kawhi leonard-san antonio spurs-gregg popovich

The San Antonio Spurs have been characteristically quiet this season, lurking a bit behind the Western Conference’s top teams while playing crisp, intelligent basketball and positioning themselves for home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason. The fact the Spurs have racked up the third best record in the West (35-24), almost entirely without injured All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard has given fans reason to believe they were a Kawhi return away from being title contenders.

Well it sounds as if that Kawhi return won’t be coming any time soon. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he does not expect Leonard to recover from his quadriceps injury in time to play this season.

“I’ll be surprised if he returns this season,” Popovich said. “We only have X number of games left in the season, and he’s stil not ready to go. And if by some chance he is, it’s going to be pretty late in the season, and it’ll be a tough decision, how late you can bring somebody back. I’m just trying to be honest and logical. I’ll be surprised if he comes back this year.”

Here’s a clip of Popovich’s statement on Leonard:

Leonard was originally supposed to be recovered in time for the season-opener, but he missed that benchmark, then sat out the first 27 games of the season. He returned in December, but played only nine of a possible 17 games before the Spurs declared that he was out indefinitely. Until Wednesday, he was expected to make it back this spring, in time for the postseason. Now, that apparently won’t be happening.

The news that Leonard won’t be back soon sucks for the Spurs and their fans, but it also sucks for basketball fans more broadly. The rest of the season will be missing a talented, exciting player who offers an amusingly stone-faced foil to the NBA’s more exuberant stars. And the playoffs, meanwhile, will likely be short another championship contender, one with the depth and IQ to challenge the Warriors and Rockets and a long history of raising its game come springtime.

Sure the Spurs weren’t at the very top of anyone’s list of title favorites, but given Popovich’s postseason resume, they couldn’t be counted out, either. Before Popovich opened up about Leonard on Wednesday, Oddsshark had San Antonio as 25-1 to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, seventh best in the league. The news that Kawhi probably won’t be back, however, leaves the Spurs without a defender to shut down Paul George, Kevin Durant and LeBron James and without a dynamic wing player to close games late. Essentially, no Kawhi means no chance at a title.

Of course, Popovich did not say Kawhi wouldn’t return, only that he’d be surprised to see Kawhi return. And when he said “season,” he didn’t specify whether he meant regular season or postseason. So it’s possible that Leonard soon gets past his quad injury, sneaks in a few reps before the playoffs and works his way back to full strength in time for a potential second-round matchup with the Thunder. For the sake of the Spurs, of an exciting postseason and of the NBA, let’s hope so.

About Alex Putterman

Alex is a writer and editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. He has written for The Atlantic, VICE Sports, MLB.com, SI.com and more. He is a proud alum of Northwestern University and The Daily Northwestern. You can find him on Twitter @AlexPutterman.