It feels like a lifetime ago when ESPN released their pre-season annual ranking of players. In September of 2017, Kawhi Leonard was ranked third behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant. In describing Leonard ESPN remarked, “Only three players-Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant- have averaged 25 PPG and been named first-team All-Defense at a younger age than Leonard, who was 25 least season.” Leonard’s particular skill on both sides of the ball elevate his dominant talent and drive the Spurs to contender status. Without him, the Spurs are a good but not a great team.
Without him has been the story of Kawhi Leonard’s season. An injury that was reaggravated and was slow to heal, discontent with the Spurs trainers about said injury, frustration at wanting to play but not being able to play, has chipped away at the former Finals MVP’s contentment. He’s been frustrated and miserable. The Spurs have allowed Kawhi to heal the way he knows how to heal while they figure out how to win games and take their lumps because no one feels sorry for San Antonio.
The consequence of what looked like moodiness married to dissatisifaction energized the guessing game. Would Leonard turn his back on the best organization in the NBA? Will he accept the designated player extension of $200 million this summer? From the jump, Leonard has always been a different kind of NBA player, not necessarily seduced by money or fame or all the peripheral nonsense that many NBA players thirst for. Kawhi, his friends implied, would be fine with say $150 million if he turned down the extension and was a free agent in 2019.
Multiple sides offered their take on the melodrama between Leonard and the Spurs and I’m not saying he hasn’t had his moments of unhappiness, all marriages do, but the Spurs in their history, with the exception of the Dennis Rodman year, have a reputation of strong relationships with their players. Leonard could be convinced to return to the fold was the optimistic take. Besides, without Kawhi talking, no one really knew how deep the rift was, and whether it was in the process of being healed, or if Leonard is the Good Soldier for the short term only.
Patience was required. It was wait and see.
What we do know now because Leonard has indicated this is true is he will be back on a NBA court which is good for the NBA and the Spurs. He intends to return to the practice facility within the week and has targeted some time in March for a healthy return. He has already been cleared by the medical staff to return. It’s no longer a question of if Kawhi is returning. But now we can ask when? And what happens now with the Spurs?
Clearly, they need his talent. The Spurs have been treading water because of their brilliant coach, system and enabling the right kind of players that fit in with what their core values are. But they don’t have a star to lean on. They can get away with LaMarcus Aldridge in the regular season, on those dog days, but in the playoffs when teams take away option number one and option number two, an Aldridge-Pau Gasol combo just isn’t enough.
The Spurs need a star.
They also need to play a little bit faster, create more offensive efficiency, turn the ball over to a player who is going to drag his team into excellence by getting to the line, legitimize hand quickness and swiping the ball on the perimeter, not to mention a player who can create his own shot whenever he wants to and create open shots for his teammates. There is no replacement for iconic talent.
Kyle Anderson who has filled in for Kawhi has had 10 And-1 opportunties this season. Last year, Kawhi Leonard had 46 And-1 opportunities. That is the difference in the talent and what the Spurs have done this year without Kawhi. They’ve had to work harder and in many cases be perfect. But with his impending return, there is playoff optimism. Finally an antidote for Kevin Durant, Paul George, Trevor Ariza, and Andrew Wiggins. In the post-season, the Spurs can compete (if Zaza doesn’t cheap shot another Spur, that is).
It’s been a pretty gloomy winter in San Antonio. But Kawhi Leonard is coming back. The season just turned that much closer to the sun.