It was after a scrimmage game on Sept. 30 when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich revealed that Kawhi Leonard would miss time with a quad injury. We now understand that the extent of the injury was significantly downplayed at the time, as Leonard is still out due to problems with his quad.
All things considered, the Spurs have had a great season without their superstar, and remain in playoff contention in the West. Yet they couldn’t escape the cloud of Leonard’s uncertainty that hovers over the franchise like a brewing storm.
The Spurs, who are often a secretive franchise, have been ambiguous on the matter from the start. All season reporters have pushed for direct answers on Kawhi’s seemingly imminent return, only to receive a merry-go-round of nebulous responses from Popovich, who didn’t seem to have the first clue on Leonard’s condition either.
Leonard came back for 9 games in December and played well, but then returned to New York for more rehab on his quad injury. Since then, he has alternated between rehab and being on the verge of returning to action.
On Feb. 9, Popovich said he would be “surprised if Leonard returns this season.” At that point, fans grew concerned and started to accept the return as a lost cause. However, hope was re-injected once again on Mar. 10 when it was reported that he would return soon.
A setback must have occurred, the details of which we may never know, because Leonard still hasn’t returned. Last Saturday, it was revealed that he headed back to New York for a second rehab period with his private doctor, and has been there since Monday, Mar. 26. At this point, it’s clear that he won’t be coming back this season, and we have no reason to trust another report suggesting otherwise.
In establishing that Leonard is done for the year, it gives us some closure to what might be the most mysterious injury story line of 2017-18 (save for Markelle Fultz). Forget putting on a Spurs uniform this season, but does this saga indicate a possibility he never does so again?
The constant unclear and conflicting reports from the team suggest that there may be tension between Leonard and the Spurs organization. It doesn’t appear that they’ve always been on the same page as far as the severity of the injury and his return date.
As the sense of internal turbulence radiates from San Antonio, the vultures are starting to circle. Several teams are already preparing trade offers for the end of the season. It’s insane that we’ve gotten to this point, but Kawhi Leonard might realistically never play a game for the Spurs again.
Being 26 years old and in the midst of his basketball prime, Leonard is an enticing piece for a team that is ready to compete for a championship next year. Some teams that come to mind are Boston, Philadelphia, Portland, Milwaukee, and the LA Clippers.
Boston would be a good fit for Leonard, but the question is whether they can afford him past next year. They have a lot of money tied up in Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Gordon Hayward for at least the next two years.
They do have the assets to make a respectable offer, though. Jayson Tatum will almost surely be included in the package, if not Jaylen Brown, too. The Celtics would be hesitant to give up both of their young talents, even if they would get Leonard and immediately become a top contender. That isn’t to say Boston, when they get Hayward and Irving back healthy, won’t be expected to win the East next year (Hint: they should be).
Philadelphia is another intriguing place where Leonard could land, as they have catapulted into the East’s upper echelon this year. The 76ers would have to part with at least one of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, or Markelle Fultz to make a deal happen. A 3-and-D wing like Robert Covington would be a nice addition to sweeten the deal.
Leonard has never been the type of guy to demand a spotlight, so a small market might even be a better fit for him. Milwaukee could provide this, and with a potential new coaching staff, the Bucks could start fresh with a core of Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, as well as whoever is leftover from the blockbuster deal.
To be sure, Giannis will never be included in such a deal. Yes, Leonard is marginally better right now, but Giannis still hasn’t reached his peak, and probably has the highest trade value in the league. He’s as close to untouchable as a player can get. Khris Middleton, on the other hand, would be a great fit in San Antonio, and if packaged with someone like Eric Bledsoe or Malcolm Brogdon, could be enough to get the deal done.
Despite all of these rumors, the most likely scenario remains that Leonard works things out with Popovich and the Spurs, and signs the “super max” deal he’s worked his whole career for. Still, it’s exciting (or terrifying, depending on who you ask) to think that Leonard could be on the move this summer.