Kawhi Leonard’s Return Would Make San Antonio Spurs Elite Again

This thing between Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs is getting weird.

Actually, make that weirder. It was already awkward and uncharacteristically inelegant. Now, with the regular season ticking away, the two sides are reportedly engaged in some sort of bizarre standoff pitting player against franchise and teammates.

Tony Parker recently “quarterbacked” a players-only meeting aimed at imploring the two-time Defensive Player of the Year to rejoin San Antonio’s rotation for the sake of its postseason hopes, according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright. Leonard has appeared in just nine games while tending to a right quad (and left shoulder) injury, and the timetable for his return is either nonexistent or consistently being pushed back.

His teammates are apparently less than thrilled and, more importantly, wearing thin on patience. As Wojnarowski wrote:

“The conversation was described as tense and emotional at times. Several teammates spoke up, expressing frustration and confusion over a growing divide that has created significant tension between Leonard and the Spurs. Outside the Spurs locker room, players’ voices could be heard through the door, sources said.”

Loud voices? Directed at and/or originating from the stone-silent Kawhi? Something’s amiss here.

For what it’s worth, Danny Green shot this down almost immediately: 

For what it’s also worth, this mega-leak comes shortly after Manu Ginobili publicly resigned to Leonard’s missing the entire season.

“He is not coming back,” he said, per Wright. “For me, he’s not coming back because it’s not helping [to think Leonard is returning]. We fell for it a week ago again. I guess you guys made us fall for it. But we have to think that he’s not coming back, that we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him.”

These incidents are not isolated. Rather, they’re part of a growing trend enveloping Leonard’s recovery: general awkwardness.

Sources told Wojnarowski and Wright back in January that Leonard’s relationship with the Spurs was on the fritz. Head coach Gregg Popovich then said in February he’d be surprised if Leonard played again this year, per the San Antonio Express-NewsJabari Young, only to sing a completely different song roughly one month later:

The fact Parker spearheaded Leonard’s intervention makes this entire soap opera even more difficult to understand. He suffered a similar injury—ruptured left quadriceps tendon—during last season’s playoff push and didn’t make his 2017-18 debut until the end of November.

Shouldn’t he be sympathetic to Leonard’s situation? Or is he more resentful that, at nearly a decade his senior, he’s on the court and Leonard isn’t? 

No two players are the same. Everyone’s body is different. Leonard, per Woj and Wright, insists he’s not ready to return despite impressing “his coaches and teammates in three-on-three and four-on-four workouts.” His hesitation could be psychological. He could also find himself being measured against an understated prognosis.

As Jeff Stotts, operator of InStreetClothes.com, told CBS Sports’ Jack Maloney in January, Leonard’s tendinopathy could be “anything from tendinitis to an actual disease of the tendon, like a degenerative disease. It can be two extremes. It can be something mild like a tendinitis, or something a little bit more chronic, where it’s more problematic.”

This extra helping of guesswork comes as little consolation. Some of Leonard’s teammates clearly aren’t buying—or don’t realize—that he’s potentially dealing with a deep-seated issue. They want him back. They need him back.

That even a handful of Spurs are ostensibly begging or demanding Leonard to suit up for something other than team pictures is almost mushy-gushy sweet. He means that much to them—to their future, yes, but also their immediate livelihood.

FiveThirtyEight gives the Spurs a 92 percent chance of making the playoffs following their latest five-game win streak. That sounds about right. The data, after all, isn’t overcompensating for Leonard’s impact. He hasn’t played enough to tip the scales one way or the other.

Reaching the postseason for a 21st consecutive time is a secondary battle, though.

San Antonio doesn’t exist to be another team’s vehicle into the second round. Parker is 36 and in the last year of his contract. Ginobili, at 40, is a retirement risk every summer. Pau Gasol is 37. This group wants—it needs—to make noise now.

That isn’t happening without some iteration of Leonard on the wings. The Spurs sit where they are now, a mere three games outside the draft lottery, on the back of their second-ranked defense. But their offense has been a continual grind.

They place 18th in points scored per 100 possessions and lack both the spacing and off-the-bounce zip to climb any higher. They’re 25th in three-point frequency and accuracy, and only seven teams own a lower free-throw-attempt rate.

LaMarcus Aldridge is doing his part to keep the offense afloat. They score like a top-10 machine when he’s in the lineup and upkeep a top-12 crunch-time attack almost entirely thanks to his and, of course, Ginobili’s heroics.

Yank Aldridge from the game, and the Spurs go from pumping in 107.4 points per 100 possessions to 101.5—the difference between piling on buckets like the 10th-ranked Oklahoma City Thunder and 29th-place Sacramento Kings.

Leaning on him as an offensive marrow is a risk unto itself. He subsists on a steady diet of mid-rangers and impossible fallaways. That works for him. He’s shooting 61 percent (61-of-100) on turnaround fadeaways.

But his bag of tricks doesn’t translate to quintessential-alpha output. He isn’t someone the Spurs can turn to for face-up shot creation and willful drives to the basket. He’s posting the second-best free-throw rate of his career, and that’s still only good enough for middle-of-the-road positioning among 39 players with a usage rate of 25 or higher.

Leonard, at anything resembling full strength, addresses all of San Antonio’s biggest warts. The offense has sputtered with him in the game this season, but a nine-game sample size is telltale of nothing given what he did during 2016-17.

In the 2,200-plus minutes he spent on the court, the Spurs fared like a top-two offense. When he stepped off the floor, their offensive rating plumbed bottom-five production.

Leonard rated among the most efficient isolation (72nd percentile) and spot-up (87th) scorers last year. He grappled with his pull-up jumper but went to the charity stripe more often than LeBron James. He dished out more assists per 36 minutes than Paul George and Gordon Hayward and averaged 27 points through two regular-season meetings with the Golden State Warriors.

And let’s not forget the 25-point lead the Spurs held in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals before Zaza Pachulia ended their year.

Pair Leonard’s self-sustaining instincts with Aldridge, and San Antonio looks and plays like an entirely different team. Patty Mills becomes much more valuable as a third, maybe fourth, wheel. Danny Green isn’t expected to do so much off the dribble. The transition to Dejounte Murray at point guard isn’t so topsy-turvy.

Everything changes. How could it not? Leonard went from miscast system player to the system itself last year. Of course his teammates want him back. They need him back, if he’s physically able, in whatever capacity he can give them. 

They’re unfit for more than steppingstone duty without Leonard—which explains their pleas for him to return, almost to the point of flattery, but not how he and the Spurs ended up here, seemingly farther apart than ever before.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comESPN.com or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on March 22. Salary and cap hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Andrew Bailey.

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