Kawhi Leonard’s strange 2017-18 season took yet another odd turn Wednesday, when San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich told reporters he’d be “surprised” if Leonard returns this season due to tendinopathy in his right quad.
“We only have X-number of games left in the season and he’s still not ready to go,” Popovich told reporters in the team’s first post all-star break availability. “If by some chance he is, it’s going to be pretty late in the season and it’s going to be a tough decision. How late do you bring somebody back? That’s why I’m just trying to be honest and logical. I’ll be surprised if he’s back this year.”
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added to the mystery, tacking on that Leonard has “been long cleared to return — the final decision still remains with him.”
Popovich’s statement creates a possibility that no one has truly considered — that Leonard’s season, after just nine games, is already over. But it also leaves open another one: Leonard may have played his final game as a member of the Spurs.
On its face, this undoubtedly seems absurd. Leonard is one of the best players in the league, and he is signed through next season. But the reason this idea has merit is what was the driving force behind the trades of two other elite players, DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler, within the last year: The supermax contract.
Ironically, the supermax was created in the last collective bargaining agreement — agreed to in the wake of Kevin Durant leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder as a free agent — to keep stars like Cousins, Butler and Leonard with their current teams. And, in the cases of Stephen Curry, James Harden and John Wall, it has done precisely that. All three players agreed to long-term contracts with their current teams this past offseason that will keep them in place well into the next decade.
But in the case of Cousins with the Sacramento Kings and Butler with the Chicago Bulls, the idea of handing out a contract in excess of $200 million played a part in both teams choosing to move on from all-stars in their primes, choosing to get something for them rather than signing them to the supermax contract, which both players would have accepted.
It could wind up having a similar impact on what happens between the Spurs and Leonard this summer.
This wasn’t supposed to be the case when this season started. Leonard has firmly established his place as one of the five best players on the planet, and the NBA’s best two-way player. In a league in which everyone is in search of wing players who can both score and defend, Leonard is elite in both areas. And he seemed to be put on Earth to play for the low-key Spurs, given his approach to the game and his aversion to the spotlight.
Then came the diagnosis in the opening week of training camp that Leonard had tendinopathy — which, by the way, means a disease of a tendon — in his right quad, with no timeline for his return.
“It’s just from last year, working on things from last year,” Popovich told reporters back then. “It’s gone a little more slowly than we thought.”
Popovich said that in late September. Leonard didn’t make his debut until Dec. 12 in Dallas.
Then, after playing nine games in the space of a month — with no back-to-back days — the Spurs shut down Leonard again in mid-January, again with no timeline for his return. Now, after Popovich’s surprise Wednesday announcement, that return might not come until training camp.
Only the Spurs and Leonard are privy to what’s going on with his leg, and what the potential long-term ramifications may be. Only those parties can know what the likelihood that this lost season winds up being a bizarre blip on the radar, or the start of something more.
But on July 1, the Spurs will be able to offer Leonard a five-year supermax contract extension — a deal that would total $219 million — to remain with the franchise through the 2024 season. Up until this season, there was little question that the Spurs would offer it and that he’d sign it.
Now, it seems like a question worth asking.
And if the answer on either side is no, it leads to another question: Should the Spurs actually trade Leonard this summer, before he can become an unrestricted free agent in 2019?
If Leonard actually makes it to free agency, there would be a host of teams lined up to offer him a max contract. Unlike this summer, when only a handful of teams have cap space, a bunch could potentially have max room in 2019, and all of them would want to take a shot at someone like Leonard, assuming this doesn’t somehow become the end of his career. If he got that far without committing to stay, San Antonio could lose one of the NBA’s best players for nothing.
The other option is they could trade him. Even with just one year remaining on his deal, even with the injury issues he’s had this season, there would be teams lining up to take a risk on Leonard — and willing to part with significant assets to do so. Players like him don’t come along every day.
The Spurs know that better than anyone. They’ve only ever landed one max player — LaMarcus Aldridge — as a free agent. They’ve remained a consistent winning machine for more than two decades because of the presence of players such as David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili, Tony Parker and Leonard — all drafted and developed by the Spurs.
They certainly didn’t expect to be in this situation a few months ago. But here they are, with Leonard having played nine games and maybe done for the season.
Just as that’s put the Spurs in a position they didn’t anticipate, they may have to decide in a few months whether it’s worth it to keep Leonard at all.