Can Kawhi Leonard salvage the San Antonio Spurs’ season?

It’s been 21 years since the San Antonio Spurs weren’t throwing a ball through a hoop in May.

They had the third-worst record in the league (20-62), topped only by the 14-68 Vancouver Grizzlies before their relocation to Memphis, and the 15-67 Boston Celtics.

The world was a very, very different place.

Internet Explorer was the world’s leading web browser. Tamagotchi was the biggest craze on the planet. MiniDisks were a thing, and the San Antonio Spurs were bad, real bad.

That season David Robinson played just six games through injury. Chuck Person didn’t even manage a single game. Then Head Coach Bob Hill was fired after winning just three of his first 18 games, and was replaced by Gregg Popovich.

That was the season they drafted a soft-spoken power forward from Wake Forest. His name was Tim Duncan.

The Spurs didn’t miss the playoffs for his entire career. For over 20 years they’ve seen nothing but success in the regular season.

Basketball is a normality at the AT&T in May. But that might not be the case this year – in fact, it’s a real possibility.

Kawhi Leonard: The missing piece?

The reason? Many will point the finger at Kawhi Leonard’s freakish injury, which like Robinson all those years ago, has limited him to less than ten games so far this season.

He’s a two-time All-Star, two-time defensive player of the year, a finals MVP, and the talisman for a Spurs franchise who many know as perennial winners.

Without him, they’ve looked a shadow of their former selves.

Kawhi Leonard (Photo: Slam Online)

Kawhi Leonard (Photo: Slam Online)

Questions were raised over Leonard’s health in the tail-end of last season. An ‘unfortunate’ ankle injury ended the Spurs’ hopes of play-off success against Golden State as they cruised to their second NBA title in three seasons in 2017.

The Western Conference Finals opened with the Spurs building a 25 point lead over Golden State.

Kawhi Leonard’s swarming defense and punishing offense looked set to hand Steph Curry and Kevin Durant their first loss of the post-season. What was more impressive was that he was doing it without long-time Spurs hero Tony Parker by his side.

The Frenchman was was averaging 15.9 points and 57.9 percent from 3-point range in the postseason. A ruptured Quadricep tendon ended his season. But Kawhi kept going, up until the third quarter of game one.

Cue Zaza Pachulia, and a close-out which will be long remembered by NBA fans around the globe.

Dirty or not, Kawhi came down clutching his left ankle. It was the same ankle which had troubled him in the Spurs’ demolition of Houston in the previous round, it was the beginning of an injury ravaged 12 months for the two-way star and much-touted MVP candidate.

“Did he step under it? Like on purpose? No, he was contesting the shot, the shot clock was coming down.” Leonard said of the play, via the Undefeated.

“I feel good. I’ll get back healthy. I have faith in my teammates, and we’re going to see what happens in Game 2”

Kawhi didn’t return to the court, and Golden State swept San Antonio with relative ease. It all could have been different, but like so many playoff series, that proved the defining moment.

It wasn’t an injury thought to be worrying regarding the 2017/18 season, and in truth, it didn’t – it was a whole other problem which would rob the Spurs of their franchise star.

The Kawhi Leonard Quad injury

Reports began to surface ahead of the season regarding Leonard’s health issues, but it was never considered serious by many fans.

A quad injury? Tendinopathy? Who’s ever heard of that?

Fans quickly realised the extent of the problem in October when they saw video of Leonard trying to board a charter jet and struggling to climb a simple set of stairs.

If he can’t walk up 12 steps, there isn’t a chance in hell this guy would be playing NBA basketball anytime soon.

Sure, he’d just undergone a rehab session ahead of the flight, he may have been strapped up and rocking some ice packs, but it didn’t look great all the same.

Hell, he was probably struggling to go about day-to-day life considering his crooked limp.

October came and went, as did November. Kawhi was still to log a single minute of basketball. It took until December 12th before he was suiting up and playing.

He played just nine games before being shut down once again. On January 17th, San Antonio confirmed that Leonard was out indefinitely.

“It hasn’t responded the way we wanted it to,” coach Gregg Popovich told the Express-News at the time.

“He’s given it a shot. He’s frustrated as hell. He wants to play badly. But if we’re going to err, we’re going to do it on the side of health and being wise.”

San Antonio were forced to rely on the likes of Lamarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gay and Pau Gasol to hold their team up, whilst fans of the game (this writer included) expected to see Gregg Popovich do what he’s always done – and find a player capable of helping on a marked discount.

That didn’t happen this year.

Kawhi Leonard (Photo: Jose Garcia)

Kawhi Leonard (Photo: Jose Garcia)

At the time of writing, San Antonio sit ninth in the Western Conference with a 38-30 record. It’s a winning record, but for now, it doesn’t look like enough to promise a post-season party.

The streaking Utah Jazz look a formidable foe. The Los Angeles Clippers somehow sit ahead of them thanks to the work they’ve done this season. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves look good for a play-off appearance at long last. New Orleans have also been buoyed by a freakish run of form from Anthony Davis.

Looking past those teams, you don’t see many others budging from a post-season spot.

Need more convincing of the Spurs’ struggles? They face the second hardest remaining schedule in the entire league, according to Tankathon.

Games against Golden State, Houston, Portland, Oklahoma and New Orleans await them. Only the Thunder face a tougher statistical run-in.

Simply put, San Antonio need their biggest weapon back…

Does Kawhi Leonard return for San Antonio?

It’s a question everyone in the West wants to know – and one which is yet to receive a hard and fast answer.

There were rumours he could have come back for the win over the desperately poor Orlando Magic, who are once again in ‘tank-mode’.

He didn’t make an appearance.

