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For the first time since last playing on his injured quad and for the first time since reports of his growing rift with the San Antonio Spurs, Kawhi Leonard addressed the media, easing both concerns.
The two-time Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All-NBA selection told reporters in San Antonio that he expects to return “soon” from the right quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him from all but nine games this season, and he would welcome finishing his career on the Spurs.
“I don’t have a set date right now, but I’ve just got to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said of a timetable for his return. “The progression that I’m making has been great. … [The pain] is diminishing. It’s hard to explain, but I’m definitely better. I feel better, and I’m feeling more comfortable.”
Leonard missed the first two months of the season with a quad injury that was initially expected to only keep him out of training camp and became more worrisome with each passing update. He returned in mid-December, never played two games in less than three days apart, and was again shut down indefinitely after a mid-January game against Denver — the last time he addressed the media.
In the meantime, ESPN reported that Leonard was “distant” and “disconnected” with the Spurs, rehabbing in New York amid “discord” with the organization over his prolonged recovery. Whispers of a rift grew louder as Leonard remained silent, and concerns were exacerbated when San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said before a late-February game, “I’ll be surprised if he returns this season.”
With Leonard eligible for a super-max contract extension this coming summer or free agency in 2019, that sent talking heads conjuring up all sorts of apocalyptic scenarios that had him playing anywhere but the only franchise he’s ever own — the team with which he won a title and became a superstar.
Then, less than a week after Popovich pondered whether it was realistic to expect his best player back with so few games left this season, Leonard resumed workouts with the Spurs, eyeing a March return.
Now, almost two weeks after that, Leonard addressed the media.
“Everything was done as a group,” he said of reports his rehab drove a wedge between him and the team. “I don’t feel like nothing was friction. I talked to Pop every day. He knows what the progressions were. He knew what I was doing the whole entire time, as well as the front office. We made a group decision, so it wasn’t me just going out and saying, ‘I am going to go out and do this thing.'”
Asked whether he wanted to end his career in San Antonio, Leonard added, “Yeah, for sure.”
The Spurs treaded water for much of the season without Leonard, patching together a winning campaign as only Popovich could, but plans for a 21st straight playoff appearance and a 19th straight 50-win campaign have taken a serious hit during a recent stretch of eight losses in their last 11 games.
A narrow victory against the lottery-bound Memphis Grizzlies marked San Antonio’s second win in the last month, and in the process the Spurs have fallen just two losses up on the West’s final playoff spot. They face one of the league’s most difficult schedules down the stretch, starting with a three-game road trip against Golden State, Oklahoma City and Houston that starts on Thursday. According to ESPN, Leonard will not accompany the Spurs on that trip and may not return until late March.
Let’s just hope it’s still worth Leonard returning at that point.
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