There is reportedly a growing divide between the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard over his lingering and puzzling injury issues

There is reportedly a growing divide between the Spurs and Kawhi Leonard over his lingering and puzzling injury issues



kawhi leonard
Eric Gay/AP

  • The San Antonio Spurs and Kawhi Leonard have grown
    “disconnected,” according to an ESPN report.
  • Leonard has battled a quadriceps injury this season,
    playing only nine games after he missed the first 27 regular
    season games and all of preseason.
  • Last week, the Spurs announced they were shutting
    Leonard down indefinitely to rehab his quadriceps.
  • The ESPN report said the Spurs-Leonard relationship is
    in need of repair.

The relationship between the San Antonio Spurs and star forward
Kawhi Leonard has been growing divided, according to a
report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright
.

According to ESPN, Leonard and his camp have been “disconnected”
and “distant” from the Spurs as Leonard battles a lingering and
puzzling quadriceps injury.

Last week, the Spurs announced they were
shutting down Leonard indefinitely
to
battle tendinopathy in his right quadriceps. Leonard
missed all of preseason and the first 27 games of the season with
the issue, and only played nine games upon returning, missing
games in between, before the Spurs’ decision to shut him down
again.

Spurs GM R.C. Buford denied any rift in the organization over
Leonard’s injury.

“There is no issue between the Spurs organization and Kawhi. From
Day 1 all parties have worked together to find the best solutions
to his injury,” Buford said to ESPN. He added: “This has been
difficult for everyone.”

According to ESPN, Leonard told the Spurs that he was
uncomfortable with his ability to play before the Spurs shut him
down. It’s unclear from the report what, exactly, has caused the
divide.

In November, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said he had “never”
seen an injury issue like Leonard’s.

The Spurs have chugged along well without Leonard, as they sit
third in the Western Conference at 30-18. Popovich was open with
reporters before the Spurs faced the Brooklyn Nets on January 17
about wanting to make sure Leonard is healthy for the postseason.

Yet the report of discord is still an unusual one for what’s been
the NBA’s steadiest organization over the past two decades.
Wojnarowski and Wright did not report that the Spurs or Leonard
are seeking to part ways, but said the relationship is in need of
repair.

There’s no timetable for Leonard’s return, but the situation will
obviously be one to watch as the NBA season cruises along.

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Will Jimmy Butler’s Knee Injury Doom Wolves’ Playoff Hopes?

Will Jimmy Butler’s Knee Injury Doom Wolves’ Playoff Hopes?

The Timberwolves’ utilization of Jimmy Butler this season has run beyond an unhealthy reliance, falling closer to an addiction. And now, the withdrawal symptoms—fear, confusion, loss of identity, and despair—will inevitably hit hard.

Butler, a four-time All-Star, was diagnosed with a meniscus injury in his right knee on Saturday, and it’s not yet known when he will be able to return to the court this season. Minnesota’s prized off-season acquisition sustained the injury on a non-contact play during a road loss to the Rockets on Friday. The 28-year-old wing had to be helped off the court by his teammates, who will now plunge towards the franchise’s goal of snapping a 13-year postseason drought without their best all-around player for an indefinite period of time.

The facts of Butler’s role and importance in Minnesota are remarkable, even by a superstar’s standards. He led the NBA with 37.3 MPG. He was the linchpin of the NBA’s most-used five-man lineup, a starting group that logged 1,086 minutes so far this season, 331 minutes more than any other lineup in the league. He led the Timberwolves in scoring and usage. Minnesota only has three lineup combinations log at least 100 minutes together; Butler, unsurprisingly, was a member of all three. 

Tom Thibodeau traded for Butler last summer with the goal of making the 2018 playoffs. His plan was as simple as it gets: ride the hard-charging Butler as hard as possible, and hope that his key youngsters, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, could keep up. On the most basic level, Thibodeau’s plan was working, even as critics rightfully raised questions about the heavy minutes his stars played and his short rotations. Minnesota (36–26) had already exceeded last year’s win total of 31, dueling in the standings with heavyweights like the Spurs and Thunder rather than push-overs like the Suns and Lakers.

Butler doesn’t deserve all the credit for the year-over-year turnaround—just most of it. He ranked third-league wide in Real Plus-Minus, ahead of LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and a host of other A-listers. With Butler on the court, the Timberwolves’ net rating was +7.8, roughly equivalent to the No. 3 ranked Raptors. Without him, the Timberwolves’ net rating plunged to -8.7, roughly equivalent to the No. 29 ranked Kings. With Butler, Minnesota managed to boast the No. 3 overall offense despite ranking 27th in bench scoring. With Butler, Minnesota enjoyed the West’s No. 4 seed despite possessing the league’s worst bench.

