The strange case of Kawhi Leonard's right quadriceps tendinopathy took another turn Wednesday.
The injury, which Leonard originally suffered at some point during the 2016-17 season, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright, has lingered longer than anyone anticipated. It has limited the former Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year to just nine games, during which he showed considerable rust.
Now, it appears he won't be back in the lineup anytime soon.
While he didn't entirely rule out a return, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich told reporters Wednesday that he would be surprised if Leonard played again this season. Later Wednesday, ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Leonard has been medically cleared to return, but he "bears the burden of determining when he's prepared to play again."
That the Spurs (35-24) currently sit at third place in the Western Conference with their MVP candidate and franchise player having played just nine games all season is a testament to Popovich's brilliance and the organization's culture of continuity. As one Western Conference scout told B/R, "You can never underestimate the Spurs, so there is a shot. They have one of the best NBA coaches in Pop, quality vets and a history of winning."
But with Leonard sidelined, it's easy to question how far into the postseason the Spurs can go. And with a tough schedule for the rest of the regular season, they're in real danger of falling behind in a horse race that appears poised to go down to the wire.
The Spurs haven't been in that position often during their two-decade run of playoff dominance. Since Tim Duncan made his NBA debut in 1997, they have finished outside the top four in the Western Conference standings just twice, finishing fifth in 1997-98 and seventh in 2009-10. (In 2014-15, they were the sixth seed due to division rules that have since been changed, but their record was better than the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.)
Barring Leonard's unexpected return or significant overachievement from their healthy players, that's where the Spurs may find themselves this season.
Coming out of the All-Star break, San Antonio is in a virtual tie with the fourth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves, two games ahead of the fifth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder and three games ahead of the eighth-seeded New Orleans Pelicans. The Spurs will catch no breaks in their schedule the rest of the way, either.
Of their 23 remaining games, 18 come against teams with records above .500, and 10 are against the teams behind them in the playoff race, separated by as few as four-and-a-half games. That's on top of two games each against the Warriors and Houston Rockets and another matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
A total collapse and the Spurs' first trip to the lottery in 21 years isn't likely, but it also isn't unthinkable.
Sans Leonard, the Spurs don't figure to be a serious threat in the playoffs, especially if they drop in the standings and lose home-court advantage. Their defense, which ranks second in the league at 101.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, has been their calling card, but their offense has fallen to the middle of the pack as players have shuffled in and out of the lineup.
Popovich recently benched Tony Parker for 21-year-old point guard Dejounte Murray, and veteran forward Rudy Gay is expected to return Friday from a heel injury that's kept him out since late December, per Wright. LaMarcus Aldridge is also fresh off his sixth All-Star appearance after an offseason meeting with Popovich led to him having a career resurgence.
"They definitely can be tough in the playoffs," an Eastern Conference coach told B/R. "Aldridge is still a tough matchup, and they'll have a great defensive game plan."
After Leonard suffered an ankle injury in the first game of the Western Conference Finals last year, the Warriors battled back from a 25-point deficit and made quick work of the Spurs the rest of the way, sweeping them in four games.
If the Spurs fall to seventh or eighth in the West this year, they face the prospect of playing either the Rockets or the Warriors in the first round. Even beating the likes of Minnesota or Oklahoma City in a seven-game series would be tough without Leonard.
Of greater concern for the Spurs will be Leonard's long-term recovery, which has been one of the stranger cases the NBA has seen in recent years. No one thought his rehab would drag out this long, especially considering that Parker, nine years Leonard's senior, suffered a more severe quadriceps injury in the playoffs last year and returned to the lineup in late November without any issues.
Leonard's quad injury will keep him from contributing for essentially a full year, without a clearly defined path forward besides continuing to rehab and hoping it improves. If the rehab eventually takes, the Spurs can chalk this up to a lost season for Leonard and move forward with one of the league's elite two-way superstars still in his prime. But if he suffers another setback, that could complicate their future.
In January, Wojnarowski and Wright reported there was tension between Leonard's camp and the Spurs organization over the way his injury was being handled. Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said there was "no tension" between the Spurs and Leonard, but it will be worth keeping an eye on Leonard's contract negotiations this summer, when he will be eligible for a five-year designated player extension worth well over $200 million.
If Leonard's injury is healed by the offseason, expect him to sign the super-max extension in short order. But if his quad ailment lingers and there are still disagreements on how to handle it, the situation could get dicey, especially with Leonard able to hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019.
Leonard's health—or lack thereof—will also factor into the Spurs' ability to attract free agents this summer. Just as they met with Kevin Durant in 2016 and were expected to pursue Chris Paul last offseason before his trade to Houston, San Antonio likely will make a run at LeBron James in July. James' thinking is anyone's guess, but the Spurs' case becomes far more appealing if they can sell him on playing with a fully healthy Leonard returned to the peak of his powers.
Over the past two decades, the Spurs have been almost entirely immune to the sort of drama and upheaval that most franchises experience. This bizarre Leonard saga represents the most uncertainty they've faced since Duncan's near-departure to Orlando in 2000.
It isn't going away anytime soon, and its fallout could be the difference between the Spurs remaining a Western Conference power and becoming something they haven't been in some time: ordinary.
B/R's Yaron Weitzman contributed to this reporting.