“Kawhi is back tonight,” Popovich said.
San Antonio plans to handle Leonard’s debut similarly to how it brought back Tony Parker, who was returning from a ruptured quadriceps tendon when he rejoined the lineup on Nov. 27 against the Dallas Mavericks. In that outing, Parker played just 14 minutes, but the Spurs have gradually increased the point guard’s workload. The right quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept Leonard out of all 27 of the club’s games thus far this season isn’t as significant of an injury as what Parker suffered, but San Antonio’s penchant for caution will remain.
Popovich said, “right, right” when asked if he planned to limit Leonard’s minutes.
“Any team would like to have one of their best players back. That’s fairly logical,” Popovich said. “The team’s been playing well. We hope that it’ll continue as Tony and Kawhi get more minutes. There will be adjustments all the way around. Minutes will be different for different players. Just typical, it’s not that complicated.”
The Spurs originally targeted Saturday’s game at Phoenix as the potential debut for Leonard, but sources explained that the forward needed “a couple more days” of recovery time.
Leonard alluded to his pending return last week, saying, “soon to come.”
Back in November, Popovich admitted he would have some “figuring out to do,” once Leonard rejoins the lineup. The Spurs reeled off a 19-8 record without Leonard.
“No, I don’t pay any attention to that,” Popovich joked. “C’mon man. C’mon. I’ve told you a thousand times, coaches are sick puppies. We’re always worried about stuff, thinking about stuff, and trying to figure out ahead of time what might go wrong; what we can do to be better. Every coach goes through that.”
But every player doesn’t endure the type of layoff Leonard experienced, as he hasn’t played in a game since May 14. Combine that with the fact Leonard still hasn’t yet taken part in a true practice with the entire team, and you have the ingredients for what veteran guard Manu Ginobili calls “a mystery.”
“We are going to see how he reacts to having limited minutes to ease back into the game,” Ginobili said. “For us because of what we have been doing for 27 games and now having to re-adjust, I think we are both going to have to work hard to make this transition seamless. He is gifted enough to just start strong. He has never been through a seven-month period without play. He hasn’t practiced once with the team. We haven’t practiced in a month. We haven’t scrimmaged in a long time. He’s practicing a lot with the guys who don’t play much, or the video guys, stuff like that. But not with the team, full scrimmage.”
A two-time NBA All-Star, Leonard produced career highs in points (25.5-point average) and assists (3.5) last season, while also logging 1.8 steals per outing.
But Leonard hasn’t played a game for San Antonio since Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, a series he sat out of due to a sprained ankle.
As part of the recovery from quadriceps tendinopathy, Leonard has worked through a rehabilitation process comprised of several steps, which included individual work, two-on-two and three-on-three drills, before he received clearance to practice. Leonard had been working out with Parker during the recovery process — as he rehabbed his injury — as well as former Spurs players Matt Bonner and Tim Duncan.
Now, the team knows it needs to quickly figure out how to integrate its most talented contributor.
“This is a group that has played together for a quarter of the season, and it’ll be on everybody to figure out how to play well together [when Leonard returns],” general manager R.C. Buford told ESPN. “We’ll all need to learn how to play together differently. I don’t think that there’s trepidation. That’s just part of team building, growing as a team.”