Although the Timberwolves aren’t the first team in the West to lose a star player this season, they are uniquely ill-equipped to replace him. The Grizzlies lost Mike Conley, but they did so early enough in the season that expectations were recalibrated before Christmas. The Jazz and Nuggets lost Rudy Gobert and Paul Millsap, respectively, but both will be back for the stretch run. The Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins, but they had the trade deadline to add Nikola Mirotic to their frontcourt. The Rockets were without Chris Paul early, but they had MVP favorite James Harden to pull them through the tough patch. The Spurs lost Kawhi Leonard—a player superior to Butler—but they have leaned on structures forged over multiple decades to withstand the loss.

Minnesota has none of those benefits. The playoff mandate and expectations still exist. There’s no help to be found via trade and the free-agent pickings are slim. And the Timberwolves can’t turn to depth, another star creator, or years of institutional knowledge for help in Butler’s absence. 

The best-case scenario—​assuming Butler is out for a matter of weeks, rather than months—looks something like this. Towns channels his inner Anthony Davis, piling up 40/20 nights with an expanded offensive opportunity. Wiggins rises to the occasion, enjoying a hot shooting stretch and taking on greater defensive responsibilities.  Everyone else performs marginally better than they have collectively this season. Something along those lines would allow Minnesota to float around in the West’s crowded No. 5 to No. 8 seed range and hope Butler could make a return for the playoffs.

But further slippage—perhaps catastrophic slippage—is entirely possible. Even with Butler, Minnesota had the worst defense of any West playoff team. Without him on the court, though, the Timberwolves’ defensive rating slides to 115.7, five points worse than the dead-last Suns. That level of sustained defensive ineptitude is a strong recipe for squandering whatever heroics Towns can muster in a new leading role. Frustration and finger-pointing could mount quickly.

It’s worth pointing out that the Timberwolves’ worst-case scenario—falling from the No. 4 seed down to No. 9 and out of the playoffs—doesn’t even require a complete collapse. Minnesota has played a league-high 62 games to date but sits on even footing in the loss column with the four teams directly behind it in the standings. What’s more, the No. 9 Clippers (30-27) trail the Timberwolves by just one game in the loss column.

Minnesota’s schedule in the first three weeks of March is treacherous, too. There are road games against West playoff contenders (Portland, Utah, San Antonio), two home games against the West’s elite (Golden State and Houston), and lose-able games against the Celtics, Wizards and Clippers. Going 4-6 in its next 10 games would qualify as a win given those scheduling circumstances, yet that would likely be enough to wipe out the Timberwolves’ standing gains and bump them back onto the playoff bubble.

The silver lining here is that, unlike with Cousins, this injury doesn’t generate long-term financial questions for team and player. Butler is under contract through 2018-19 and has a player option for 2019-20, meaning that he need not rush back to the court nor worry about the potential for lost wages in free agency this summer. When Butler returns to the court, he will retake his alpha mantle, and Towns and Wiggins will reassume their supporting roles.

While Butler dodged a bullet by avoiding an ACL tear, this diagnosis still represents a big blow, as the required recovery time could cost him a spot on one of the All-NBA teams and puts his postseason ability and effectiveness into question. Before the injury, Butler had a decent shot to return to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2015 and for the first time in his career as his team’s undisputed leader.

Instead, for the time being, Butler will be stuck, powerless, in the last place he wants to be, the last place Thibodeau has wanted him for years: on the sidelines. 

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Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler sustained ‘meniscal injury’

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler sustained ‘meniscal injury’

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jimmy Butler sustained ‘meniscal injury’

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With Kawhi possibly out for season, Spurs will have to fight for their playoff lives

With Kawhi possibly out for season, Spurs will have to fight for their playoff lives

With Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were considered an outside threat to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets to come out of the West. Without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs will have to fight just to make the playoffs.

On Wednesday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be “surprised” if Leonard plays again this season, virtually eliminating any hope that San Antonio had of adding to their collection of NBA championship trophies this season. Now the focus shifts to the Western Conference playoff race, which looks like it’s going to come down to the wire.

You have to resist the urge to say the news about Leonard couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Spurs, because it could have (like last season when they lost Leonard in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals) — but the timing isn’t great. The Spurs have been comfortably in the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference for most of the season, but their grip on the seed has all but evaporated.

As of Wednesday they’re barely ahead of the Timberwolves, and just 4 1/2 games separate San Antonio from the No. 10 Utah Jazz. There’s a huge logjam in the conference behind the Rockets and Warriors, which means one extended losing streak could cause the Spurs to actually fall out of the playoff race, territory they haven’t been familiar with since the pre-Tim Duncan days.

To further complicate matters, the Spurs face one of their toughest stretches of the season following the All-Star break, with the vast majority of their opponents over .500.

They come right out of the break with games against the red-hot Nuggets and the revamped Cavaliers, and they have two more games each against the Warriors, Rockets and Thunder — they play all three in a row in a mini road trip starting on March 8. Yikes.

