After falling out of playoff seeding for the first time this season after a particularly rough stretch, the Spurs have righted the ship by winning five in a row to vault back into the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
They’ve done so without the services of superstar Kawhi Leonard, who continues to sit out due to his quad injury that has kept him out for almost the entire season. Leonard was targeting a return date last week, but pushed that back for an indefinite period of time. The last update we got from the team was Gregg Popovich saying Leonard’s return was contingent on his personal doctors clearing him to return, leaving the choice out of the team’s hands.
Manu Ginobili spoke on Thursday morning with reporters and said the team has had to take the mindset that Leonard isn’t coming back in order to remain focused and not be waiting for him to save them. While that’s what the Spurs are putting out there publicly, there has apparently been a push internally, behind closed doors, from the players to convince Leonard to return for the playoff push.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the team held a players only meeting last Saturday night to “implore” Leonard to return to the lineup, with Tony Parker leading the charge in the locker room.
The conversation was described as tense and emotional at times, league sources said.
Several teammates spoke up, expressing frustration and confusion over a growing divide with Leonard that has created significant tension between the franchise star and the Spurs, league sources said.
Leonard, 26, was resolute in response, insisting that he had good reason for sitting out all but nine games with a right quad injury this season, league sources said.
We’ve heard reports of growing tension between Leonard and the organization over the injury this year, but that tension appears to have spilled into the locker room and not just between Leonard and the staff or front office. To this point, the meeting has not swayed Leonard’s decision, as Wojnarowski notes he has not felt comfortable enough with the injury to return to the court.
Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News confirmed players on the team had requested a status update from Leonard, and that Leonard was caught off guard by the meeting. However, Young notes Leonard received support from the team not to return until he was ready and that, ultimately, no resolution was reached or timetable was offered.
The vets wanted to know if Leonard indeed intended to play this season, and if so, was he planning to return soon.
Leonard was reminded about the Spurs’ status – in the middle of a playoff push with now 11 games remaining. According to sources, Leonard, who was caught off guard by the meeting, stood his ground. He spoke up telling those that inquired about his status that when he is healthy enough, a return was still the goal. But Leonard offered no set date or guarantee about a return this season.
Leonard did receive support from some teammates, urging him not to return until he feels healthy enough, sources told the Express-News.
The Spurs currently hold a three-game lead over the Nuggets, who are in ninth, and their recent hot streak has given them some cushion that may ensure their playoff streak continues. However, they know they won’t go very far without Leonard and need the superstar on the court to make any noise in the West.