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Can Kawhi Leonard’s Return Disrupt the Playoff Picture?

After a prolonged silence, the Spurs star has said that he will play this season. With him, could San Antonio play the spoiler in the postseason?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kawhi Leonard has finally spoken up. The Spurs forward, who has played only nine games this season, had been silent about the status of his quad injury and return timetable, which was rumored to be the source of discord between his camp and San Antonio. But on Wednesday morning at a Spurs practice, Leonard said that he intends to play this season.

Few NBA players can change the playoff conversation with their mere availability, and Leonard is one of them. The Spurs are a nice, scrappy team without him. With him, they can make a compelling case for being the league’s third-best team. Leonard also said there is no friction between him and the club. When asked if he wanted to finish his career as a Spur, Leonard said, “Yeah, for sure.” It’s good to have Kawhi talking like Kawhi again.

The Spurs and Gregg Popovich, on multiple occasions, have said the star was cleared to play by team doctors. But Leonard hasn’t played, and he wouldn’t come out and say why. Through reports, we learned that Leonard still didn’t feel fully healthy. His statements on Wednesday didn’t provide much insight, but they still felt long overdue.

“Everything was done as a group. I don’t feel like nothing was friction,” Leonard said. “He knows what the progression were. He knew what I was doing the whole entire time.”

Leonard’s comments will surely lower fans’ anxiety surrounding the Spurs’ future. But more importantly, Leonard’s stated intentions to return give the team a whole new look as we head into the season’s stretch run. San Antonio is tied for fifth in the West, but it’s two and a half games from being out of the playoff seeding, and only a game and a half below the 3-seed Blazers. The team’s remaining 18 games could lead to home-court advantage in the first round or its first missed postseason since the 1996–97 season. Everything is in play in a tight conference that may be adding one of the world’s five best players into the mix.

If the Spurs drop into a low playoff spot, it could make the first round a hellscape for the Rockets or Warriors. Imagine the reactions of James Harden and Kevin Durant when they realize that when they dribble up the court, it’ll be with a healthy Kawhi Leonard defending them on the perimeter. That’s nightmare fuel. I can imagine they’ll look like this:

For as much as we look for any weakness inside the Spursian machine, Popovich still has a makeshift roster that is tied for the second-best defense in the league and the third-best point differential in the West. Adding Kawhi to that mix gives them the potential to beat anyone on any night even if, on paper, their talent level isn’t up to par.

The Spurs should be the 3-seed. It’s fair to ask how good Leonard will be once he plays again, or even how long his reacclimation will take. But if Leonard returns before the season is up, they still might vault themselves into the third spot and disrupt the playoffs like only they can.