Even teams at full strength would have trouble navigating the Spurs’ second-half schedule, and they’ll most likely have to do it without the services of their perennial MVP candidate.

You still have to put your money on the Spurs until they prove you wrong, but they’re going to have to fight, scratch and claw for their playoff lives in a dog-eat-dog Western Conference for the remainder of the season.

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Kawhi Leonard’s season could be over. Could he also be done with the Spurs?

Kawhi Leonard’s season could be over. Could he also be done with the Spurs?

Kawhi Leonard’s strange 2017-18 season took yet another odd turn Wednesday, when San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich told reporters he’d be “surprised” if Leonard returns this season due to tendinopathy in his right quad.

“We only have X-number of games left in the season and he’s still not ready to go,” Popovich told reporters in the team’s first post all-star break availability. “If by some chance he is, it’s going to be pretty late in the season and it’s going to be a tough decision. How late do you bring somebody back? That’s why I’m just trying to be honest and logical. I’ll be surprised if he’s back this year.”

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN added to the mystery, tacking on that Leonard has “been long cleared to return — the final decision still remains with him.”

Popovich’s statement creates a possibility that no one has truly considered — that Leonard’s season, after just nine games, is already over. But it also leaves open another one: Leonard may have played his final game as a member of the Spurs.

On its face, this undoubtedly seems absurd. Leonard is one of the best players in the league, and he is signed through next season. But the reason this idea has merit is what was the driving force behind the trades of two other elite players, DeMarcus Cousins and Jimmy Butler, within the last year: The supermax contract.

Ironically, the supermax was created in the last collective bargaining agreement — agreed to in the wake of Kevin Durant leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder as a free agent — to keep stars like Cousins, Butler and Leonard with their current teams. And, in the cases of Stephen Curry, James Harden and John Wall, it has done precisely that. All three players agreed to long-term contracts with their current teams this past offseason that will keep them in place well into the next decade.

But in the case of Cousins with the Sacramento Kings and Butler with the Chicago Bulls, the idea of handing out a contract in excess of $200 million played a part in both teams choosing to move on from all-stars in their primes, choosing to get something for them rather than signing them to the supermax contract, which both players would have accepted.

It could wind up having a similar impact on what happens between the Spurs and Leonard this summer.

This wasn’t supposed to be the case when this season started. Leonard has firmly established his place as one of the five best players on the planet, and the NBA’s best two-way player. In a league in which everyone is in search of wing players who can both score and defend, Leonard is elite in both areas. And he seemed to be put on Earth to play for the low-key Spurs, given his approach to the game and his aversion to the spotlight.

Then came the diagnosis in the opening week of training camp that Leonard had tendinopathy — which, by the way, means a disease of a tendon — in his right quad, with no timeline for his return.

“It’s just from last year, working on things from last year,” Popovich told reporters back then. “It’s gone a little more slowly than we thought.”

Popovich said that in late September. Leonard didn’t make his debut until Dec. 12 in Dallas.

Then, after playing nine games in the space of a month — with no back-to-back days — the Spurs shut down Leonard again in mid-January, again with no timeline for his return. Now, after Popovich’s surprise Wednesday announcement, that return might not come until training camp.

Only the Spurs and Leonard are privy to what’s going on with his leg, and what the potential long-term ramifications may be. Only those parties can know what the likelihood that this lost season winds up being a bizarre blip on the radar, or the start of something more.

But on July 1, the Spurs will be able to offer Leonard a five-year supermax contract extension — a deal that would total $219 million — to remain with the franchise through the 2024 season. Up until this season, there was little question that the Spurs would offer it and that he’d sign it.

Now, it seems like a question worth asking.

And if the answer on either side is no, it leads to another question: Should the Spurs actually trade Leonard this summer, before he can become an unrestricted free agent in 2019?

If Leonard actually makes it to free agency, there would be a host of teams lined up to offer him a max contract. Unlike this summer, when only a handful of teams have cap space, a bunch could potentially have max room in 2019, and all of them would want to take a shot at someone like Leonard, assuming this doesn’t somehow become the end of his career. If he got that far without committing to stay, San Antonio could lose one of the NBA’s best players for nothing.

The other option is they could trade him. Even with just one year remaining on his deal, even with the injury issues he’s had this season, there would be teams lining up to take a risk on Leonard — and willing to part with significant assets to do so. Players like him don’t come along every day.

The Spurs know that better than anyone. They’ve only ever landed one max player — LaMarcus Aldridge — as a free agent. They’ve remained a consistent winning machine for more than two decades because of the presence of players such as David Robinson, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili, Tony Parker and Leonard — all drafted and developed by the Spurs.

They certainly didn’t expect to be in this situation a few months ago. But here they are, with Leonard having played nine games and maybe done for the season.

Just as that’s put the Spurs in a position they didn’t anticipate, they may have to decide in a few months whether it’s worth it to keep Leonard at all.

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