One of the biggest surprises so far in the 2017-18 NBA season is that star forward Kawhi Leonard (quad) has made just nine appearances through the San Antonio Spurs' first 72 games. Even when on the court, Leonard hasn't been himself, playing just 23.3 minutes per contest (down from 33.4 last season) and shooting a career-low 46.8 percent from the field. Despite this, the Spurs desperately need their decorated stud (two-time Defensive Player of the Year, 2013-14 Finals MVP) back in action if they want a chance to compete with the top Western Conference teams in the playoffs.
As a result, the Spurs recently held a players-only meeting to “implore” Leonard to return to game action, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. The meeting was said to be “tense and emotional at times,” which makes sense given prior reports of a fraying relationship between Leonard and the team.
Point guard Tony Parker, who “quarterbacked the meeting,” suffered a quad injury last postseason that was believed to be more serious than Leonard's, but Parker has still managed to play 45 games this season. Leonard, on the other hand, who has been working with doctors outside the Spurs organization since January 16, does not yet feel comfortable returning to game action.
Leonard's continued absence is somewhat surprising in light of reports that he has impressed in three-on-three and four-on-four workouts, and he has received rave reviews for the intensity of his individual workouts, as well. When considering the reports of a growing distance between Leonard and the Spurs, some may suspect that Leonard is milking his injury, but the two-time All-Star was “resolute in his response” during the players-only meeting, “insisting that he had good reason for sitting out.”
Reports have often popped up suggesting that Leonard will soon be back in action, but there continues to be no imminent return for the 26-year-old. Veteran guard Manu Ginobili is not counting on his teammate playing again this season, saying Wednesday that Leonard “is not coming back.” Granted, Ginobili may simply be attempting to prepare himself mentally for a postseason run without the Spurs' best player, as he added that “it doesn't help [to think Leonard is returning]” and that “we have to think that he's not coming back, that we are who we are, and that we got to fight without him.”
The Spurs should end up in the playoffs with or without Leonard—they're three games up on the ninth-seeded Denver Nuggets with 10 left to play, and the team is on a roll with a five-game win streak. But with a record of 42-30 putting them in a tie for the fifth seed and just one game ahead of the seventh-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, the Spurs could easily end up in a first-round series against anyone from Russell Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder to the reigning-champion Golden State Warriors.
To knock off one of the top four Western Conference teams in the first round, especially without home-court advantage, the Spurs very well may need Leonard in the fold, and if the two-way dynamo doesn't get in some game action before the postseason, he probably won't be fully in game shape for the first-round series. Signs continue to point toward Leonard's return coming soon, but his status can't be taken for granted, and with just 10 games left to play, he's running out of time to get himself ready for a highly competitive playoff series.
One of the most interesting, confusing, and dramatic storylines of the 2017-18 NBA season continues to roll on without a conclusion.