Then reports suggested Thursday’s meeting with the Pelicans could usher in a return. Popovich has since ended that chatter, corroborated by other sources.

“Like anybody else, he’s frustrated,” Popovich said before Tuesday’s game against the Orlando Magic, per the Express-News.

“He wants to be playing. He’s competitive. It’s been a tough year in that regard for him. But the first step is he’s got to be cleared by his medical staff that he’s seeing.

“Until he gets cleared, we can’t make a decision on when he’s coming back,”

“So, once he gets cleared, then he and I can sit down and talk and see what we think about an appropriate time to come back. But that clearance has to be obtained first.”

Regarding whether he’ll suit up if he is cleared, the Spurs Head Coach was cagey.

“That’s a negotiation between the player and the coach to figure out what’s best.

“He knows very well out history is pretty documented,”

“If we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the conservative side because his career is going to be of paramount importance to us. It’s not the game or the playoffs or this or that.

“It was the same way with Tim (Duncan) early on when he hurt a knee one year, and we didn’t let him go in the playoffs. I don’t know if it’s going to be this situation. We don’t know.

Gregg Popovich has known success throughout his time at San Antonio, pictured here in 2010 (Photo: Zereshk)

Gregg Popovich has known success throughout his time at San Antonio, pictured here in 2010 (Photo: Zereshk)

“But his career is going to be paramount in our thinking as we make a decision.”

It’s safe to say the Spurs are betting on Kawhi staying a Spur for the long-run.

It’s not like the franchise isn’t well-versed in holding on to their stars. Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili are great examples. Before that David Robinson always remained in Texas.

Players don’t leave San Antonio – especially not big ones.

That wasn’t something which was so black and white with Leonard, especially when reports regarding a rift between him and the franchise surfaced in a very non-Spurs style manner.

Reports had suggested that doctors had cleared the forward to return to action. Kawhi himself felt he wasn’t ready however, causing friction between both sides.

Add to this a player-option in his contract at the end of the 2018/19 season, and it was thought that ‘The Claw’ could maneuver his way out of San Antonio. An unprecedented move.

“There is no issue between the Spurs organization and Kawhi,” General Manager RC Buford said, of the reported friction, via ESPN.

“From Day one all parties have worked together to find the best solutions to his injury.”

“This has been difficult for everyone,”

“It’s been difficult for Kawhi. He’s an elite-level player. It’s been difficult for the team, because they want to play with a great teammate. And it’s been difficult for our staff.

“Historically we’ve been able to successfully manage injuries. This rehab hasn’t been simple, and it hasn’t gone in a linear fashion.”

That’s been backed up by the player himself, going as far to say that he would ‘for sure’ like to finish his career with the Spurs. Quite a claim for a 26-year-old.

The fans seem to expect a return, with a recent poll from this writer suggesting over 80% of voters tipping Leonard to make a return and getting his side into the post-season.

Only 12% suggest even if he does come back, that he fails to spark them into some playoff contention.

Can Kawhi Leonard right the ship?

On a purely motivational level, you’d imagine that any kind of return will undoubtedly boost San Antonio. Whether that alone is enough to guide them into the post-season is another question.

Statistically though, Leonard’s return would be huge for San Antonio.

Averaging over 16ppg, 6rpg and 2apg, Leonard’s impact would be welcome, but it’s his defensive qualities where the Spurs would really value his return – if he’s healthy.

We’ve already mentioned his plethora of defensive awards – but statistically his defense is impossible to ignore.

One such stat is almost impossible to believe. Kawhi Leonard has totaled more steals than personal fouls over his career. Think about that for a second.

Leonard has 723 total steals to his name in the NBA and just 706 fouls. Basically, every time Kawhi attempts a steal, he’s more likely to get the ball than he is to foul his opposing number.

His size and speed make him a suffocating defender. He’s often tasked with guarding the most adept offensive player on the court, and he does so with a mindset that seems to truly embrace defense.

The fact that teams now effectively freeze out the offensive player being guarded by Leonard to avoid his defensive quality is telling – and sways his stats somewhat.

Such is the use of analytics now, San Antonio were actually worse defensively according to the numbers with him on the floor in the 2016/17 season.


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That all comes down to the fact that teams try and negate his defensive superiority by ignoring the player being guarded by him – if that makes sense.

For example, let’s suggest San Antonio were facing the Timberwolves in the playoffs. The best tactic for the T’Wolves to introduce to avoid Leonard’s defense is to effectively avoid him.

If he were guarding Jimmy Butler for example, they would be better off not giving him the basketball whatsoever on offense, despite him being one of their biggest offensive weapons.

Kawhi Leonard's defense is so good, teams often avoid him (Photo: Express-News)

Kawhi Leonard’s defense is so good, teams often avoid him (Photo: Express-News)

Basically, having Butler sit out an offensive play lets the other players on-court try and exploit match-ups.

Due to the lack of defensive quality elsewhere in San Antonio, especially with the likes of Aldridge, Gasol and Parker, utilising match-ups against these players makes more sense.

Of course, this only goes to show just how effective he is as a one-on-one defender, showing just how important a player he is for Popovich and the Spurs in general.

Imagine if we looked at his offensive stats too? It’s suffice to say, Leonard’s return is the best result for all parties, except for any other team in the West.

It seems that the wait for Kawhi’s return is almost at an end, and his comeback could well come at the perfect time for San Antonio.

Should they make the playoffs by an hair or by a mile – no team would relish going up against a Popovich team with a fit and firing Kawhi Leonard over seven games.

It’s been 21 years since San Antonio haven’t been to the party – and if Kawhi comes back, you wouldn’t bet against them extending that streak.

Luke Hatfield is the creator and editor of BouncyOrangeBall, with an extensive knowledge of the NBA and basketball in general.

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