The discussion about San Antonio Spurs’ All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard’s potential return or not from a right quad tendinopathy injury may head into new waters thanks to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Earlier Wednesday, Spurs’ head coach Gregg Popovich said “I’ll be surprised if he returns this season” in remarks to media about Leonard, but Woj followed that up with an ESPN piece saying Leonard has been medically cleared (presumably by the team doctors), is currently seeking a second opinion in New York, and “bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again“:
After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.
Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the San Antonio Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said. If Leonard returns, it will be because he has decided he can manage the pain of the injury, according to the sources.
Away from the Spurs to pursue second opinions in New York, Leonard recently utilized the gymnasium inside the National Basketball Players Association headquarters in Manhattan for workouts, league sources told ESPN. The Spurs had team personnel accompanying Leonard in New York, sources said.
Divides between a player and a team over an injury are never good, and this one in particular might spark some animosity. The 26-year-old Leonard was initially projected to be ready for the Spurs’ opener this year, but missed that and their first 26 games in total. He rejoined the team in December, but struggled, and played in just nine games over an 17-game stretch (recording just 210 minutes) before being declared as out indefinitely. So there’s a lot of frustration likely building on all sides at this point. And this piece coming from ace NBA reporter Wojnarowski gives a lot of credence to it, and suggests that this is in fact what’s going on.
In some ways, this recalls what happened with Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls back in 2013. Rose missed the whole 2012-13 regular season after suffering a torn ACL in the first round of the 2012 NBA playoffs, but returned to full contact in practices in January 2013 and was reportedly cleared by team doctors for games in March. However, Rose still didn’t feel healed at that point and said he was unable to dunk off his left foot, which he considered a prerequisite for returning. Here’s what he said that February:
“I’m feeling good, but like I said, if it’s where it’s taking me a long time and I’m still not feeling right, I don’t mind missing this year,” he said. “I would love to [return]. I would love to. That’s why I approached my rehab and my workout so hard. I’m trying to get back on the court as quickly as possible, but if I have anything lingering on, it’s no point.”
Rose stuck to that, skipping the playoffs (where the Bulls advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals without him) and only returning at the start of the next regular season in October 2013. And that may well been the best move (although he suffered further injuries afterwards, tearing the meniscus in his knee that November and then needing further knee surgery during the 2014-15 season), but it was pilloried by many at the time, with accusations of Rose being soft or weak for not playing after doctors cleared him.
It’s worth remembering that team doctors’ decisions or advice hasn’t always worked out well for athletes, though, and that there’s a high individual component to most injuries; just because doctors think Leonard may be able to play doesn’t mean that he’s ready. (And that’s particularly true when it comes to injuries with significant pain attached; trying to play through that on doctors’ advice has had awful effects on many careers, including Bill Walton’s.) So we’ll have to watch and see what happens with Leonard. But in any case, this report may stir up tensions a little more, and maybe even get some San Antonio fans upset with Leonard for not choosing to return yet. And that could get messy for everyone involved.