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What Kawhi Leonard’s Potentially Lost Season Means for the League

The Spurs superstar has played only nine games this season, and if we’re to take Gregg Popovich at his word, that might be all we get

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Monotone as ever, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich casually dropped a bombshell after a team practice on Wednesday: Kawhi Leonard will be out for the rest of the season, as far as he’s concerned.

“I will be surprised if he returns this season,” Pop said. “We only have X number of games left in the season.”

What this means for the immediate future of San Antonio is obvious: an iffy postseason and an even grumpier Popovich. Being savvy with the clipboard can only take a superstar-less team so far; Pop’s comment essentially forces both fans and the organization to start looking toward next year. The ripple effects are more immediate leaguewide. Will it influence the Western Conference playoff race? The 2019 free-agent market? Here’s how Kawhi’s absence can affect the rest of the season.

A Bigger Focus on Dejounte Murray and LaMarcus Aldridge

What is the Spurs roster without Kawhi Leonard now? San Antonio has built a perennial powerhouse through internal player development, building upon a foundation, brick by brick, by training young talent under established leaders. Kawhi’s near-assured absence will be a wake-up call for the team’s young guns. It will have to be their time, now.

Maybe Pop saw this coming. The season’s objective seemed to shift a month ago when 21-year-old Dejounte Murray was made a permanent replacement for Spurs cornerstone Tony Parker in the starting lineup. Parker had lingering injury issues when the decision was announced, but he’s also a weathered, 35-year-old point guard whose minutes and statistical contributions have dwindled. Forty-year-old Manu Ginobili, who almost retired last season, also came back to help what was supposed to be another chance at knocking off the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. Ginobili’s flashes of ageless athleticism and clutch play would be better appreciated on a Spurs team with a rosier outlook.

For the remainder of the season, expect a larger focus on Murray and a heaping helping of LaMarcus Aldridge, who is in the middle of a bounce-back season. In Kawhi’s absence, LMA has taken over scoring—he’s putting up 11 more points per game than the next guy (who, by the way, is Rudy Gay). Pop said before the season that he realized he was forcing Aldridge into the wrong role—good timing for someone now permanently this season’s first (and second) option.

An Opportunity for Middling Playoff Teams

I can’t pretend to know the vibe inside San Antonio’s locker room. Maybe they’ve known Kawhi wasn’t coming back for quite some time—indefinite absences almost always last longer than the term seems to imply. The Spurs got only nine games out of Leonard so far, and as a result, have played outside their means this season; their record is nothing short of valiant (seriously, look at the roster they’re working with). But this is a foot in the door for middling teams climbing and slipping on the way to great seeding. The Timberwolves, who are in a near deadlock with the Spurs for the third spot, are a couple of clutch Jimmy Buckets shots away. Russell Westbrook and Paul George aren’t far behind, and they smell blood in the water.

Actually, a Low-key Bummer for Golden State

This should be a plus for the Warriors, right?

It might not be. Kawhi’s absence would be a double-edged sword for Steve Kerr: Sure, one of his potentially lethal playoff opponents would get weaker, but so would one of Houston’s. Pop’s sorcery with a healthy Kawhi is, plausibly, enough to beat the Rockets in a potential 2-3 semifinals rematch from last season, assuming the Warriors regain the top seed by season’s end. The Warriors (also assuming they stroll through their first two rounds), would get the battered remains of whichever team is left standing in the conference final. While that scenario is still on the table, the lack of Kawhi would change everything. But what about James Harden’s Game 6 meltdown against a Kawhi-less Spurs from last season, you ask? Chris Paul might have a few words.

More WTF Spurs Speculation

More time spent on the bench means more time to stew for Kawhi. Back in January, reports of friction leaked out of the Spurs organization; Kawhi, they said, is unhappy. (I was unaware, prior to the report, that someone with Resting Mild Face could even feel discontent.) The idea was quickly shut down by Popovich, but notably, it was supposedly rooted in how the franchise treated Kawhi’s injury. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported after Pop’s announcement that Leonard is spending time away from the team to get a second opinion on his quad injury, and that it will be Kawhi’s decision as to when he plays.

Maybe it was misdiagnosed, as Jalen Rose speculated on First Take. If the quadriceps tendinopathy was mishandled, it could cost Kawhi—who has a player option in 2019 and could become a free agent—a season of his career.