveland Cavaliers struggled but still showcased one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. Led by LeBron James, there were former All-Stars and veteran players that filled out the roster in what appeared to be a championship-caliber team before the season.
Well, after an injury to Kevin Love, Isaiah Thomas’ comments and team struggles to start the 2018 portion of the season, Cleveland general Manager Koby Altman chose to revamp the roster in one day. He traded Thomas, Channing Frye, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder and Iman Shumpert for George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. across four trades. This was an unprecedented move, for a team that made the NBA Finals in three consecutive seasons, but also did not play like that, given the Kyrie Irving trade and the on-court issues of the 2017-18 team.
There was not a standings impact from this, but it stabilized the Cavs in No. 3, behind the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors. If James and company play at another level in the postseason, similar to previous years, then seeding might not matter.
A Spurs vs. Cavaliers NBA Finals would be intriguing. However, with one team on the brink of missing the playoffs, this probably will not happen.
Next: Big-name injuries
3. Other star players fell to injuries
San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard was far from the only big name to fall injured. DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, John Wall and Kristaps Porzingis all suffered ailments within the span of a few weeks, which hurt playoff teams and cost Cousins and Porzingis the rest of their respective seasons. Butler and Wall may return before the playoffs start.
Cousins’ Achilles injury seemed destined to hurt the New Orleans Pelicans’ chances at the playoffs. However, behind MVP play from Anthony Davis, this team sits at No. 4 in the West after a torrid run through the post All-Star break schedule.
Butler’s injury happened in the first game after the All-Star break. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns still remain to carry this team to the playoffs, but in a tight conference race, the loss of Minnesota’s prized offseason acquisition could pay consequences.
Wall went down nearly two months ago. The Wizards remain at No. 5, though, behind Bradley Beal’s play, and could make postseason noise if healthy.
As for Porzingis, his season-ending knee injury took the Knicks out of the playoff race, even if they were already on the brink. This impacted a seemingly bright future in the Big Apple, and will depend on how soon he returns next season.
Next: Rockets take No. 1
2. Rockets overtook the Warriors in the standings
For most of the past three years, the Golden State Warriors sat atop the Western Conference standings; the San Antonio Spurs were behind them; that’s while the Houston Rockets were in the middle or the bottom of the pack of the playoff scene, even with James Harden.
This changed in 2018, with the addition of Chris Paul and the continued flurry of 3-point shots. It took the Rockets to another level, eventually usurping the Warriors at the top of the standings. Attribute it to two 14-game winning streaks, too.
Is Houston better than Golden State? That’s up for debate, and how a seven-game series would play out. It’s possible, maybe likely, for the Western Conference Finals and a trip to a championship opportunity. Star power would not lack, either, with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green also involved.
The Spurs might play one of these teams in Round 1. That’s either a blessing or a curse, as Kawhi Leonard could be healthy for this. NBA fans have not seen him against the Rockets or Warriors this season, and while these teams may be favored over San Antonio, a series sweep would not be guaranteed.
Next: Playoff bound?
1. The Spurs are at risk of missing the playoffs
The San Antonio Spurs never miss the playoffs. Since their last absence in 1997, five championships and 20 consecutive playoff appearances followed. It’s an incredible mark for one of the NBA’s most consistent franchises of the past two decades.
Well, with the way things played out since the All-Star break, the Spurs might miss the playoffs.
As of Mar. 12, San Antonio sits at No. 7 in the Western Conference and one loss away from the No. 10 seed, which puts them out of the playoff picture. It’s while most of this conference won multiple games in late February and early March, including a 10-game streak from the Utah Jazz, to put pressure on the teams at the bottom of the picture.
The Silver and Black did not have playoff pressure, as they sat at No. 3 or No. 4 for most of the season. A 2-8 record in 10 games altered this, though, along with injuries that affected LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol.
Next: Top 25 players in Spurs history
Of course, there’s the absence of Kawhi Leonard, who could have impacted the playoff picture if healthy for most of the season. If the Spurs get him back soon, this can still happen, but will it be too little, too late?