Can the San Antonio Spurs Contend With or Without Kawhi Leonard?
The 2017 NBA Playoffs ended on a sour note for the San Antonio Spurs. After making it to the Western Conference Finals, their superstar Kawhi Leonard injured his ankle in their first game against the Golden State Warriors. Before the injury, the Spurs were up 21 points and, for the first time, it looked like a team may have a chance to throw off the Warriors — but with Kawhi out, the Warriors came back and swept the series, ending San Antonio’s title hopes. Despite this, many were encouraged by the Spurs performance and optimistic about their chances the following year.
Unfortunately, Kawhi suffered a quad injury in the preseason and has only played 9 games in the regular season as of now. If that wasn’t bad enough, his injury caused some controversy in the media. Kawhi had been medically cleared to play by San Antonio’s training staff in January, but he was still feeling discomfort and sought a second opinion instead of returning to the court. There was rumored friction between Kawhi and the Spurs over how his rehabilitation had been handled, which culminated in Gregg Popovich stating that the team would have to move on without Kawhi if he was not able to return soon. A week later, Kawhi began working out with the team and has recently stated that he hopes to return to action soon. He later dismissed any friction with the organization by saying he wants to finish his career in San Antonio, clearing the air and putting down any speculation of turmoil.
The Klaw is now working on getting back to the court but it is unclear if/when he will return. Even if he can get back in time for the playoffs, he will need to get back into game shape and shake off the rust after missing nearly an entire season. Despite Kawhi’s absence, the Spurs have performed admirably. They are in the middle of a tight playoff race that could end with them landing anywhere from the 3rd to 8th seed in the West or even potentially out of the playoffs. Gregg Popovich is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in the league but the cold hard truth is there is a significant talent disparity between the Spurs and the elite teams in the NBA this season. LaMarcus Aldridge has had his best season as a Spur and has recaptured his All-Star form but without Kawhi, this team does not have much high-end talent. Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Pau Gasol are still valued contributors on this team but their best days are behind them. Dejounte Murray, Danny Green, Kyle Anderson, and Davis Bertans are all solid role players but expecting them to be more than that isn’t practical. If the Spurs do make the playoffs, they could be facing the Warriors, Rockets, Timberwolves, Thunder, or even the Trail Blazers in the first round — all teams who are young, athletic, and have more star power than these Spurs.
For San Antonio to be a legitimate Western Conference threat, they will need Kawhi Leonard healthy and able to perform at his normal standards. At his peak, he is arguably the best two-way player in the league and could propel the Spurs to the level that the Warriors and Rockets are on. The question is: Does Kawhi have enough time to get back into peak shape before the postseason begins? The playoffs are a month away and in this highly competitive Western Conference, any team from 1-8 can cause problems for the Spurs. If the Spurs have a healthy Kawhi who looks like the same player we saw in the 2017 playoffs, then they have a chance to beat anyone — including the Warriors and Rockets — in the playoffs. However, If Kawhi is not 100% or unable to play, then the team is extremely vulnerable and may get eliminated in the first round for the first time since 2011.
There still remains some hope for the Spurs outside of Kawhi: for a team missing their superstar that has been plagued by injuries to key role players all season, they have remained competitive thanks to Popovich and the resurgent Aldridge who has been a huge part of their success after it looked like he may have been on his way out of San Antonio before this season began. The Spurs are a good, but limited team as of now but if Kawhi in the lineup, they could unlock their potential and become a force to be reckoned with in the postseason.