Kawhi Leonard’s string of strange injuries took the latest turn as news trickled in little over a day ago about the Small Forward’s seeming inability to recover from a quad injury.
This means Leonard is likely to miss the rest of the season as 24 games remain on the regular season schedule before the postseason commences. Despite having a relatively clean health bill throughout career, Leonard has been dealing with a few major injuries in recent years including a complex hand injury.
After missing games last season, he picked up a major ankle injury in the first game of last season’s Western Conference Finals Series and the rest of the games. A few seasons back, the absence of Kawhi would have gone unnoticed since San Antonio Spurs had Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to take care of matters.
However, Duncan is retired, Ginobili is set to follow at the end of this season and Parker’s spot has recently been taken by DeJounte Murray suggesting his days are numbered as a Spurs player.
Conversely, Leonard has grown into one of the league’s best courtesy his excellent play on both ends of the court that got Michael Jordan to label him the best two way player in the NBA. Such a major injury has big implications for San Antonio and indeed the league. At first glance, Spurs look okay in third place in the Western Conference with Leonard playing just nine games but the team has carried along hopes of a return.
Now those hopes have been dashed with the recent development and here is how the Spurs and the rest of the league will be affected.
Firstly, Kawhi’s absence basically hands the Conference Finals keys to Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets for this season. Warriors are the defending league champions while Rockets have played elite basketball to clinch the league’s best record.
In Game One of last season’s conference finals, Golden State won after Leonard injured his ankle and exited the game. Prior to his exit, the Warriors trailed by as many as 23 points but rallied to win the game late on and sweep the series.
Unlike the rest of the chasing pack, Spurs have what it takes to down Rockets but without Leonard that isn’t possible. Oklahoma City Thunder is way too inconsistent to be counted on to beat Rockets or Warriors in a non one off game despite having Paul George and Carmelo Anthony alongside Russell Westbrook.
Portland Trailblazers have nothing beyond Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum while Denver Nuggets are inexperienced and Minnesota Timberwolves have little to lose as an end to a 12 year playoff drought is in the offing this season. From a statistical angle, Spurs can hang with the elite on defense as it leads the league but on offense Leonard’s 25 points per game has been missed this season.
San Antonio is ranked 27th on offense with 101.58 points per game well below the league average of 105.91 per oddshark. For comparison sake, Warriors and Houston are the top two offensive teams in the league.
The complicated nature of Leonard’s injury has reportedly soured relationships between his camp and the team and there is legitimate concern Kawhi could leave after the 2018-2019 season. Without Leonard, the Spurs lose its biggest wager to attract free agents this summer and beyond. LeBron James is the prime target at the end of this season but King James is aging and his work on defense has taken a hit so he needs every bit of Kawhi’s two time Award winning defense to win with his third NBA team.
Beyond this season, 2019 free agents including Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson can sign for San Antonio knowing there is a fellow two way force on the roster.
What is an uncertain time insane Antonio is quite the opposite for half a dozen teams below Spurs in the Western Conference standings. Leonard’s absence means one thing for teams scrambling to make the postseason; they legitimately have a shot at making it. For teams closer to San Antonio in the standings like Minnesota and Oklahoma, this means they can nudge higher on the rankings and play beatable sixth placed candidates Blazers and Nuggets in the first round.
It also evens the score for others like New Orleans Pelicans who lost DeMarcus Cousins to a season ending Achilles injury and increases their chances of making the postseason.
Whatever happens from this point, San Antonio’s outlook has changed without its silent assassin.
By Yaw Adjei-Mintah
@YawMintYM on Twitter